Amena Al Nadawi, 50, of Little Rock, wants what all mothers do for their children — to have a good and safe life.
But safety was hardly moving to a new town or even to a new state. Being “safe” meant taking her three daughters out of Baghdad, Iraq, after her two youngest saw their father Thameir murdered in 2006.
“They were in the car with their father and three men stopped him and asked him, ‘Are you Shiite or Sunni’” Muslim, Al Nadawi said, and he told them, “‘I am Sunni and you know me,’ because they were neighbors to us. They repeated the question two times and he said ‘You know me’ and they shot him … she (my youngest) was just screaming, but Maisarah tried to help her father.
“They needed treatment after their father was murdered,” Al Nadawi explained, saying her youngest, now 16, “couldn’t sleep for many days. She refused to close her eyes. She told me I am afraid when I try to close my eyes I’ll see these people who tried to kill us. Maisarah had depression.”
Maisarah, 18, added, “It was awful. We didn’t know what to do. We tried to save him, but it was like 20 shots.”
Al Nadawi just wanted to “change their memory” and escape the violence.
“I can’t watch these kinds of people. They are animals, not human,” she said.
Thanks to Catholic Charities of Arkansas, Al Nadawi has been able to give her daughters new memories, happy ones in the United States after arriving in December 2009.
“I am so thankful to these people,” adding her case worker at CCA is her “angel in the U.S.A. Really we are lucky to have met this woman and she was so helpful to me. I felt safe.”
Refugees live in fear of significant harm or death due to persecution or war. The Al Nadawis are one of the refugee families Catholic Charities of Arkansas has helped throughout the years, including 12 people in 2015.
In wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris Nov. 13 that killed at least 129 people, more than 20 U.S. governors have said their state will not accept Syrian refugees until a better vetting process is in place. Though the federal government has the final say, states can make the process difficult for refugees. On Nov. 19, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to stop Syrian refugees from coming to the U.S. until the vetting process is stricter, the strictest it’s ever been for people fleeing a war-ravaged country.
“There’s a fear of the unknown. The one issue right now is people have seen a horrific terrorist event in Paris and an explanation of what refugees are coming here has not been provided,” said Patrick Gallaher, executive director of CCA. “The refugees who will be arriving in the U.S. in the near future are people in refugee camps and have been in refugee camps for two or four years and these are the camps that surround Syria. They’re not the same people who walked across Europe who are in France and Germany; they have a completely different status.”
Maisarah Al Nadawi said it’s hard to hear people say that refugees are terrorists.
“It’s really bad because most of them in Syria basically they’re trying to get away and find a new life for their children,” she said. “Imagine if all of the doors are closed in your face? They can’t do anything about it.”
After the death of Thameir, the Al Nadawis fled initially to Syria, arriving before the war broke out. They later learned that their home in Baghdad had been looted and then bombed. Amena went to the United Nations office and applied for refugee status. After they were approved, it took three and a half years to get to the United States. Al Nadawi said her niece was a student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock so the family was relocated to Arkansas.
“They (the UN employee) asked me a lot of questions at the beginning. But I felt they are so helpful to me, they understand my situation. I always said thanks God, I have a lot of good people in front of me,” Al Nadawi said, adding that it is good the vetting process is stringent. “You know they should ask, they should be sure from every detail whether it’s true or not.”
Al Nadawi now works as a childcare provider and has one daughter in high school and her two others are in college, including one who is studying abroad in Turkey.
Maisarah is a freshman at UALR with plans to study bioengineering and will eventually apply for U.S. citizenship. Her mother and two other sisters are U.S. citizens.
While life is moving on, the memories of her father and the day he was killed are still in her mind.
“We used to have a farm and when he went to get fruits and things I was always with him,” Maisarah said. “Every time he goes shopping, I was the one always with him.”
“He thought they were princesses, not just girls,” Amena Al Nadawi said of her husband, who tried to give his girls everything they wanted. “I told him you should be strong. He told me don’t be jealous, they are my princesses.”
On the day he was killed, they were about five minutes from their home and Al Nadawi “heard the shots.”
“We just finished shopping. All of the sudden this white car stopped in front of our car. I remember their faces. They came to our house a few times for lunch and things,” Maisarah said. “I was yelling at my dad, ‘tell him you’re Shiite’ just to lie to him so he’d leave. But my dad kept saying he was Sunni … then all you see is a guy with a gun and he shot my dad.”
Though the girls knew English, it was still a hard transition coming to the U.S.
“I was so afraid of America at the beginning,” Maisarah said, explaining that in the Middle East, most of what’s shown about America is “car chases and action movies.” “It’s not like what they show on TV. It’s totally different. I’m glad we’re here … It’s safe. If you want to go out you know nothing is going to happen, no bombing or anything.”
The family attends a local mosque in Little Rock and said they have yet to experience harassment for their beliefs.
“Before I came to America I had a bad picture in my mind about Americans. When I came here, I met good American families,” Al Nadawi said. “I told my American friends a lot, many times, we are the same religion, but different names. Really because I have a good American family,” that are close friends and “I feel they believe in the same (things) that I believe. This is enough for me and anyone to know — we are the same people, why are we fighting about the names?”
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