LINCOLN, Neb. — The Certificate of Appreciation which Raad Mhmdah keeps as a cherished keepsake is dog-eared, bent but not creased and has an American flag laminated on the reverse.
Formerly known as Bus Driver 911, Mhmdah spent two years and two months during Operation Iraqi Freedom shuttling troops between barracks and mess hall on a U.S. military base in Iraq.
It was a great job, he said Tuesday through an interpreter, a job he hoped to keep performing in service to American troops near the Kurdish territory of northern Iraq that Mhmdah and his family called home.
But Islamic militants in the region saw Mhmdah differently. After the Islamic State invaded the region, the bus driver was labeled an American spy and targeted for assassination.
Mhmdah learned his family was on a target list in a mosque frequented by Islamic fighters, so he and his wife Fadheela packed their five children and fled to Dohuk in the north, about 30 miles away.
That’s when they began the long process of obtaining refugee status to travel to the United States.
The process requires providing identifying documents and biometrics, attending interviews and undergoing background checks.
The Lincoln Journal Star (http://bit.ly/2dnDEHu ) reports less than 1 percent of the global refugee population is approved to move to the second step of the process, which assigns them for resettlement in places like Lincoln. Once the U.S. screening is complete, applicants undergo further checks by counterterrorism units and the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.
Over the course of six months, Raad and Fadheela made multiple trips from Dohuk to Baghdad, the capital.
They flew, Raad said, because “it was too dangerous to travel any other way.”
“Iraq wasn’t livable anymore,” Fadheela said.
The process, as slow and grinding as it was, was a ray of hope for the Mhmdahs, whose five children range in age from 3 to 13. Eventually, they were approved for resettlement and set to move to Lincoln.
That’s when three Lincoln women entered their lives.
Sara Gilliam went to Greece in January to distribute aid to refugees arriving in the Port of Athens on their way to Macedonia.
The experience left such a lasting impression that she returned in April but this time with friends Gillian Jenkins and Laurel Maslowski, delivering supplies to some 75,000 people in Greek refugee camps.
“When we came back to Lincoln, we agreed we couldn’t keep flying to Greece, but we wanted to get involved on this side of the refugee resettlement process,” Gilliam said.
Back in the U.S., the three discussed how they might get involved, eventually settling on hosting a refugee family through Lutheran Family Services, Jenkins said. To do “whatever was needed,” Gilliam added.
They learned the Mhmdahs would be arriving in late September, just 7 of 129 refugees Lutheran Family Services has helped resettle in Lincoln this month alone.
That’s when the trio snapped into action.
The Facebook post Gilliam put out asking who had furniture, housewares and other essential items that could be donated to an Iraqi family received overwhelming support, she said.
“I believe they deserve a beautiful home,” she said. “We wanted them to feel loved by their Lincoln community, feel comfortable, safe and happy in their new life.”
Friends donated a barely used living-room set and brand new bunk beds, a dining-room table and a glass coffee table for the house. Others gave backpacks full of school supplies for all five kids, gift cards to local stores and cash.
Even decorative wall hangings, mirrored and twisting in modern designs, were donated and hung with care in the apartment in north Lincoln, and Jenkins’ daughter helped pick out toys for the Mhmduhs’ two girls.
So many items were donated, in fact, that some were turned over to Lutheran Family Services, Jenkins said.
All of the items were placed in time for the Mhmdahs’ arrival in Lincoln on Monday evening.
Coming down the walkway, after flying 15 hours from Jordan to Chicago, Chicago to Denver, and Denver to Lincoln, was a relief.
Thirteen-year-old Alind, who will enroll as an eighth-grader at Lincoln Public Schools in a few weeks, is quiet and polite, mindful of his little brothers and sisters. Omeed, 12, a laid back preteen who enjoys shooting baskets and playing video games, shares a room with his older brother in the basement.
Upstairs, with brand new bunkbeds in the girls’ room, Eilaf, 8, and Inas, 5, accommodate their little brother Amad, 3, a showstopper with boundless energy.
The trip around the world drained them, and some of the children sleep in their parents’ room in their first night in the new house.
That’s OK, Raad says. He hopes to find a new job as a bus driver in town, while Gilliam thinks she may have a job lead for him with a friend’s company.
“These people will do nothing but enrich our community,” Gilliam said. “They are so eager to get to work and be productive members of the city. It’s not a belief shared by everybody, but I believe immigration and resettlement of refugees is nothing but a blessing for a city like Lincoln.”
Gilliam, Jenkins and Maslowski hope to bring the Mhmdahs into their social circle and allow their children to grow up together.
The women also encourage others to get involved helping refugees find a new home in Lincoln.
“We’ve had nothing but fun and joy in sponsoring a family,” she said.
Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Lincoln Journal Star.