Every morning between medical appointments and English lessons, Taha Hammood sits in his Arden Arcade apartment and Skypes with his wife, Hiba, and two small children in Baghdad, where the fighting between Sunni Muslim insurgents and the Shiite Muslim-led government draws closer each day.
Hammood tells Hiba, 26, and their kids how much he loves and misses them. He shows his daughter Azal, 3, several large dolls waiting for her on his dresser. Azal can’t wait to play with the dolls, but would rather be held by her dad. “There’s my daddy!” she exclaims in Arabic. “When are you going to bring us to be with you, Daddy?”
Hammood can’t answer her question.
Hammood, 30, is an Iraqi refugee. He has filed immigration papers with the U.S. State Department, but is waiting to hear if and when his family will be allowed to join him.
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He arrived in the United States in December, choosing Sacramento because Opening Doors Inc., a refugee resettlement agency here, was willing to sponsor him. He had been badly injured by a car bomb in 2009 and walks now with the help of a cane. He said his Toyota Corolla was targeted because he served American troops at his popular Abu Anis restaurant in the Jadriya neighborhood of Baghdad. On Friday nights, he’d feed 70 to 80 customers a $7 grilled chicken dinner with salad and Chai tea.
His nickname was Abu Sada, which means “eternally happy father.”
“I haven’t heard that nickname in five years,” he said through an interpreter.
Friends smuggled him from Iraq to Turkey to receive medical treatment for wounds suffered in the bomb blast. He was afraid to return to Iraq, and feared taking his family to Turkey.
When Hammood left for Turkey, Hiba was pregnant with their son. Hammood has never met the boy, Anas, who is now 2.
And now his longing to see his family is laced with worry. “It’s very dangerous in Baghdad,” he said. “The bombing of houses has begun.”
Sarmed Ibrahim, founder and director of the Mesopotamia Organization, a volunteer organization helping Iraqi refugees, said several dozen in Sacramento are separated from their families by the war. “All over the world, there are thousands like him,” he said.
Ibrahim, a civil engineer who came here five years ago and is now a U.S. citizen, said while news accounts from Iraq aren’t very reliable, he and other refugees speak directly with friends and relatives throughout the country to understand ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – and how and why the conflict is unfolding.
“People are saying, ‘It’s not our fight. It’s the fight between ISIS and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,’ ” Ibrahim said. “Nobody has full control of the area around Baghdad – not the government, not ISIS, not the Sunni tribal factions and not the Kurds.
“It’s like a bomb. Nobody knows when it will explode.”
By the time Hammood arrived, 1,120 Iraqi refugees were in Sacramento County. That number could now be more than 4,000 because so many “secondary migrants” have moved here from other U.S. destinations after fleeing Iraq, said David Dauer, resettlement director for Opening Doors.
Dauer said his agency has helped both Iraqi civilians and military interpreters come to Sacramento. Iraqi refugees here created the Mesopotamia Organization to help refugees learn English, find jobs and apartments, and get health care.
All Iraqi refugees here went through extensive background checks, and most were granted admission to the U.S. based on their fear of persecution, generally because of their support of the U.S. occupation, Dauer said. “Many were translators, but many were also families impacted by the war and their sympathy for the U.S. involvement,” he said. He added that the majority come from well-educated middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds.
Hammood, a well-groomed young man who, on a recent day, wore a beige T-shirt with a peace sign, studied to become an electrician in Baghdad. He said he was raised Sunni. “But I’m between the two,” he said. “You can’t please either side.”
When he couldn’t get a job, he opened his six-table restaurant. It quickly caught on, especially with Americans, who found his barbecued chicken a welcome taste of home, he said.
“My friends warned me, ‘Why are you selling to Americans? Leave this alone,’ ” Hammood said. “They repeatedly called me a traitor. But I said, ‘I will sell to whoever wants my food, Americans or not.’ ”
Getting around his apartment now with his cane to support his left side, Hammood produced a folder containing photos his wife took of the explosion that almost killed him. He said he had left his restaurant to put his car in his garage. He turned on the ignition, and the car blew up. “It just destroyed my whole body,” he said. “They took me to the hospital right away, but police investigators wanted to arrest me because they thought I was a car bomber until they found out it was a remote-control bomb under the car.”
Hammood said he hung between life and death for several months, received 25 blood transfusions and suffered nerve damage. He said a gang in his neighborhood had called him a traitor. Police caught one person who confessed and told them about the others.
He said he didn’t let Americans visit him in the hospital, but he would receive telephone calls from them. Hammood said he told his family to move to a more secure location and refused to let them make the potentially dangerous trip to Turkey with him when his friends took him there for more extensive surgery and treatment.
“I arrived here in a wheelchair,” he said. “I thanked God every time I had a surgery, but I was in really bad shape.” He said he suffers from pain due to shrapnel imbedded throughout his body and has a heart condition that will need to be treated. He said his desire to be reunited with his family and the welcome he received in Sacramento gave him the will to survive.
“The first thing I asked for was a laptop,” he said.
Opening Doors placed him with a roommate who bathed him, cooked for him and helped him make friends. Hammood said he pushed himself hard in physical therapy, and within a few months, had traded his wheelchair for crutches and was able to live on his own.
Today, he cooks for himself and either walks to his English class with his cane or takes the bus. A blackboard hanging in his bedroom has words in English and Arabic, words such as “angry,” “calm,” “delighted,” “depressed,” and “disappointed.” He said he experiences all those emotions, some of them most intensely when he talks to his wife and children.
“My wife is like a psychologist, she always wants to keep my spirits high,” he said. “She stood by me when I felt beaten, and pushed me to come here.”
Hammood could have to wait at least 10 to 12 months before his family is granted refugee status, Dauer said. Meanwhile, his refugee cash assistance is running out, and he needs a roommate to share his $600-a-month apartment. As he gets stronger, he hopes to get a job in a restaurant and eventually open his own.
Every day, Hammood meditates on a goatskin cloth he hung on the wall with the words, “El kalema al tayeba sadaqa.” Translation: “The good/kind word is charity.”
His face breaks into a smile when he connects with his family. “I’m with you,” he assures them. After they hang up, his smile fades quickly. “I want to see them; I can’t wait to see them. It’s much too slow.”