Iraq and a Hard Place

Parts of the Northeast become a "Little Baghdad" for displaced Iraqis.

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Sep. 14, 2010

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In December 2004, Ferdos Hassan was driving across a bridge in Baghdad when her world exploded. A car bomb planted by militants attempting to assassinate the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party blew up under the bridge. “The car windows came in from all sides,” Hassan says. “I lost consciousness.”

When Hassan came to, she tried to escape the vehicle, but the door was stuck. Somehow, the car still worked and she managed to drive herself to the hospital. Miraculously, she suffered only minor injuries.

Before the bomb went off, Hassan lived a comfortable lifestyle in Baghdad. She was a neuro-anestiesologist, and her husband, Tariq Numan, was a professor at the Fine Art Institute and considered a pioneer in the field of Iraqi ceramic-making. The couple lived with two adult children: a son, Ziad, an architect, and daughter, Enas, who was still in school. Another daughter, Ansan, was married and living in a separate household.

But after Hassan’s brush with death, the Tariq family (referred to by the father’s first name) decided the violence in post-invasion Iraq was too much to handle, so in 2006 they fled to Jordan. It was the beginning of a journey that would end with them starting a new life in Northeast Philadelphia.

“Little Baghdad”

The war in Iraq is “officially” over. U.S. forces in the country have been reduced to 50,000—down from 171,000 at its peak in 2007. Despite years of carnage reflected on the front pages of newspapers and on the evening news, increased bloodshed in Afghanistan and a sour economy has relegated Iraq to an afterthought to most Americans.

However, right here in Philadelphia, an ever-increasing influx of Iraqis is a testament to the consequences of war. Since 2008, about 300 families—who lost their homes during years of nonstop fighting they call “the situation in Iraq”—have resettled in Philadelphia as refugees, mostly in the Northeast neighborhoods of Castor and Bustleton, referred to as “Little Baghdad” by some. And each month, as more Iraqis who have fled their country are granted access to the U.S., the number grows.

But the community is off to a slow start. Language barriers have made integration and self-sufficiency difficult for many. And the recession has made the transition even more difficult. While resettlement agencies and other volunteer organizations offer some assistance, the residents are learning to lean on each other to overcome the challenges of starting a new life in an alien culture.

The Tariq family were some of the first refugees to arrive to the city, in May 2008. Memories of life back home—photos of the family in Baghdad and sculptures made by Numan—fill the living room of their subdivision home in a small development set back from Bustleton Avenue. More ceramics fill a shelf in the garage: Numan had been practicing his old profession as a hobby, working out of a shop near Allegheny Avenue and hoping to set up an exhibit sometime soon.

Over tea and Iraqi Eid cookies filled with dates, walnuts and coconut, the Tariq family shares tales of past successes interrupted by shocking violence, and the long road that led them from Baghdad to Philadelphia.

Making the Move

Numan, 73, enjoyed a long and distinguished career before coming to the U.S. With his long, white hair neatly brushed back behind his ears, he recalls the five years he spent studying in China in the ’60s, and four more in Cuba before he met Hassan, who is also well-traveled, having studied medicine in Egypt. The couple settled down in Baghdad and lived well, but rankled under the rule of Saddam Hussein, whom Numan refers to as “a devil dictator” and a “crazy person.”

Like many Iraqis living under Saddam’s regime, Numan was elated when American troops invaded the country in 2003 and toppled the government. In the days after the occupation, Numan rejoiced. “America came and they did it,” he says. His spirits were dampened months later as time revealed that freedom from Saddam wasn’t quite what he expected. “We dreamed of this, but the result was another thing.” His wife agrees, adding: “In the beginning most people are very happy. After that, the deterioration began. Why it happened, how can you know?” The country faced a growing insurgency, sparking seven years of executions, suicide bombs and sectarian strife that has still not abated to this day. “In Iraq, we say there was one Ali Baba,” says Numan, referring to the fictional thief. “Now, there are thousands of Ali Babas.”

Despite the insurgency, the couple tried to continue with their lives, but Hassan’s near-death experience was the last straw.

“Baghdad was an open city,” Numan says. “There was no control. There was no security of your life. Too much violence. No electricity. No water. How do you live?”

When they arrived in Jordan, Numan continued sculpting and exhibiting his work, but like other Iraqis the family had only tentative legal status and were not technically permitted to work. They had joined the 2,279,247 people classified by the United Nations as refugees from Iraq, a number that had fallen to 1,785,212 by 2009.

Refugees—people who have fled their home country and are unable to return because they face persecution based on race, religion or nationality—can request specific cities and countries for relocation because of friends and family living there. But with no family member abroad to sponsor them, the Tariq family had no control over where they would be sent, although Numan says he wanted an English-speaking nation because the whole family spoke the language. Two weeks after they were granted permission to relocate in April 2007, the family was accepted by the United States.

They waited a year while security and medical clearances were processed, but in May 2008 they finally arrived in Philadelphia. Upon arrival, their case was given to the Nationalities Service Center (NSC), one of three resettlement agencies that handle incoming refugees in the city. “It’s a different society, culture and language,” Hassan says. “We didn’t know any person here. We had no friends, no relatives.”

New residents typically receive three months’ rent, eight months of health insurance and some spending money through the agencies, mostly paid through federal funds. Other volunteer organizations chip in with furniture, food and other necessities. The agencies help sign children up for school, find jobs for adults and aid in apartment hunting.

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1. Anonymous said... on Sep 20, 2010 at 03:50PM

“This article is excellent. Everything in it rings true for me. I work on a church committee that is resettling a young Iraqi family and, because they have no advanced education, their job plight is worse. Were it not for the broad and ongoing support of our churches, I doubt they would be able to make it here. And, the salient statement in the article that the language barrier is one of the many obstacles to finding where one fits in couldn't be more accurate: it is THE main obstacle.”

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