Iraqi Family Settles Into New Life in Atlanta

After this story aired, NPR learned that the apartment Bothinaa Mohammed shares with her children was lost in a fire. Read a followup to the original story.

More on Iraqis in Atlanta

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hide captionSources: U.N. High Comissioner for Refugees, Iraqi Red Crescent Organization, Refugees International

Interactive Map: Displaced Iraqis in the Middle East
Alice Kreit, NPR
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hide captionAn estimated 2 million people have been displaced within Iraq. The chart above shows areas where they are displaced from.

Alice Kreit, NPR

The State Department had expected to resettle thousands of Iraqi families to the U.S. this year, but the arrivals have been slow. More than 4 million people have fled their homes since the Iraq war began in 2003. Two million are displaced within Iraq. An additional two and half million ended up in Jordan, Syria, Turkey and neighboring countries.

Atlanta is one place where families are being resettled. The first ones arrived in August and are beginning to make new lives.

Bothinaa Mohammed and her three children moved into a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Atlanta at the end of the summer. In the living room, there are two used sofas, a small table and a bookshelf. A tall Christmas tree stands in the corner.

Mohammed smiles broadly as she gazes at the tree decorated with red bows, strings of garland and shiny ornaments. There are two large, plastic candy canes at the bottom, and silver bells at the top.

Through a translator, Mohammed says she has always loved the Christian holiday. "I'm not Christian, I'm Muslim. But I love to be with the Christian people," she says.

Life in Atlanta

She celebrates not only Christmas but also many changes since she arrived in America.

A single mom with three children, Mohammed worked with the U.S. Army in Iraq. After receiving threats, she fled with her family to Jordan. She applied to the United Nations, but it took four long years for the family to make it to the U.S.

Mohammed recalls that when she was in Jordan, there was no school for the children. "They spent four years at home or in the street," she says.

After five or six days in America, however, all of her children were enrolled in school and are very happy, according to Mohammed.

Her daughters — Ranin, 17, and Thuraya, 16 — sit next to each other on the sofa. In September, they were a bit nervous about school after being out of class for four years. They're now in eighth grade.

Ranin says they have made several friends who speak Spanish and that they're all learning English together. "Everybody Spanish but speak English [in the class], only English," Ranin says.

She was not able to go to school in Jordan, but Ranin says, "Here is good. Everybody is good. The teacher, the people, everybody's good."

Mohammed's son, Abdullah, is 12 and in sixth grade. He travels by bus to two schools every day. At one, he learns English. At the other, he takes regular classes, including math and science.

'Five Stars'

Getting the children into school was one of the first priorities. The other was finding a job for Mohammed. In Jordan, she had no legal status and was not allowed to work. Mohammed says she searched in Atlanta for three months and landed a job a month ago.

"In this time, we apply to many places. But finally we apply in the hotel and they take three interviews," she says.

Now, she works at a hotel — "Five stars," she says proudly.

Mohammed has a two-hour commute to and from work each day. She takes the bus and train to get to work. She's smiling again as she arrives early one Saturday morning and heads inside the basement of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in the heart of Atlanta.

Mohammed shows her ID, signs in and picks up a clean uniform. She greets everyone she meets in the hallway.

Mohammed works in housekeeping, and this is the first day she'll be by herself. She gets a cleaning cart, and Director of Housekeeping Barbara Green checks in to make sure she has what she needs.

"You can go ahead and start cleaning," Green tells Mohammed. Green says she feels like a mother to the refugees who work at the hotel.

"You have to be patient. You got to understand this is a second world for them, that's the way I always tell them. It's a second world for them," Green says.

As for Mohammed, Green says that when she first came in for her interviews, she was just "bubbly. I say, 'Ooh, I like you.'"

Mohammed rolls her cart to a room, knocks quietly and calls out in a gentle voice, "Housekeeping, housekeeping." She is learning the new job.

'Thank You, America'

Downstairs in the employee cafeteria, Mohammed sits down with a cup of coffee. She looks solemn. Without a translator and in broken English, she tells me how much her life has changed since she was a refugee in Jordan with no job, no access to medical care and no way to help her children.

"I am very happy America, going here. My children [are] going [to] school. I am very happy. I am [able to] sleep. Thank you, America. I am going [to work in the] morning. Thank you, America. I am [able to] eat. Thank you, America. Every time, thank you, thank you, America," Mohammed says.

She looks around inside the hotel and adds, "America good, very good."

Tears begin to well up in Mohammed's eyes as she remembers the past. But she says they are happy tears. She can now see the future.

At Home

Back in her apartment, Mohammed begins frying up dinner for her three kids. Tonight it's hamburgers.

She says her children like burgers with chips and some fruit. But after eating lunch at the hotel cafeteria, she's not too hungry in the evenings.

Mohammed likes to cook. She says that perhaps in the future she'll be able to find an apartment with a bigger kitchen.

She says that with her first paycheck, she bought some food, her new Christmas tree and a few house plants.

She says she can't wait to fix up her apartment a bit more and put pictures on the wall.

"In the future, I'm work, you come, the house [will be] beautiful," she says with a smile.

Mohammed says she knows she's one of the lucky ones, one of just 10 Iraqi families who have been resettled in Atlanta this year. She still worries about her sister and brother in Iraq, and anther sister in Syria who has applied to come to the U.S.

The last thing Mohammed shows me is her small deck adorned with brightly colored lights and a Santa Claus decoration. She calls it "Papa Noel."

She says she's truly grateful to spend Christmas in America this year.

Christmas Eve Fire Destroys Iraqi Family's Home

Northchase Apartment complex i i

hide captionAn electrical fire gutted several units in the Northchase Apartments complex where Bothinaa Mohammed and her children lived.

Vino Wong/Atlanta-Journal Constitution
Northchase Apartment complex

An electrical fire gutted several units in the Northchase Apartments complex where Bothinaa Mohammed and her children lived.

Vino Wong/Atlanta-Journal Constitution

Hear the Original Story

Bothinaa Mohammed and her three children were sleeping soundly the morning of Christmas Eve. This was Mohammed's day off from her job as a housekeeper at the Ritz-Carlton in the heart of Atlanta, and her first chance to rest after having taken extra shifts over the holidays to earn additional money. Her son and two daughters were also home because of the holiday break from school.

But that morning, the smell of smoke from an adjacent apartment and the sounds of people running and yelling "Fire! Fire!" had Mohammed and the children up and outside in a hurry.

An electrical fire gutted the building where they lived. Everyone got out safely. But several families, including these Iraqi immigrants, lost just about everything they had.

Mohammed was devastated at first. She arrived in America in August, after spending four years in Jordan waiting for approval from the U.S. State Department. The International Rescue Committee got her children in school and helped her find a job.

With her first paycheck, Mohammed was able to buy a few items for her new home — among them, a Christmas tree with ornaments, red-beaded garland and two large lighted candy canes.

Mohammed loves to stop by garage sales and shop for bargains. She has bought a bicycle for her son and an old television set for the family. When I visited her in December, she dreamed of the day she would buy colorful pictures to cover the walls of her bare apartment. She told me that the next time I came to visit, her home would be "beautiful."

A day after the fire, Mohammed was able to return to her apartment building to look for anything she could save.

Everything in the family's two bedrooms was destroyed; the living room fared a bit better. Mohammed, who is Muslim, was able to salvage her beloved Christmas tree, a symbol of freedom and her new life in this country.

Mohammed and her children spent three days in a motel. On Dec. 27, they were able to move into a new home in the same apartment complex.

Mohammed was worried because she missed a day of work. She was emotional about losing the few things she had acquired for the family. Now she says her new home is "Good, very good."

After a rough few years — being displaced because of the Iraq war, threatened because of Mohammed's work for the U.S. military, then trying to settle into a new home — this resilient family is starting over again.

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