In March 2003, troops from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Poland invaded Iraq. This first stage of the Iraq War, called Operation Iraqi Freedom, was meant “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” A decade later, the country still raged with internal war. Cities were destroyed, the threat of deadly violence from Al-Qaeda was everywhere, and a young woman named Saja and her husband, Ahmed, decided to seek safety in Turkey.
You wouldn’t guess that fact by looking at them. They are a peaceful, beautiful pair with two sweet children, a 5-year-old daughter named Jomana and a 3-year-old son named Ramy. Jomana will start kindergarten in the fall, and Ramy is into taking things apart. They are much like most other children you know, only they speak both Arabic and English. Saja and Ahmed arrived in the United States in December 2014, after living in Turkey nearly two years.
Temporarily in Turkey
Saja’s story doesn’t involve a covert night-time border crossing or desperate years in a refugee camp, but that doesn’t mean her journey as a refugee has been easy. Though she and Ahmed were able to drive across the Iraq/Turkey border and set up house in Istanbul without trouble, neither of them spoke Turkish and they were told they would not be allowed to work. In Iraq, Ahmed worked as a photographer — sometimes with the press — and owned a banner-making business. After a few months in Turkey, “we ran out of money,” Ahmed says. “Life was really hard there.”
Luckily, Ahmed is a resourceful man who is quick with languages. He not only learned Turkish, but he found a way to earn money. He also sought asylum for himself and Saja in the United States as war refugees.
After completing their application, they waited six weeks for a phone call, after which they traveled about six hours from their home in Istanbul for their first interview. By this time, Saja was nine months pregnant. Ahmed remembers that day well: “On September 25, they made a detailed interview with us — Why did you leave Iraq? What is your story. How many brothers and sisters you have?” he says.
“They needed to know if we had a good reason to leave. I told them the truth. ‘I am afraid. I was working with the press and with the Americans, and I am really afraid they will come and end my life.’”
Two days later, Saja and Ahmed welcomed Jomana into the world.
The Waiting Game
Saja and Ahmed were given a case number to follow on a website. He was told it would be months before a decision was made, but even so he eagerly checked the site every week. “After six months, I see that we have been selected!” he recalls.
Saja says she looked at the site and she shouted with glee and cried. “We were excited,” she says, “but at the same time a little bit sad. I was thinking, “But when will we ever see our family again?’”
Another interview and many security screenings followed that happy day. Another six months pass before they find out that they would indeed be granted refugee status and move to the United States. After saying goodbye to their friends, Saja, Ahmed, and Jomana boarded a U.S.-bound plane. Their trip to Dallas included a six-hour layover in the Netherlands and a night in New York. They requested Dallas because they already had friends here and knew making a new life would be easier if they knew at least someone.
Well and Happy in Dallas
Since arriving in Dallas, Saja and Ahmed have worked terrifically hard to establish a rich, full life. Ahmed works at Walmart and they’ve had a second child, Ramy. He is still taking photos and is interested in website design. The couple is saving for a house and dream of the day when they can buy a new car.
Though Saja didn’t work outside the home in Iraq or Turkey, she went to work in Dallas creating jewelry for Melt Goods before joining the GAIA team in January 2018. She is the only one of our refugee artisans who knows how to cut, sand, and polish the brass we use for our earrings. She says that someday she’d love to run her own jewelry business.
On the day that we sat down with Saja and Ahmed to talk about their story, they were headed to the beach in Galveston, Texas, for a weekend away with friends.
“It’s a good life,” says Saja. “We are happy.”