In Turkey, life for an Iraqi refugee leaves much to be desired. Iraqis are not granted refugee status in Turkey and because they are not recognized as refugees, they are not allowed to earn money legally. The costs of these restrictions were all too real for Odai Al Faris, his wife Nihad Mohammed and their two children who spent over a year in Turkey before they were resettled to Central Ohio.
Today, a smiling and energetic couple ready to tell their story about coming to the United States, sat with an air of confidence that can only come from perseverance. Currently, Odai works at Wal-Mart while his wife Nihad is working at a daycare center. Their two children, ages seven and ten, are in school and speak English almost as well as they speak Arabic. Odai laments about not understanding his daughter when she comes home from school with new vocabulary words and admits his children speak better English than he does.
Odai began by telling us about his experience with the Iraqi military and his attempted escape from the mandatory selective service. He was caught, sent to a court tribunal and sentenced to 6 years in prison for his attempted escape. But there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel because in March 2000, Odai finished his sentence and married Nihad.
Odai and Nihad both finished high school and held jobs in Iraq. Odai first worked as a driver and later at a cell phone store and Nihad worked at a hair salon. When asked about a normal day in Iraq, Odai responded that “normal was hearing about a car bomb in your neighborhood or that someone down the street was killed by a terrorist attack”. For Odai and Nihad, the instability in Iraq was not enough to make them leave Bagdad. It wasn’t until a car bomb went off in front of their home, a piece of schrapnal injuring their son, causing the realization that the situation in Iraq might never improve. For the Al Faris family, that moment was cataclysmic.
The next step for Odai, Nihad and their two children was to seek refuge in Turkey and in 2011, they set their sights on applying for refugee status. The situation in Turkey was better, but not ideal. They moved from a home in Bagdad to a small, two bedroom apartment shared by ten people in Turkey. They came with a small pool of financial funds, ever dwindling because of their son’s medical bills after the car bomb. Turkish restrictions excluded them from working in Turkey. Odai said that he did find illegal work in a place that converted trees into mulch, but he mentioned that if they were caught by Turkish police officers without a work permit, they could be fined 500 Turkish Liras equaling a little under $200 American dollars. But Odai did note one very unique experience he had in Turkey; he organized a traditional/folk Iraqi dance group. The idea came to him while he was taking Turkish language classes in a sports club and noticed an empty stage. Odai played the drum while his sister and her friends danced and the group was very successful. They ended up playing for very high-ranking Turkish officials at one point. Even with such a successful group, Odai and his family never saw any money come from their performances.
Turkey was their one stop before finally arriving in the US. Now, they have been in the US for about a year and describe their lives in Columbus as peaceful. Odai mentioned that they chose Columbus for its safety and family atmosphere and noted that the education and health care systems in the US far surpass anything that they experienced in Iraq. The family is satisfied in their new community, despite the terrible winters. Although they know it may take some time to feel completely comfortable in the US, Odai says that now, when he puts his head down at night, he’s content and can focus on the things that really matter like his two children. The extraordinary journey of this family and the struggles they have faced have been tremendous, but they have found a home, safety and peace of mind right here in Columbus, Ohio.