Finally, a place to call home. Refugee who fled fear in Middle East earns keys to new house

After two kidnappings, the killing of his father and a trail of fear that drove his family out of three nations, Bassam Mezar’s American dream finally came true. On a drizzly Saturday morning in Rio Linda, he and his family received the keys to their Habitat for Humanity home.

Mezar earned it by volunteering more than 600 hours of sweat equity, helping build his home and several others.

About 50 people gathered at the wheelchair-accessible three-bedroom home with beige and white trim to celebrate the communitywide effort that made the goal of home ownership a reality.

Mezar, 33, looked out at some of the team of volunteers who invested more than 5,000 hours in building his new home and three others next door that will also house families with children.

“I could not imagine today,” he said, flanked by his wife, Asia Abdulraheem, their son Mohammed, 7, who uses a wheelchair, and his shy daughter, Lulu, 4.

“We came from Iraq,” Mezar said. “The situation was very bad. My father was kidnapped and died there. It is more than a dream for us, all the hands, all the hearts, all the love we found here. The Habitat team is like family, they changed my sadness to health and happiness.”

Mezar, who works two part-time jobs and goes to school, said, “it is not easy to make it.” For his first few years here, he had to carry his son up a flight of stairs to get to their second-story apartment in Arden Arcade.

No one was happier Saturday than Mohammed, wearing a star-studded blue jacket and holding a walkie-talkie. “I speak English and Arabic,” he said confidently. “I’m teaching the rest of them English. When I grow up I want to be a police officer and to work on a SWAT team to protect and my mom and sister and all you guys – I want to put bad people in jail. My sister wants to be my partner.”

Sacramento Police Lt. Roman Murrietta, backed by a team of officers, presented Mohammed with a bag of police goodies, including a badge and police department patches and deputized him a “junior police officer.”

Mezar told The Bee his son’s passion for American police work stems from the lack of support the family got from police in Iraq. One of six children, he and his family moved from Nasriyah, a town along the banks of the Euphrates River, to Baghdad, when he was age 10.

His dad, Mohammed Mezar, was a history and geography teacher who opened an office supply store. His family is Sunni, “but then, nobody cared about Sunni or Shia. After the war started in 2003, people changed inside, and many bad militias, especially from Iran, came into Iraq.”

In 2003 an envelope came to their home containing a gun silencer and a letter with the words, “Don’t stay here,” Mezar said. He stayed to get his degree in computer science, but his father fled to Jordan for three years.

“Many people were being kidnapped, and we told him not to come back but he didn’t listen to us,” he said. In March 2006, Mezar said his older brother was kidnapped, and the family sold almost everything to pay the $20,000 ransom.

On April 9, 2006, Mezar said he was helping his father open the store when two cars drove up and three men in black suits in their 30s jumped out and kidnapped his dad.

“One guy put a gun to my head and told me to shut up,” Mezar said. “When my father resisted, a guy knocked him out with his gun and put him in a small white car.” That night they got a call from their dad’s cell phone demanding $150,000 in ransom.

“We could only get $10,000 and explained we needed a couple of months to sell our home,” Mezar said. “They took the money from a Shia relative of ours, but we never got back my father.”

He said his father’s friends got access to a computer and allowed them to look at all the photos of the murder victims brought to the morgue. “We saw a picture of my dad with a bullet through his head – he had been brought in two days after the kidnapping and stayed in morgue freezer for 17 days until he was taken to a cemetery with 100,000 graves,” Mezar said. “He had no ID, no nothing, so we took the number they assigned him and had to dig up the grave until my mom saw his shirt.”

The shattered family fled to Damascus, Syria, for six years, where Mezar helped build homes, repaired cellphones and married the wife his mom found for him in Iraq. But when Syria erupted into civil war, they fled to Jordan and applied for refugee status. His son Mohammed, who was born in Syria with spina bifida, had two surgeries, one paid for by a Christian church. Opening Doors, with the help of the Red Cross, resettled the family in Sacramento, where his wife has an uncle, in May 2015, Mezar said.

They moved into a second-story apartment on Fulton Avenue.

“I’m an expert at starting over,” Mezar said. He got a job working for Apple in Elk Grove, moved into a two-story condominium and went to American River College on a work-study program, earning $10.50 an hour as a maintenance man. He also worked at a trucking company.

Mezar said he heard about Habitat for Humanity of Greater Sacramento from another Iraqi refugee who’d qualified for a home and went through a rigorous application process with 600 other families. Only half a dozen locals qualified for the program, said Laine Himmelmann, a Habitat for Humanity spokeswoman. “The house took about six months to build, and he contributed far more than the required 500 hours.”

Along with the 350 hours he put into his future home, Mezar said he dug trenches, finished the foundation, put up fences, walls and roofs, even though he’s afraid of heights.

Mezar worked from 7:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. most days building new homes, including one in Elk Grove, before going to school and his part-time jobs.

“He’s an incredibly hard worker,” said Peter Tiedmann, CEO of Alta California Regional Center. “He was an inspiration – he’d climb on scaffolding, pound nails and do everything he had to do.”

Saturday morning, after honoring a host of community and corporate partners, the Mezar-Abdulraheem family cut the ribbon, then treated everyone to a feast of chicken tikka, kebabs, felafel and other Middle Eastern delicacies. They plan to move into their new home in January with a 30-year no-interest mortgage at about $900 a month, including taxes and insurance, Himmelmann said.

A beaming Mohammed rolled his wheelchair up the small ramp, into the house, then into his room. He also pointed out the large backyard. “I have a lot of toys,” he said.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini

Want to earn a home?

For information on how to apply for a Habitat for Humanity home, go to http://habitatgreatersac.org/ or Facebook.com/HabitatGreaterSac.

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