A SAFE PLACE
Muhannad Saleh, Photo by Adam Finkle
The long journey from war-torn Baghdad for Muhannad Saleh, his wife Hanan and their children began when 33-year-old Saleh woke up in June 2003 to hear tanks rumbling through his up-to-then-quiet neighborhood. "I said, 'That's it. I have to move my family to a safe place.' "
They first sought safety across the border in Amman, Jordan, thinking they would stay only until the violence in Iraq ebbed. But the conflict and bombings, as most Americans know, continued interminably, delaying each return "one more month." Finally, the Jordanese police arrested Saleh for working without a permit. They drove him to the Iraqi border for expulsion, but didn't bother with his wife and children. "It was a terrible day for me," he recalls of the separation from his family. "I told the police, 'I can't go back to my country. Things are too dangerous there.' "
The officers were sympathetic, but told him, "Sorry, it's the law." Finally, Saleh was permitted to rejoin his family in Amman, but only if he pledged not to work, leaving him to wonder, "How could I support my family if I can't work?"
In desperation, Saleh appealed to the United Nations to find a third country that would offer his family refuge. "The United States accepted me and it was very wonderful, but I knew no one there," Saleh says. "If you don't have anyone in the U.S., they send you to Utah. I was scared for my wife and my kids to go to a place I knew nothing about."
Saleh asked a United Nations refugee administrator about Utah.
"It's a desert," she said, then teased him: "Take a camel with you."
When the family arrived in Salt Lake City, Saleh called his brother to tell him he had arrived safely.
"What American state are you in?" his brother asked.
Saleh told him.
"Utah?" There was a pause on the line. "Are you sure you are in the United States and not China?"
From the beginning of his migration, Saleh equated security with having a job. He took whatever work he could find, beginning as parttime packer at Fed-Ex less than two months after he arrived. "You can't imagine how happy I was to get that job. It meant I could take care of my family."
Since earning certification as an electronics technician at Salt Lake Community College, he now works at Blackrock Microsystems, fabricating medical and research implant devices. "I still have my problems sometimes with money," Saleh, now 43, says, "But I have my family, a safe place for them to live and a job."
One of the first people to greet him in Salt Lake was Ron Anderson, a Unitarian church member who volunteers helping refugees settle. "He was the first person to knock on my door after I got here," Saleh recalls. Besides providing second-hand furniture and basic information, Anderson helped Saleh get his drivers license and buy a car. Most of all, he listened.
"Ron gave me that feeling—I'm safe here," Saleh says. After five years, Saleh has gotten over his homesickness for his homeland. Baghdad is on a plain and it took time to get used to Utah's mountains, he says. He's become an avid hiker. "Now, when I look up at the mountains, I think, 'I don't believe I can live without these mountains!'"
Muhannad Saleh decided war-town Baghdad was no place to rear children.
Ron Anderson, a retired federal employee, began working with the Unitarian's Refugee Resettlement Committee in 1997 distributing second-hand furniture to refugee families. "Our church is deeply involved in social justice issues," said Anderson, "and I Like people from other countries."
Anderson was often the first Utahn the arrivals met. He found himself mentor, or more accurately, a "fixer," to dozens of refugee families baffled by the customs, Laws and red tape of their new home. Anderson walked new arrivals through getting drivers licenses and buying cars.
"Their needs are endless because of Language problems, navigating government bureaucracy and school and health problems," Anderson says. "I try to find them jobs. That's the most important thing." At the same time, Anderson teaches English and American culture to the new arrivals. "He's an angel, my white American dad," says Muhannad Selah.