From Baghdad to Ohio, a refugee family settles in

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Dr. Raad Sameer's three children were very excited -- Monday was to be their first day of school in America. A month after landing in the U.S. heartland, the Iraqi refugees were ready to pursue their dream.

"My oldest wants to be a pharmacist," said Sameer, 36, who fled Baghdad in 2005 with his wife and children after the family's aid to American soldiers put their lives at risk.

"The middle child, my boy, says he will be a neurosurgeon. The youngest wants to be a civil engineer," Sameer said proudly, speaking through an interpreter.

Sameer and his brother-in-law, Ammar Khyara, 29, sat side-by-side in a spartan refugee agency office in Columbus, sipping coffee from white Styrofoam cups as they recalled their two-year journey from Iraq through neighboring Jordan, where they waited to be admitted to America.

They ended up in Columbus purely by chance after a refugee agency here offered them help. Sameer said his children, cooped up for a month in the family's one-room apartment, also have less lofty goals for their new life in America.

Hafsa, 12, hopes to make new friends at her school. Abdullah, 11, wants to play soccer. Amna, 9, would like to find a pool where she can swim. Consumed by a month of red-tape -- health checks, school admissions, legal appointments -- the family was anxious to start a new life.

"Even before the war, it was my dream to come to the United States," Sameer said. "Everything is good here -- the people are good, the technology is good, everything is good."

The family, which also includes his wife's parents, is among 1,608 Iraq refugees resettled in the United States in 2007. More than 2 million others who fled Iraq for neighboring countries are awaiting resettlement, while another 2.2 million are displaced inside Iraq, according to U.N. data.

While the United States has been criticized for not taking more Iraqis, those in jeopardy because of ties to U.S. forces are among applicants given special consideration.


Sameer and his father-in-law decided early on to help U.S. forces who invaded Iraq in March 2003, glad to see the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Sameer acted as middleman between U.S. troops and vendors in Iraq, buying and delivering food, water, ice and fuel for soldiers at the airport. But by 2004 the family was targeted for reprisal by Iraqis opposed to U.S. troops and Khyara, who was manager of an ice cream company, was kidnapped with seven others and held for 26 days.

"My company paid $2 million for our release," Khyara said. He saw others shot and killed while the Iraqi police watched.

Now, the two men and their family are learning their way around Columbus, helped by a network of fellow refugees -- their interpreter is from Somalia, their refugee agency a hodgepodge of foreign accents and skin tones.

Sameer, who left a large house with a garden in Baghdad, wants to own a car. His wife would like a few more pots and pans so she can make the family's favorite foods. They're happy to have found a halal meat shop and buttermilk, small tastes of home in their gritty and diverse Columbus neighborhood.

Asked what they miss from Iraq, neither man hesitated before saying, "My family."

Sameer has two sisters still in Iraq while his mother, father and brother have fled to Dubai. Khyara has two brothers and a sister in Jordan. They fear for their safety and decline to have their picture taken lest the photos be seen in Iraq, jeopardizing family members.

The men are eager to begin English classes so they can find jobs. Khyara would like to work as an accountant or computer technician.

Asked whether he will resume his medical career once he learns English, Sameer raises his palms above his shoulders like a man trying to catch sunlight.

"Inshallah," he says, looking a bit teary. The interpreter does not bother to translate.

God willing.