Turning frustration into a future: Maysam Sarfean’s mission

From an outsider’s perspective there is one word to describe Maysam Sarfean’s life in America: “Frustrating.”

However, when Sarfean, 27, an Iraqi refugee who immigrated to the U.S. in January, is asked if this is indeed the correct term, he stumbles. While his English is proficient, the word is unfamiliar to him.  I try to define it, but when I fail to accurately describe it, Sarfean pulls out his always-handy tablet and looks up the definition for himself.

“Oh,” he says. “Yes. Frustrating. I’m very frustrated.”

I apologize for my inability to describe the term correctly. He waves it off, explaining that the last time we spoke, I had used the word “circumstance,” another word he did not understand.

“I went home and looked it up,” he says. “It’s good for me, too, to know these things.”

It quickly becomes apparent that Sarfean loves to be intellectually stimulated. He also loves to be busy. Unlike many refugees, Sarfean left a fast-paced, opportunity-filled life, regularly engaged in activities he loved.

When he lived in Iraq, he worked for the Associated Press as an electrical engineer while simultaneously attending college and running his own business programming circuit boards.

“Sometimes I would work nineteen hours a day,” he says. “But I was always with my friends, in my work and school. But I only got to see my family once a week.”

Looking back on his hectic life in Iraq, Sarfean repeatedly emphasizes the benefits of a busy lifestyle.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/maysam-pride-in-his-work.mp3] Sarfean explains how a busy life gives it meaning

Indeed, his tendency to gravitate towards the intellectually stimulating is what dominated his former life in Iraq. It is this very tendency that makes his new life in America so very frustrating.

Sarfean, who is a Christian, fled Iraq after his apartment and car were targeted and subsequently bombed by terrorists. He remains certain that his religious affiliation combined with his employment by an American company was the reason he was attacked. Sarfean had considered leaving Iraq for some time, but was not ready to act upon his instincts until he was attacked. He still finds it hard to imagine himself as a target.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/maysam-Iraq-unsafe-cars-tageted.mp3] Sarfean explains what it’s like when danger hits close to home

Fortunately for Sarfean, his work with the Associated Press allowed him to bring his entire family to the United States. He lives in a house in Skokie, a suburb north of Chicago, with his ailing parents and younger brother and sister. Sarfean has taken his father to the hospital several times for asthma-related complications, and must constantly tend to his parents’ well-being.

His life is drastically different than the fast-paced life he lived in Iraq. His college degree is no longer valid and he hasn’t been able to work in his field of computer science and engineering. He applied for a job with the Associated Press, but wasn’t hired due to lack of work experience domestically. To make ends meet, he works six days a week at a Dunkin Donuts on Chicago’s south side, an experience he describes as wearisome at best and dangerously unsafe at worst.

“The south side is the most dangerous part of Chicago,” he says. “There are always police nearby, and there are always people who come in and try to make trouble, all the time.”

Sarfean is dogged in trying to change his employment situation. He is takes night classes and is studying for an exam that will qualify him to apply for electrical engineering jobs. He feels he’s making progress, though he knows that the obstacles in front of him are daunting.

“My number one challenge right now is my job, it’s always going to be this job,” he says. “I don’t like what I’m doing, and I know it needs to change.”

He spends almost every night studying for exams, using his one day off on Sunday to go to church, spend time with his family, and if time permits, see his friends, many of whom he has met through his congregation, comprised of mostly Arabic-speakers.

Sarfean knows he’s safer in the United States than he was in Iraq, repeatedly citing how unstable and volatile Iraqi is. He worries about the aftermath of the American troop withdrawal.

“When Saddam was in power,” he says, “things weren’t good, but you knew who was good and who was bad. Now you never know.

He understands firsthand just how far corruption runs in postwar Iraq. Three of his friends have been executed by terrorist groups after being held against their will at false checkpoints, a phenomena that he says is shockingly common.

When asked if he would ever consider going back to such a dangerous environment, his answer is surprising.

“I do think about it,” he says, “but I don’t tell anyone, not my sister or my brother or my parents. We don’t talk about it.”

Returning to his former life is tempting. Sarfean spent his life in Iraq working a job he loved, surrounded by friends, being less frustrated.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/maysam-danger-in-Iraq.mp3] Serfean expresses how uncertain life in Iraq is

Sarfean has his reasons for returning, though he hesitates to mention it. His girlfriend of two years remains in Iraq, unable to obtain a visa.

“I want to help her,” he says plaintively, “but I don’t know how. If she came, it would help me want to stay.”

For now, he has plenty to do. He doesn’t know any other way.

“I don’t even know what’s ahead of me in the next month,” he says. “How am I supposed to know where I’ll be in a year? It’s a whole new life—it’s hard.”

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