In Play with Tom Markowski

Dearborn family escaped Iraq war to give their children a better life

Football   | Tom Markowski

Dearborn family escaped Iraq war to give their children a better life

Dearborn – How quickly we forget.

A vast majority of our thoughts drift way in an instant only to be replaced by other thoughts destined to be forgotten. Other memories linger but are often clouded by the passing of time.

For Lina Khaleefah the horrors her and her family witnessed of war and bloodshed are both real and contained in the past. She can’t forget what happened. Khaleefah can only place them on a shelf in the back corners of her mind, speaking of them only when asked.


The road to freedom


Khaleefah, her husband, Mohmmed, and their three children, the youngest an infant, escaped Iraq’s civil war a decade ago. To Syria they fled and on to Egypt before arriving in the United States in 2007.

After living in Harrisonburg, Virginia, for three years, the Khaleefahs moved to Dearborn. Their journey would end here, and their new lives would begin. Mustafa, the eldest child, was nine. His sister, Sarah, seven and the youngest, Ahmed, a toddler. School for Mustafa and Sarah would be difficult at first. English was still a new language for them but they had the willingness to learn.

They would struggle with school work and, at times, socially as they melted in with others of similar ethnicity. They were greeted with open arms by family and later by friends but what was most important to Lina and Mohmmed is that their children, at long last, were safe.

“It was very bad,” Lina said of the war. “We kept on going to funerals. You never knew who was going to come and do the killing. That was the scariest part. You didn’t know your enemy.

“It was the bombing. They started bombing the bakery first. Then they started killing the doctors, then the teachers. It was bad. It was chaos. The summer of 2006…got bad. My husband’s cousin got killed. We packed our clothes and went to live with my parents. We tried to put our children in school. Then the kidnapping started. So we didn’t. They wanted to kill my husband. They put him on a list.

“There were killings in front of our house. Nobody knows who they were. They would come on motorcycles, start shooting and go off.”

Lina was sure of one thing. She and her husband had to protect their children. If that meant leaving Bagdad, so be it. If that meant Lina would have to leave her parents, they would do that, too.

“That was the problem,” she said. “I don’t care about my life. (The children) is what you think about.”

Lina and Mohmmed both worked. She was a civil engineer, Mohmmed worked on cars, restoring and reselling them. They had money to travel and had family, in Syria, Egypt and the U.S., willing to aid them in their quest.

But travel was not always easy. There were thousands attempting to flee the war. Time was running out. Going from Iraq to Syria was easy. But traveling from Syria to Egypt became more difficult as time moved on. It became a numbers’ game.

“It was hard getting into Egypt,” Lina said. “We were one of the last ones to leave. My parents are still in Iraq. To go to the United States, we got a work visa. I’m a civil engineer. They gave me and my children a visa. My husband had to stay in Egypt. For three months. It wasn’t easy. It’s all about the kids. He said even if he wasn’t able to come (to the U.S.) that it was best for the kids. We tried not to think about it.”

Eventually, Mohmmed was able to obtain a visa but the reunion had to be put on hold for a few hours. The timing of his arrival in Virginia was a bit off.

“I remember crying at the airport (in Egypt) when we left,” Mustafa said. “When (my father) did come, he woke me up at two in the morning. I hugged him and went back to sleep. When I got up later it was better. We were able to talk, and we cried.”

Even as the eldest, Mustafa, now 17, has few vivid memories of living in Iraq. But some of the horrors will stay forever. Playing in the streets or on dirt fields with a soccer ball will remain as snapshots of the good times.

“It was dangerous,” he said. “We lived next to a school. My dad said it was too dangerous just to go to school. There were good time