In the early 2000s, a sectarian militia left a foreboding message in front of Ghazwan Abdullah’s house. A bullet was inside the envelope along with a note that read, “Leave your country or meet your fate.” Having known neighbors whose family members were kidnapped and killed, Ghazwan knew it was no longer safe for them in Iraq.
He fled by night to Jordan, and his wife and mother eventually joined him. In Jordan, he needed to apply for refugee status and demonstrate that his country was no longer a safe place from him and his family to live.
He stayed in refugee limbo in Jordan for over a decade.
Despite feeling lonely, isolated and at times hopeless Adbullah and his family found a way to thrive. Refugees aren’t allowed to legally work in Jordan, and the Abdullahs quickly spent their savings in Amman.
We suffered a lot,” Ghazwan says. “It was tough for me as a man to not be able to put food on the table.”
After three years in Jordan, Ghazwan was at his wit’s end. He contemplated returning to Iraq, to “meet his fate,” as the note said. But his family had a change of fortune when a friend invited his mother to join an event for women hosted by an American nonprofit called Collateral Repair Project. The nonprofit serves Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Ghazwan was appalled that his mother would attend an event hosted by Americans, as the American invasion of Iraq was the reason they were displaced. Eventually his mother, who used to work with the Ministry of Health in Iraq, was recruited to work with the nonprofit because she spoke English.
Ghazwan continued to protest the new partnership. “You agreed to shake hands with an invader?”
But his mother took the position, and soon the nonprofit helped his family with food and rent. Over time, Ghazwan’s brother, who also spoke English, began to work with the nonprofit, and the employees there began to visit their family and earn their trust.
Ghazwan learned the difference between a country’s foreign policy and its citizens, and began to warm to the Americans who showed his family such care and provision. “My way of thinking changed, and they broadened my horizons,” he says. “That was the turning point for me and how I think.”
Ghazwan committed to learn English, and began working for the nonprofit. He helped translate for other nonprofit employees and met with refugee families to help them get what they needed. For six years, he worked for the nonprofit as a programs coordinator. “I went from hating Americans to loving and working with Americans,” he says. “This is the impact of one person.”
Finally, in 2015, Ghazwan’s application came up for review with the UN High Commission on Refugees. After obtaining an American sponsor, his application was approved, and Ghawan, his wife and three kids all made their way to Dallas.
When their plane touched down, Ghazwan and his family made their way to the concourse. Exhausted, in a foreign land and on edge, he was wary of the airport security.
A police officer approached his wife, who wears a hijab, as she tried to use a snack machine. Terrible thoughts ran through Ghazwan’s head, and he wondered whether the officer would arrest his wife or force them back to Iraq. He stood, frozen with fear, as the officer moved closer.
The man pulled out his credit card and purchased water and juice for Ghazwan’s wife children. “We know you are refugees,” the officer said. “I am sorry what happened to you, but your new life starts here. Welcome to the United States.”
While Ghazwan was moved to tears by the man’s generosity, the US wasn’t always so friendly. He remembers protests against Islam at the mosque near his home the first week he arrived.
Eventually he found a job at a company selling Arab books and curriculum to schools. He advanced quickly in the company, but he longed to get back to the nonprofit world he experienced in Jordan.
Not long after his first job, Ghazwan was offered jobs at two refugee service organizations in Dallas: Mosaic Family Services and Seek the Peace. Though it would mean less money, Ghazwan knew that this was part of God’s plan.
At Mosaic, he is a refugee case manager where he helps newcomer refugees navigate the American health system. He helps them learn how to take public transportation, make an appointment and talk to doctors until they are self-sufficient. For Seek the Peace, he is an outreach and community liaison. He shares his story with churches, temples and other groups and talks about why they should welcome refugees.
He invites questions and debates, and even though the crowds can be hostile, he knows how important it is for him to bridge the cultural divide. “I love to reach out. I feel I can make a difference,” he says.
Ghazwan continues to speak out for improved refugee treatment with the state government and participated in a program called Refugee Congress, where the UN trains refugees how to advocate for themselves. Ghazwan, his wife and three children live in Richardson, Texas, where they are thriving.
“My heart is with refugee work, “ he says. “God had a plan for me. People out there need me and I can do a lot for them.”