A young couple who fled death threats in their native Iraq when they were teenagers are now raising their young daughter in Sheepshead Bay with the support of a Downtown group that helps immigrants and refugees resettle in Brooklyn.
The couple’s journey began one night in July 2014, when notoriously dangerous Iran-backed Shia militiamen knocked on the door of then-19-year-old Jaafar Mohammed Al-Khafaji’s family home in Baghdad, where he lived with his pregnant wife, Doaa Almasoodi, Al-Khafaji said. The Shia militiamen demanded that Al-Khafaji and his brothers join their fight against Islamic State — or else, he told this paper.
“They said, ‘you have to be with us, to join our group — if not, you’re going to be killed or you have to leave your home,’ ” Al-Khafaji said through a translator.
When the militiamen began shooting their rifles in the air outside, Almasoodi fainted out of fear, according to the couple. An hour later, when the militiamen had dispersed, the couple fled with Al-Khafaji’s family in the dead of night, leaving behind everything — including baby clothes for their unborn daughter, they said.
“I was preparing for the baby shower for my daughter, buying a lot of stuff, and I left it all behind,” said Almasoodi through a translator.
The couple went to live with Almasoodi’s relatives in a suburb about 10 miles west of Baghdad, they said, and fled within days to Ankara, the capital of Turkey, with a group of Al-Khafaji’s family members. Life was difficult in Turkey — where refugees face discrimination and even death — they said.
But when United Nations workers learned about the young couple’s circumstances — including Almasoodi’s pregnancy — they set up an interview to start building their case to flee to the U.S. as refugees just two months after they arrived in Turkey, according to the couple. And a month later, in October 2014, Almasoodi gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Sema, they said.
Nearly three years later, in August 2017, the family finally flew to the U.S. Once in Brooklyn, they joined Almasoodi’s parents — who had previously fled to the U.S. after they received threats — at their Bensonhurst home, where they could finally enjoy the peace that they lacked in Baghdad, Almasoodi said.
“We were so relieved and happy to come to the U.S.,” Almasoodi said.
Almasoodi’s parents helped the couple adjust to life in their new country, making their transition much easier than it would’ve been otherwise, she said.
“We don’t speak the language, and they speak the language,” Almasoodi said. “A lot of things we don’t know, they help us and guide us. If we came by ourselves and we didn’t know anyone here, it would be much more difficult for us.”
Earlier this year, Almasoodi’s parents helped the couple move into their own apartment in Sheepshead Bay.
And staffers at the Downtown Arab American Family Support Center — including the center’s director of community outreach and prevention support, Amed AlFaraji, who also translated the interview — helped the family pay off part of their airfare fees, since all refugees have to repay their travel costs to the U.S. State Department within three-and-a-half years.
The center uses funds from its New Immigrants and Refugees Fund, launched last July, to help refugee families like Al-Khafaji and Almasoodi’s across the borough pay off their airfare fees and access mental health services, English courses, and job training. The fund is the only one of its kind nationwide, according to AlFaraji, and has provided more than 300 people with more than $100,000 worth of social services and airfare payments since it launched a year ago.
Today, Al-Khafaji supports his family by working six days a week in a supermarket, and Almasoodi stays busy raising 3-year-old Sema. But both parents have bigger dreams for their future. Both want to go back to school — Al-Khafaji to become a police officer, and Almasoodi to become a nutritionist. They also hope their daughter will seize her future in the U.S., and Almasoodi said she has already proven to be an independent little girl with a bright future ahead.
“I’m confident that she’s going to be something when she grows up, because she has a strong personality,” Almasoodi said. “She’s responsible and smart.”
But even though the couple is grateful for the chance to start their lives in the relative safety of the U.S., they can’t forget the life they left behind in Baghdad.
“We miss our country, our friends, our relatives, the place where we were born,” Al-Khafaji said.
Among the family members they miss the most are Al-Khafaji’s parents, who have been stuck in Turkey waiting to travel to the U.S. for nearly five years, and whose case has seemingly stalled since President Trump announced his plan last fall to set a historically low cap on the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S.
Al-Khafaji and Almasoodi plan to file a petition for Al-Khafaji’s parents to come to the U.S. as soon as the couple is able to, but that won’t be until after the Arab American Family Support Center helps them secure green cards, and eventually citizenship, which will take at least five years. Even then, his parents’ prospects could still be uncertain, since the Trump Administration is pushing a massive overhaul of legal-immigration rules, seeking to scrap the family reunification visas that Al-Khafaji’s parents would rely on.
In the meantime, the couple wants their new American neighbors to understand the difficult plight of the more than 25-million refugees worldwide who are still enduring the tenuous lives the young couple escaped, trapped in limbo in refugee camps, waiting for a stroke of luck to change their lives.
“They are so desperate, they’re just waiting,” Al-Khafaji said. “It’s like an endless wait.”