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Iraq war refugee loses mother and country, gains a home

Horror story of kidnapping and terror finally drives Iraqi family to America.

NEWTON, Mass. — When he and his mother were kidnapped by militia in Baghdad and only he returned, Mohammad knew he had to flee Iraq.

Today, Mohammad sits on a plush couch in the living room of an ornate house in a wealthy suburb of Boston. To look at him, his smiling wife, Marwa, and their exuberant little daughter, Noor, a visitor could not possibly guess that a grueling four-year odyssey of terror and flight had landed them here.

Just weeks ago, the family was leading the lives of refugees in a rundown neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, where they had been forced to flee four years earlier from hostile conditions in their home country of Iraq.

Mohammad’s journey, which ended this summer in Newton, began in 2006 in Baghdad from where, as an incisive political journalist in Iraq’s war-torn capitol, he was forced to flee to Syria. In Damascus, Mohammad’s life intersected with a young American college student who eventually helped bring Mohammad to the United States. Mohammad’s story is sadly not uncommon in Iraq, where seven years of war and ruthless militia have forced millions into exile.

Mohammad’s work as a journalist started in the first year after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It was 2004, and Mohammad (who has requested anonymity for safety reasons) began writing articles for an Iraqi publication, the name of which translates in English to “Time.” He wrote largely on politics and government, believing in the social importance of journalism and wishing to “expose crimes” and inform the public about important Iraqi issues.

Barely two years later, in May 2006, local hostilities and militia harassment forced Mohammad to flee Iraq for Syria, a country where more than a million Iraqi refugees have temporarily sought shelter. Mohammad’s family — his wife, 

Marwa, 5-year-old daughter, Noor, and father — joined him in Damascus shortly thereafter. 

Two weeks before his move, Mohammad and his family had been terrorized by a local militia in Iraq controlled by an officer whom Mohammad had spoken out against in an article. “I wrote about a high officer in Iraq. He is official officer and besides that he has a militia,” Mohammad said in an interview with GlobalPost. The militia, which is called “Mahdi Army,” sent its members wearing police uniforms to Mohammad’s house, where they kidnapped Mohammad and his mother.

Eventually Mohammad was released, but his mother was held captive. She remains missing. “After that, she is disappeared,” said Mohammad about his mother, “Just vanished, without anything, any trace to find her.”

Iraqi refugees in Syria are not legally permitted to work, and for four years Mohammad, Mawra and Noor lived there mostly on money borrowed from 

Marwa's mother, who lives in Sweden. Some meals were provided by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

When they arrived in Syria, Mohammad and his family registered with UNHCR to be resettled. However Mohammad, wary from his experience in Iraq and traumatized by the loss of his mother, omitted details about his profession as a journalist and the exact reasons for his exile in his registration process.

“I didn’t mention anything about my case. I didn’t mention I was a journalist, and I lost my mother, or anything like that to UNHCR because their employees are all Syrian people. … they have a relationship between them and the intelligence agency.”

Despite their uncomfortable and stressful conditions, Mohammad and 

Marwa became extraordinarily active in their Syrian community during their four years there. 

Marwa began work for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) helping other Iraqi refugees in Damascus, as well as spending five hours a day in a center for disabled Iraqi refugee children — all on a volunteer basis.

Mohammad described how he and 

Marwa were well-equipped to help various NGOs by acting as a liaison to other refugees. “We tried to move from our area, where we lived in Damascus, and move to another area where the Iraqi people lived,” Mohammad said. “We tried to teach them and know about their problems. … Some have disease. We meet many women who have cancer and no one can help them.”

Enter Michaela Yule, an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College. Yule, who is fluent in Arabic, was spending the summer of 2009 abroad in Syria when she met 

Marwa through an NGO where the two women were working. (Because of the nature of Yule’s work, she has requested that certain details, including the name of the NGO and the context of her connection with them, be omitted.)