Iraqi Refugee Finds Welcoming Home In The West When the owner of a consulting company in Montana heard an NPR story about Bahjat, an Iraqi refugee struggling to find work in Florida, he offered Bahjat a job. Bahjat decided he had nothing to lose, so he accepted. But first, he had to figure out where Montana was.
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Iraqi Refugee Finds Welcoming Home In The West

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Iraqi Refugee Finds Welcoming Home In The West

Iraqi Refugee Finds Welcoming Home In The West

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

U.S. troops in Iraq have depended on Iraqi translators since the first weeks of the war. Many of those Iraqis have been threatened with death for their work with the Americans. Now more of them can apply to immigrate to the U.S. from Baghdad.

Last week, the U.S. embassy launched a plan that will provide 5,000 more visas to Iraqis. Applicants must prove that working for the government and its contractors has put them at risk.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Deb, Iraqis who've already made it to the U.S. do face new challenges, especially adjusting to life in their new home. Several months ago, we brought you the story of an Iraqi refugee struggling to find work in this country.

Bahjat had been a computer specialist for U.S. contractors in Iraq. After several attempts on his life, he, his mother and sister received political asylum and settled in Florida, but after months of searching, he'd only had one job offer from a hotel.

BAHJAT (Computer Specialist): We thought that the job position will be like a warehouse manager or house assistant or something. When I went there, it was clean our room, keep our…

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Housekeeping.

BAHJAT: Yeah, housekeeping, and I felt, like, very disappointed.

MONTAGNE: Bahjat was so desperate, he was considering returning to Iraq. Then he got an offer that's led to a change of fortune for his family. NPR's Jennifer Ludden brings us this update.

LUDDEN: Rob Hunter can still get emotional when he remembers hearing that NPR report on the Iraqi refugee. He was driving to his health care consulting company in Billings, Montana. As he listened to this young man who sounded smart and engaging, Hunter says he felt pulled by a mixture of civic duty and religious faith.

Mr. ROB HUNTER (Health Care Consultant): There's this chain of people and events that you find yourself caught up in, and you have to choose to step out of it. You have to choose to ignore it. Why not just stay with it? You know, why not just go with it and see where it takes you?

LUDDEN: Hunter had long had trouble filling a position for an IT systems administrator. Maybe he could offer it to Bahjat.

Mr. MIKE YOUNG (Health Care Consultant): I thought it was a great idea.

LUDDEN: Mike Young is Hunter's business partner.

Mr. YOUNG: My concern was this guy is going to be flooded with job offers, but I was shocked that he didn't have offers coming from all over the place.

LUDDEN: Bahjat doesn't want his full name. He fears for the safety of a brother and sister still in the Middle East. When he got a call from Rob Hunter, Bahjat says he wasn't sure what to think.

BAHJAT: That's weird that somebody just, he calls you and offer a job for you, and you don't know where is Montana. You don't know anything about that person. So I was, like, a little bit stressed about that.

LUDDEN: But Hunter just happened to be going on vacation to Florida. The two met, liked each other, and Bahjat decided he had nothing to lose. In May, he figured out where Montana was and set out driving the 1998 Ford Contour that a Florida charity had given him. Six days later, he began his new life in Billings.

Unidentified Man: Oh, right. You're the firm that has a system.

BAHJAT: It's - they don't hear. Mike really has something we can, you know, use.

LUDDEN: Bahjat has his own office now. There's a framed picture of a moose on the wall. He likes his colleagues and says he's learning new things. The hardest part has been getting used to living in a small city. Bahjat's 27. He grew up in Baghdad, a sprawling metropolis of seven million. When he looked up Billings online, he saw a picture of two tall buildings. It seemed promising, until his new boss gave him a tour.

BAHJAT: And, you know, we drive the car, and it's like where's the downtown? And he was like that was the downtown. So we had to go back, and he was, like, don't blink this time.

LUDDEN: Don't blink.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BAHJAT: Yeah, don't blink this time.

LUDDEN: Rob Hunter's done his best to make up for what Billings may lack in nightlife. He's given Bahjat a bicycle. He's taken the family to the symphony. Hunter's clear that hiring Bahjat was not a case of charity. Unemployment here is traditionally low, and he says the local university doesn't turn out enough graduates with his skills, but Hunter has clearly taken it upon himself to ease this family's transition to American life.

Mr. HUNTER: You know, he's a young guy trying to make a way in the world without a father here, without an older brother to guide him here. He has an older brother back there. So you tend to - it's like if this was a friend of my son's is how I look at it. So everybody here, I think, sort of treats him that way, too.

RAJHA: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: It looks wonderful.

RAJHA: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: In their two-bedroom apartment, Bahjat's mother, Rajha, cooks mounds of Iraqi meat and vegetable dishes. She's making out well, even without a single Middle Eastern food shop in town. Bahjat moved here first, and by the time Rajha and her daughter arrived, the entire apartment was set up. Rob Hunter had appealed to friends, who donated furniture, dishware, bedding, even a table and chairs for the terrace where the family can sometimes view the mountains south of town.

RAJHA: Oh, very nice.

BAHJAT: That's very nice. Yeah.

RAJHA: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: Rajha calls their new apartment a real home. And best of all, it took Bahjat's younger sister Arij(ph) just a week to find a job in a restaurant. The one lingering frustration for Rajha? She doesn't speak English, and with only a few fellow Arabs in town, there's no other companion for her to chat with. Bahjat says they were excited one day in Wal-Mart to see a woman wearing a veil.

BAHJAT: So my mom, she went to that woman, and she tried to talk to her, but unfortunately, that woman, she didn't know anything in Arabic. So that means she's not Iraqi. Yeah, that was a sad story.

LUDDEN: Still, the family says they've been amazed by the generosity of complete strangers. After the local paper ran an article, people mailed them gift cards to Wal-Mart and Costco. Two local dentists have provided free service, even picking up Rajha for appointments so Bahjat doesn't have to miss work.

BAHJAT: So you can't imagine how good these people are. Billings is - it's small by size, very big by heart. That is what I can say about it.

Mr. HUNTER: (unintelligible)

LUDDEN: Bahjat and Hunter have come to work out together at the YMCA, which donated a family membership. Bahjat was a competitive free-weight lifter in Baghdad. He says the sleek Cybex machines here are a bit sissy, so Hunter's jacked up the weight.

(Soundbite of banging)

Mr. HUNTER: Okay.

BAHJAT: Oh, my God. See what he's doing?

Mr. HUNTER: Now three times.

(Soundbite of clanging)

Mr. HUNTER: That just - 20 pounds like this.

LUDDEN: Bahjat knows he still has so much to learn about the U.S. - even the very notion of having a boss who's also a friend, it just doesn't exist in Iraq. But slowly, he can sense himself changing.

BAHJAT: I live here between the Americans. I work with them, and I do everything with them. So I feel I belong to this country. Even so, yeah, I love my country, but I belong to this country.

LUDDEN: Bahjat keeps in touch with other newly arrived Iraqis across the U.S. Many are still struggling, and that makes him feel all the more lucky. One day, he says he hopes he can change someone else's life like his has been changed here in Billings. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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