A young man clutching two plush teddy bears staked out a spot at the foot of the escalator in the waiting room at Sacramento International Airport on Tuesday night, anxiously looking up for the wife and daughter he’d left behind in Iraq and the son he’d never met except on Skype.
Taha Hammood wasn’t sure this day would ever come. Sometimes Hammood, 31, would Skype from Sacramento with his family as bombs burst around their home on the outskirts of Baghdad, blasting out windows.
Hammood was badly injured in 2009 when he turned on his car ignition and a bomb exploded. He was targeted by insurgents because he served hundreds of American troops $7 barbecue chicken dinners at his Abou Anis restaurant in Baghdad.
He got to the airport at 10 p.m. to meet a Delta flight from Los Angeles scheduled to arrive at 10:54 p.m., only to find it had been delayed 90 minutes, then two hours, then three.
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“Each hour I wait is like a month,” Hammood said. By 2 a.m., he was one of a handful of people left in the waiting area near baggage claim.
At 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, the dream he’d nurtured with daily prayers finally came true as a young woman with blond highlights and jeans came down the stairs with two small children who were afraid to ride something they’d never seen before – an escalator.
“My heart is pounding out of my chest,” he said, his face suddenly aglow.
Hammood kissed and embraced his daughter, Azal, 4, and son, Anis, who was in the belly of his wife, Hiba, when his friends smuggled him out of Iraq and into Turkey in 2011 for treatment for severe injuries he suffered in the bombing of his restaurant.
His friends had warned him not to sell food to Americans, and a gang in his neighborhood called him a traitor. Hammood, who was raised Sunni but maintains neutrality, said he would feed anybody.
Hammood said he was near death for months. He suffered nerve damage, and it took 25 blood transfusions and 39 surgeries for the doctors to put him back together.
Eventually, he went to Turkey for more extensive surgery. He told his family to stay in hiding because they had been threatened with death if he left the country.
He was granted refugee status and sponsored by Opening Doors, a Sacramento resettlement agency. Since 2008, more than 5,000 Iraqis – many who worked for U.S. forces – have resettled in the region, including secondary migration from other states and children born here, said Sarmed Kamal Ibrahim, an Iraqi engineer who came in 2009 and now sits on the board of Opening Doors.
Some, like Taha Hammood, are lucky enough to have been reunited with their families. But “most don’t know where their families are, and the situation is getting worse back there,” Ibrahim said.
Hammood arrived in Sacramento in December 2013 in a wheelchair, his heart weak and his body still wracked with pain from shrapnel.
He needed a roommate to bathe him, prepare his meals and drive him to medical appointments. He threw himself into physical therapy and now walks without a cane. He lives in his own apartment in Carmichael, which he’d stocked with dolls, toys and a red Lightning McQueen car bed.
Barely 12 hours after they’d landed, Anis slept peacefully on the car bed. Too excited to nap, Azal marched around the apartment playing a harmonica, turning on a Tonka truck and clutching a stuffed pink cow. She tapped the cage of Hammood’s yellow canary and declared in Arabic, “I’d like a parakeet that talks!”
Then, she said, “I wanna play with my bike. Can we go to the park and ride the slide?”
Hammood smiled and said the park is just 100 meters away. He bent down and tied her red sneakers. Azal nuzzled into his chest and said, “I love you and just you for bringing me toys, Daddy,” then amended it to “you and my mom.”
Hiba, 26, sat on the sofa filling out forms with Rocio Gonzalez, the refugee resettlement coordinator for Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, which sponsored the family after Hammood initiated the paperwork soon after his arrival.
“I took four different planes to get here and was in the air for 20 hours, from Baghdad to Jordan, Turkey, Los Angeles and Sacramento,” she said. Over the next week, she will take her kids to the refugee clinic, apply for food stamps and start taking mandatory English classes.
Hiba is in a better position than many other new arrivals. She has a degree in psychology, understands some English and knows how to drive a car.
“I want to speak English and study psychology or pharmacology,” she said.
Hammood, who goes to physical therapy once a month, is now on Social Security Disability Insurance, which is barely enough to cover his rent. Like all refugees, he must pay the U.S. government back for his family’s plane tickets, about $1,400 apiece.
He would like to obtain medical clearance to go back to work. “I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life,” he said. “I want to show my gratitude to the American people.”
He and Hiba are still getting reacquainted. She smiled shyly at her husband and said, “He looks the same, a little skinnier.”
Hammood said he plans to cook for her.
“He never made me food before,” she said.
“She doesn’t like barbecue,” he laughed. “She makes pizza.”
Jose Villegas and Phillip Reese contributed to this story.