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New To U.S., Iraqi Refugee Helps Others Resettle

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New To U.S., Iraqi Refugee Helps Others Resettle

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New To U.S., Iraqi Refugee Helps Others Resettle

New To U.S., Iraqi Refugee Helps Others Resettle

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/97548994/98674118" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Second of two parts

Alaa Naji (right) poses with her sister, Maha Mohammed (left), and their mother, Jinan Mahdi. Mohammed and Mahdi arrived in Atlanta in September 2007 and helped Naji and her two children settle there in May. Kathy Lohr / NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kathy Lohr / NPR

Alaa Naji (right) poses with her sister, Maha Mohammed (left), and their mother, Jinan Mahdi. Mohammed and Mahdi arrived in Atlanta in September 2007 and helped Naji and her two children settle there in May.

Kathy Lohr / NPR

Part 1: Making Their Way

Naji's children – Abdullah, 8 (lower left), and Mina, 9 – spend time with their grandmother after school while their mother works. The extended family often has dinner together. Naji says it's important to have family and friends nearby. Kathy Lohr/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kathy Lohr/NPR

Naji's children – Abdullah, 8 (lower left), and Mina, 9 – spend time with their grandmother after school while their mother works. The extended family often has dinner together. Naji says it's important to have family and friends nearby.

Kathy Lohr/NPR

As a case manager for the International Rescue Committee, Alaa Naji (right) helps other newcomers get settled in Atlanta. Here, she drops off a $400 check for a Myanmar family to buy food. Kathy Lohr / NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kathy Lohr / NPR

As a case manager for the International Rescue Committee, Alaa Naji (right) helps other newcomers get settled in Atlanta. Here, she drops off a $400 check for a Myanmar family to buy food.

Kathy Lohr / NPR

Since the war in Iraq began in 2003, an estimated 4.7 million Iraqis have fled their homes, scattering within the country and beyond. Some 2 million now live outside their homeland, mostly in Jordan and Syria. In mid-2007, the U.S. government began resettling Iraqi refugees in this country: Some 15,000 Iraqi refugees already have arrived, and another 17,000 are expected in the next year. Atlanta is a prime destination for them.

Among those displaced is Alaa Naji, a single mother of two small children who lost her husband in a terrorist attack. A United Nations employee, he was fatally injured when a car bomb exploded at the Jordanian Embassy in Iraq in August 2003. To support their two small children, Naji — who has an English degree — found work with the U.N. and the U.S. Army in Baghdad. But within a couple of months, she started getting notes that threatened her family.

"And they said, 'Prepare yourself. You gonna be killed,'" Naji recalls. "And the colleagues, they said, 'Alaa, your life very dangerous, your work is very sensitive. You work in a very dangerous place. Please think for your kids.'"

Leaving Homeland Behind

In 2004, Naji escaped with her children to Jordan, where she worked with the U.N. and the International Red Cross. When she heard the U.S. was accepting Iraqi refugees, she applied.

"I prayed a lot," she says. "I prayed for five years till my prayer come true."

Naji arrived in May with daughter Mina and son Abdullah, now 9 and 8, respectively. They have an apartment in the same complex where her mother and two sisters settled about a year ago after fleeing Iraq.

Naji says it's a tremendous help to have family in Atlanta. On this evening, her mom — Jinan Mahdi — cooks a dinner of salmon, soup and rice.

At first, Naji worked as an interpreter on call. She met some Iraqis who had lived in the U.S. for more than a year — doctors, lawyers and engineers, many of whom hadn't found jobs, Naji says. But, with persistence, Naji landed a full-time position as a case manager with the International Rescue Committee's Atlanta office. The New York-based nonprofit helps refugees and victims of armed conflict around the world, including with resettlement.

A Dream Job

Naji had sought work that would "pay the bills, the rent, cover my cost of living," she says. "I didn't dream that I am going to find a job, and that job was more than I ever expected or dreamed of."

As part of this job, Naji visits one recent morning with a family of four from Myanmar. The couple and their two toddlers arrived in the United States less than 24 hours earlier, and the IRC already had resettled them in an apartment complex just east of Atlanta. "So, welcome here to the United States," Naji says, offering the family its first bit of assistance: a $400 check to buy food.

"We will send someone from IRC to help you to do the shopping, but it's good for you to shop for two weeks," Naji says, advising them to buy rice, sugar, oil and "everything that your kids and your family needs."

Outside the complex, Naji says she is thrilled to find a job that she knows so much about from firsthand experience.

"The refugees — when they come here, they need help. They need someone to show them the way how to start," Naji says. "And it means a lot for me to feel that I will be part of their life ... [in] the first days when they come to the United States. They will remember, the same that happened with me." A different program, World Relief, helped Naji.

Hard Work And A Sense Of Security

Naji and her sisters are working long hours as they get settled in this country. Noor Mohammed, 16, goes to high school and works at a restaurant on weekends. Maha Mohammed, 21, covers household expenses for her younger sister and their mother, working seven days a week at two part-time jobs. Maha Mohammed was an engineering major at an Iraq college and hopes to finish her degree one day.

"I have family. I have to take care of my family. So I have to do anything," she says.

But both Mohammed and Naji say being here provides a chance to start over away from the war and the violence.

"We feel more safe now," Maha Mohammed says. "I can sleep and I don't have to worry about there is maybe somebody in the street or if I go outside somebody will be maybe kidnapping me or do anything, you know. Peace is something very important. Even if you live in heaven, without peace you will not feel that you live in heaven."

Making it here is a challenge, but the family is OK. In fact, they recently got some wonderful news: that Alaa's 25-year-old brother, who escaped to Syria in 2005, would join them in America this month.

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