Byko: Iraqi refugees safe in America, but fearful

Omar looks to the future through the window of his Wynnewood apartment

Even in the bosom of their beloved adopted country, the Muslim married couple feel a finger of fear.

Not for themselves. Neither Omar nor Samara has experienced bigotry -- not in San Diego, where they first landed; nor in University City, where they moved  so Samara could attend Penn;  nor in Wynnewood, where they now live.

Their fear is for their families left behind in the Middle East. They worry that what they say might somehow endanger their relatives. That fear seems excessive, but I have never lived in a nation first ruled by a murderous despot and then thrown into sectarian violence with neighbor killing neighbor. So I am withholding their last name. I photographed Omar in silhouette, while Samara, a petite woman who wears a head scarf, declined even that. Each has a degree in dentistry from the University of Baghdad. 

As we talked in their living room, birds chirped outside the windows of their two-bedroom apartment, unlike the bombs bursting outside their Baghdad window.

Civil war was unleashed after the takedown of Saddam Hussein and the U.S. takeover of Iraq in 2003.  “The situation started going down, year by year,” says Omar, a stocky man of 35. In 2006, the year they married, Omar and Samara, 33, fled their native Baghdad for the northern city of Erbil, a regional capital of the Kurds.

They were safe from war there and did dentistry at governmental clinics.

“The salary just barely paid the bills,” says Omar, “and there was discrimination because you were an Arab, not Kurdish.” There was burdensome bureaucracy and they suffered verbal abuse from some of their Kurdish patients. It was humiliating.

The road to a fulfilling future was closed to them in their native land, so in 2009 they left for Jordan. They knew Jordan would be a stop, not a destination.

They applied for refugee status with the United Nations, listing the United States as their preferred refuge, and were helped by Omar's having an aunt in San Diego. She would be their sponsor.   

“We were lucky. We got approval to come to the United States in a year and eight months,” says Omar. Other people wait for years; many never get a green light.

They were subjected to deep interviews  four times, starting with the U.N., and ending with one by U.S. officials. They could prove their identities, their education, and the basis for their fear of being returned to Iraq.

While waiting in Jordan, their son was born. He is now 8, in a Lower Merion elementary school, and wants to be a paleontologist. His sister is 1, born an American. After Omar and Samara arrived, they immediately filed for naturalization, and they are now an all-American family. 

“I’m proud to be an American,” says Samara. “We are in America and we teach our son to be a good American. The Prophet teaches you to be loyal to the country you are in, but we still pray for Iraq,” she says wistfully. 

They are educated people, and  Omar says, “We tell our son to study hard, to get good grades, to get into a good school.”

Education, however, is part of his only complaint about his new life in America.

A dentist in Iraq, he is a dental assistant here. To get a license to practice here, he must return to school for at least two years, basically repeating what he mastered in Baghdad.

He has taken and passed two board exams to demonstrate knowledge of dentistry. What is blocking him from college admission, he tells me, is not scoring high enough  on something called TOEFL. An online test, TOEFL measures reading, writing, speaking and listening.

I'm astonished because in my conversations with him, his grammar and vocabulary are near-perfect and he has only a slight accent.

More baffling is that Samara -- also an excellent English speaker -- with a slightly lower TOEFL score than Omar, was accepted to Penn, and has regained her dentistry license. 

Re-taking the test is expensive, as is applying to Penn and Temple. Frustrated, Omar says he'll relocate to attend a university that will accept him.

While he is in limbo, Omar is placed through a temp agency, where he works for several dentists each week as an assistant.

One is Center City endodontist Barry Rhome, who says Omar "is very earnest, he loves learning" and is an asset. 

In the years before they arrived, Omar had to learn patience, which he uses now. He and Samara are working to get their parents here. If they succeed, that should put an end to their fear.