Iraqi refugees leave Lebanon hoping for better life in U.S.

iraq-refugeess600×6001.jpgBy Doreen Abi Raad (Catholic News Service)

Laith, right, and Ban Kasshana spend time with their son Mathew on the balcony of an apartment they rent in a poor suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 29. The Kasshana family are Chaldean Catholic refugees from Iraq who are scheduled to leave Sept. 7 for res ettlement in San Diego.

(CNS photo/Norbert Schiller)
BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNS) — Laith Kasshana left Baghdad, Iraq, early in 2007, when his 2-year-old daughter Media was an infant. In Baghdad, Kasshana’s life was threatened and his brother was shot.

“I felt so afraid,” he told Catholic News Service. “Even today, when I talk about Iraq, I feel full of anxiety.”

But Kasshana, his wife and his two children — 10-month-old Mathew was born in Lebanon — left Sept. 7 for resettlement in San Diego.

“I just want to start from zero again so that I can give my children a better future,” said 34-year-old Kasshana, a Chaldean Catholic.

“In the time of Saddam Hussein, we felt secure,” he said. “People were afraid of Saddam, so there was respect for all religions. The slogan of Iraqi law then was ‘religion is for God; the country is for everyone.'”

All through the family’s troubles, Kasshana’s 25-year-old wife, Ban, never lost faith that God would do something for her family.

“He is my only salvation,” she said, “the only one I can depend on. God is my way out. He will light the way.”

In Baghdad, Kasshana owned a store that sold cell phones and other electronics. In Lebanon, he most recently worked 14-hour days for a janitorial company, earning $380 a month — a good salary, considering most refugees earn $200 a month, if they can find work. But Kasshana had to give up the job when he was assigned to a site far from his home. Without legal residency, he feared being put in jail if he was caught in transit.

When he gets to San Diego, he said, “I want to … learn the language and to work. I’m willing to do any kind of job.”

For a family of three, their Beirut apartment was spacious and structurally well-maintained compared to the living conditions of most other Iraqi refugees. Previously there were 11 family members — eight of whom were adults — crammed into the dwelling, but those families were resettled in the U.S.

A neighbor identified only as Thaker planned to move in to the apartment with his wife, newborn son and several extended family members.

Thaker and his brother, victims of religious persecution, fled Mosul, Iraq, in April. In Mosul they worked as cooks at a police academy in which recruits were trained by Americans. As Thaker and his brother were driving to work one day, assailants ordered them out of their car and beat them with rifles.

“They told us, ‘You work for the Americans; you are like dogs. You are traitors,'” Thaker recounted.

As head cook for the police academy, Thaker was once awarded employee of the month and was nominated to become manager of the academy’s 65 employees. He earned $50 a day for his job, which also included painting vehicles for the Americans. Now he earns $200 a month as a supermarket stocker, working 16 hours a day, six days a week.

Thaker’s brother also worked as a cook for the academy and served as an interpreter for the Americans. After the brothers were threatened, they tried to go to work secretly, but they received a written threat, which Thaker has kept and has shown to the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon.

The attackers even knew that Thaker’s brother had wanted to become a priest, although he had left the seminary years before to help provide for his siblings after their father’s death.

“When they threatened us, the terrorists told him, ‘You were studying to become a priest. If you ever go to church again, if you don’t abandon your faith, we will kill you,'” Thaker said.

Thaker wears a wooden rosary around his neck; the image of the Divine Mercy is embellished on the face of his wristwatch.

“I want to live a stable life so I can give my son a future,” he said.

Nadia Ghannem and her three children were to leave Lebanon for San Diego Sept. 10. Ghannem said she has mixed feelings about her future.

“I won’t be very happy because my brother is in jail and my sister is still here,” she told CNS.

The breakup of families is one of the drawbacks of refugee resettlement. Sometimes young adults get resettled alone and have to leave their parents and siblings. This is traumatic for Iraqis, in which the extended family is an important part of the culture, social workers say.

Ghannem’s husband, Rabih, was shot in Mosul because he was active in his Chaldean parish. The couple and their three children fled to Lebanon last October, seeking safety and better medical treatment for Rabih. One month later he died.

Ghannem and her family live in a section of Beirut inhabited by about 2,000 Iraqi refugees — mostly Christian. Slums and squalor best describe the conditions.

Mold, leftover from the damp winter, still clings to the ceilings of her apartment. A large cockroach scurries across the wall. Ghannem’s 2-year-old niece amuses herself by unraveling a spool of thread, after playing with a doll, the only other visible toy. Ghannem shares the apartment with eight other family members, and sometimes an aunt stays with them.

Foam mattresses are spread across the one small bedroom that adjoins the living room. The bathroom is about 4 feet by 5 feet and has no sink, but an elevated faucet serves as a shower. There is no hot water.

Ammar Ghannem, 10, sits in front of the television, the mesmerizing box an ever-constant presence in refugee dwellings. When asked about his upcoming move to the U.S., Ammar replied, “I’m glad, because I can play on the computer there.”

Ammar’s 8-year-old sister, Myrna, said she wants to make new friends when she goes to the United States.