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Iraqi refugee wants America to remain welcoming place


GRAND FORKS -- Hussam Al-Kayali, who in 2007 became the first Iraqi refugee to settle in Grand Forks, said in a 2010 interview that he still sometimes wanted to cry over all he had lost, including his professional identity, but he also had found much here: work, friends, peace and security.

Add purpose to that list. On Thursday, Al-Kayali will be at the U.S. Capitol, part of a delegation of former refugees urging Congress to keep the nation's doors open to people who are forced, as he was, to flee their homeland.

"America is a great place for refugees to come," he said. "It is a country built by pioneers from various cultures. ... It gives widely diverse people opportunities as individuals and communities to live, work, grow and share."

Since he arrived in Grand Forks with his family -- wife Rabab Abdulwah and three children -- Al-Kayali, 55, has volunteered with Lutheran Social Services' New American Services and the Global Friends Coalition, which work with new arrivals.

The visit to the Capitol on Thursday, World Refugee Day, was organized by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which advocates "comprehensive immigration reform with better protections for refugees and other vulnerable people fleeing persecution," according to a statement released by the service.

"I feel a responsibility toward this country," Al-Kayali said before leaving for Washington. "This country gave us an opportunity to start over, and it continues to be a welcoming place. How can we repay it for all the advantages we get from this country?"

The United Nations established June 20 as world refugee day to raise awareness of the estimated 15 million refugees who have been forced to flee their homes due to persecution, war and other violent conflict.

'A moving story'

Katie Dachtler, resettlement coordinator for New American Services in Grand Forks, said refugees and those who work with them are watching the immigration reform debate carefully. One concern is how changes could affect refugees' ability to travel and see family members overseas.

"We are excited and happy that someone like him (Al-Kayali) could go and advocate for himself and for other refugees coming to this country," she said.

Cynthia Shabb, program director for the Global Friends Coalition, said Al-Kayali shared his personal story at a May workshop organized by the coalition.

"It was a moving story that helped those attending understand the loss that comes from being uprooted from one's homeland," she said. "Hussam is proud of his accomplishments and wants to give back to those who have helped him along the way."

Robin David, Global Friends president, remembers greeting the Al-Kayali family at the airport in 2007.

"I marveled at their composure and graciousness after such a long journey, both physically and emotionally," she said. "It was clear they had so many qualities that would help them be successful here," and the coalition "benefited from Hussam's advice on refugee integration in our community."

'Feels like home'

After earning master's and doctorate degrees in business in Baghdad, Al-Kayali worked there as a professor and associate dean from 1996 to 2002. He taught in Jordan from 2002 to 2007, when -- reluctant to return to war-torn Iraq -- he was allowed to bring his family to the United States.

He is operations manager at Young Manufacturing in Grand Forks, a position he has held since 2008. Once asked by a co-worker about his ambitions, he said it was to be able to speak English as well as the co-worker -- and to feel at home in his new city, his new country.

"Absolutely, this feels like home to me now," he said. "I have wonderful friendships. There is still a level of challenges and difficulties in making a new life in a new country. There is still the language barrier. ... but it is getting better."

He said he wants to make the transition smoother for new refugees.

"Somalia, Liberia, Vietnam, Iraq -- we're here from all over," he said. He wants to thank members of Congress for his family's new start, he said, and express "hope that America will keep its commitment to protecting refugees overseas. Too many lives depend on it."