Since Feras Alkaisi, his wife Sulaf, and their two young children moved here four months ago, they’ve experienced a lot of firsts – backyard barbecues, a casino (Treasure Island), carnival rides (at the Mall of America), watching football on TV, and last week, falling snow.
“I saw snow once before but it was on the ground and just a little bit,” Feras recalls. “I never saw snow falling through the air until last week.” He paused for a moment to take in the new memory, then a question occurred.
“Is it often cold in Minnesota ?”
Newcomers, indeed. And their culture shock is all the greater given their city of origin which is Basra, Iraq, an ancient capital and commercial port that has seen some of Iraq’s worst violence in recent years.
Feras, Sulaf and their two children, Ahmed, 5, and Dima, 2, are one of 16 families that have moved to Rochester in the past year from Iraq, as part of a wave of thousands of Iraq War refugees who are now resettling in the United States.
The 16 new Iraqi families in Rochester comprise 77 people, with another 100 or so Iraqi refugees planning to resettle in Rochester in the coming year, according to Catholic Charities, the local non-profit that handles refugee resettlement. Some 32,655 Iraqis have resettled in the U.S. in the past two years.
One thing that isn’t giving the Alkaisi family the least bit of culture shock in the U.S., though, is consumer culture — houses, cars, computers and shopping malls.
“There is an error in some thinking here about Iraq,” Feras says. “Many people ask us if we were living in the desert before.” Well, hardly.
Iraq’s major port city on the Persian Gulf, Basra is a metropolis in the heart of the country’s most productive oil fields. Revenues from oil, plus an ancient history tracing to the first human civilization, Sumer, has made Basra one of the most economically and culturally developed cities in the Middle East.
Sometimes called the “Venice of the Middle East” for a system of 17th– and 18th-century canals that runs through the city, Basra is also known as the home of Sinbad the Sailor of the ancient Middle Eastern tale.
But in recent years, Basra has fallen on very tough times – so bad that thousands of its citizens like the Alkaisis have had to flee for their lives to nearby Kuwait, and to other host countries outside Iraq, especially Syria and Jordan.
When the Iraq War began in 2003, Basra’s 300-mile distance from Baghdad seemed it might protect Basra somewhat from the very worst effects of the war.
But as new figures consolidated power in Baghdad, and especially after the 2007 exit of British forces that controlled Basra, the city deteriorated into lawlessness.
Rival religious militias took over the city as local government crumbled, battling over neighborhoods, looting homes, forcing women to wear headscarves or be killed, and assassinating people who worked for the British and American forces, the United Nations, and international aid and humanitarian groups.
As an employee of the United Nations, where he oversaw a $7 million project to build a thermal camera security system on the Iran-Iraq border north of Basra, Feras Alkaisi and his family were sitting targets for such groups.
In April 2006, Alkaisi’s home was burgled by militiamen who stole cash, jewelry and other valuables. The Alkaisis didn’t report the theft, however, because the police were often sympathetic to the militias – or were militia soldiers themselves.
From there, things got worse. In 2007, Alkaisi appeared on an Iraqi television news program and in newspapers to celebrate the completion of the UN’s security fence.
“I was advised to go into hiding and I moved my family to Kuwait,” Alkaisi said.
His family fled amid a string of disasters befalling friends and acquaintances.
Several Iraqi colleagues at his United Nations job were kidnapped, tortured or killed. A cousin was kidnapped and released after a ransom was paid. Two other cousins were kidnapped and killed. An uncle was kidnapped and hasn’t been found to this day.
A 10-year-old nephew was grabbed in an attempted kidnapping but managed to break free and run to safety. Five doctors in Basra were killed for opposing a name change of their hospital to include the last name of Moktada al Sadr, an influential political figure and militia leader.
Alkaisi applied for refugee status in the United States in 2006, but had to wait three years while the UN, the U.S. State Department, and other agencies completed the exhaustive screening process to clear him and his family for resettlement.
In early May, 2009, that process was finally completed and on May 31, the plane carrying Alkaisi and his family took off from Kuwait to the U.S.
“We were told that Boston was our destination,” Alkaisi said. “Then, three days before we left, it was changed to Rochester. They never told us why, so we have no idea.”
With his workable English, a graduate degree in computer engineering, and management experience working for the United Nations, Feras hoped to land a job here quickly.
But he and the other Iraqi refugees, nearly all of whom are highly educated, mid-career professionals, arrived in the middle of an economic recession.
Few if any have gotten jobs anywhere near the level they’d reached in Iraq.
So for now, Feras is working as intern at the Rochester Community and Technical College, doing computer service work. He has several ideas for businesses, including to open his own computer repair shop in town. First, though, he needs to save enough money to buy a set of tools and set up a shop.
Sipping Sulaf’s strong black coffee, his two children tucked into bed by 8 p.m., Feras relaxes on his living room sofa. He asks me to be sure that in this story he can publicly thank the local Catholic Charities office for resettling his family.
“They’ve done so much for us,” he says.
He smiles broadly as Sulaf brings out glasses of 7-Up to follow our coffee. But a weariness creeps into his voice as he tells his story of escape from war.