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Stories of Refugees, Part I: Out of Iraq

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Ahmed Hashem is an Iraqi refugee who came to San Francisco in 1994. (Courtesy photo)
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In the next few fortnights, this column will focus on stories of refugees who have resettled in and around San Francisco. Embedded within each of these stories will be some analysis and consideration of generally known facts and myths about asylum seekers.

Ahmed Hashem was 9 years old when he landed at San Francisco International Airport on Jan. 28, 1994. His father was at the airport to receive him, his two sisters and his mother. After about five years of experiencing a splintered life in Iraq, they were finally together in America.

As a young boy, Ahmed and his family lived with his father’s parents and siblings in Nasiriyah, a city on the banks of the Euphrates River. “I was the first grandchild on both my father’s and mother’s side and I was pampered and spoiled,” Ahmed admitted. “Then 1990 happened, and everything changed.”

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On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched attacks on neighboring Kuwait, starting the Gulf War. Five days later, the United States sent troops to protect Saudi Arabia in a maneuver termed Operation Desert Shield. On Jan. 16, 1991, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm, with U.S. forces pummeling Iraq’s military targets.

Ahmed recalled waking up at midnight and experiencing his grandmother’s panic. She herded everyone into the kitchen to shelter from the bombs. “Everyday we heard the air sirens go off. Our electric power plants, hospitals and clinics were bombed. We lost water. We had to go to the Euphrates to get water everyday. At night, we huddled around oil lamps for warmth and light.”

But life had already taken a turn for the worse for the Hashem family a year earlier. In 1989, during a dinner conversation with a co-worker, Saad Hashem, Ahmed’s father, had criticized the Saddam regime. “My father wasn’t politically active. It was a casual conversation and his co-worker turned him in.” Saad Hashem was sentenced to 24 years in a prison in Basra.

When the rebel uprising occurred in 1991, his father and other prisoners like him were freed. It was a short-lived freedom — the revolution lasted a mere month. Hussein cracked down hard; martial law was instituted, the rebels were routed and prisoners were hunted door-to-door. Saad and his two brothers, who were dodging mandatory draft at the time, escaped recapture and immediate execution by fleeing for the border.

They made it to Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis were not happy to take in Iraqi refugees. “They didn’t want any Shia influence on their Wahhabi ideology,” Ahmed explained. So Iraqi refugees were confined to their camps and not allowed to leave. Fortuitously, Saad and his brothers were identified and interviewed for asylum in the U.S. After a vetting process by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the three brothers arrived in San Francisco in the fall of 1993. Immediately upon arriving in the U.S., Saad petitioned for his family to join him.

The family lived in a residential building in the heart of the Tenderloin. Saad found work as a janitor at a liquor store. He was the only wage-earner in a family of five, and his income was bolstered with social service checks and food stamps.

So, let’s address this briefly: Are refugees a burden on society?

Generally speaking, when refugees come to the U.S., they earn less than they normally would. That’s positive for the economy. Small businesses benefit by getting more work for less pay. However, if they find low-paying jobs and they pay less in taxes than they receive in social services, then there is a negative flow. But in the course of living and working among us, they pay for goods and services and add to the flow of money — that’s good. So, in my view, it all depends on the refugee family, the number of dependents and how soon each of these dependents can become active contributors to our economy. Back to our story.

Money was scarce for the Hashem family, and not knowing English was a huge deterrent to finding better paying jobs. So members of the family set about learning English. Ahmed recounted that his father watched Kevin Costner movies obsessively. He would translate and write out dialogues he heard using an Arabic-English dictionary. “Years later, when my dad handed me his notebook, it was fascinating to see how he picked up English. It was conversational English, not really correct or academic English. And it was good enough for his purposes,” Ahmed explained. It enabled Saad to move up from janitor to cashier to manager at the liquor store and later to manage a few gas stations in The City.

At 9, Ahmed began fourth grade at Redding Elementary and was initially lost without the ability to communicate. It was his teacher, Nura Youna, an Iraqi woman who had been living in the U.S. for 22 years, who made the difference.

“Miss Youna was unbelievable. I will never forget her,” Ahmed said. “She took an interest in me and drew me out with her limited Arabic and she made sure I enrolled in special English classes where I was taught how to read, write and speak. And then she put her trust in my abilities by picking me to be the host for the graduation ceremonies a year and a half later. I had to stand up in front of the entire school and to speak in English and announce people’s names. It was a huge confidence booster.”

And so Ahmed grew to adulthood. He had started taking pre-med classes at a local community college when an accident occurred: Saad broke his leg and had to stop working. Ahmed assumed Saad’s financial responsibilities and quit college and began working full time.

Ahmed worked in the hospitality industry, at nonprofits and on various community initiatives. After 9/11, he developed a program for the San Francisco Unified School District on racial sensitivity and how to teach about Islam. “History books at the time advanced generally known stereotypes,” he said. “There was a whole page in middle school text books dedicated to information about camels!”

These days, Ahmed Hashem works as a tech recruiter for a consulting company and often works evenings and weekends as a DJ at intercultural and interracial marriages and special events, like the annual Arab American Festival in Union Square.

“I love intercultural events,” Ahmed said. “It’s at these events that different people of the world come together to form human connections and families and communities. I value that experience and its significance is not lost on me.”

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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