By Casey Toner
MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — On the run from a death threat, Ahmed Mohammed won’t look back.
And why would he? The 39-year-old Iraqi refugee and his family — Sunni Muslims — have found a home in Mobile, Ala., after they spent four years without a country.
Before they fled, Mohammed worked as a safety inspector for an American contractor that was hired to rebuild Iraq after the U.S. invasion. But the ensuing threat on his life and the violent deaths of his wife’s father and her brother-in-law spurred their exodus. They crossed the northwest border to Syria in 2005, left for Yemen two years later, and were granted refugee status in 2009.
Three years later, after a stint in Fargo, North Dakota, Mohammed and his family relocated to south Alabama with help from Catholic Social Services in Mobile, a city unique in Alabama for providing a home for Iraqi refugees.
Mohammed now has a mortgage on a ranch-style home in a leafy subdivision, runs an international retail store where he puts in 12-hour days and makes enough money to send two of his three children to a local mosque for school.
He talks warmly and effusively about the American dream, the ease of buying a car with credit, of working hard and making something of himself with self-determination and grit.
“To build yourself in Iraq, even if you work hard and save your money, it impossible,” Mohammed said. “Here, it’s easy to build your life. If you work hard and work right, you don’t cheat the bank and you don’t cheat the government, you can build yourself very quick.”
Mohammed is among a growing Iraqi community. A total of 493 Iraqi refugees or Iraqis with special immigrant visas have arrived in Alabama since 2007, according to the U.S. State Department. Separate data from the Department of Homeland Security shows nearly all new Alabama residents from Iraq are in one spot: Mobile.
Most are refugees who depend on local organizations and government assistance to help them integrate into the culture. Last year, the federal government spent $1.1 billion to resettle about 70,000 refugees or about $15,714 per person.
The Iraqi diaspora has had a ripple effect nationwide, as more than 139,955 Iraqi refugees and Iraqis with special visas arrived in U.S. since the 2003 Iraq War, which displaced more than 2 million people. Michigan alone has welcomed 19,630 Iraqi refugees or 198 Iraqis for every 100,000 people since 2007. That’s by far the highest per capita rate in the nation, followed by Arizona and then North Dakota. Alabama, thanks to Mobile, saw 10 Iraqi refugees for every 100,000 residents since 2007.
These figures might come as a surprise to critics who have opposed President Barack Obama’s plan to allow up to 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. Thirty governors including Alabama’s Robert Bentley and numerous members of Congress have called for a halt to the refugee program, with Republican Rep. Bradley Byrne of Fairhope sponsoring a bill that would effectively defund the Syrian refugee program.
In an interview with AL.com, Byrne made a distinction between the Iraqi and Syrian refugees.
“We have a lot more assets on the ground in Iraq than we do in Syria,” Byrne said. “There are ways to make sure we know a lot more about people who are coming from Iraq.”
If Syrian refugees were to come to Alabama, their link to the new world would be Catholic Social Services in Mobile.
The church group has worked with refugees since 1975, when they assisted with Alabama’s then state coordinator to help resettle refugees from Vietnam and other countries, according to Rev. Monsignor Michael Farmer, Mobile archdiocese vicar general. Alabama has discontinued its program and now the Archdiocese of Mobile works directly with the federal government, which vets and selects the refugees.
Families from countries such as Bosnia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, and the former country of Yugoslavia have relocated into Mobile in recent years. The Catholic Social Services eight-person staff, not including volunteers, can help up to 135 refugees a year.
Immigration patterns in Mobile are far different than in the rest of the state.
Birmingham and Huntsville see most new green cards issued to residents of Mexico, India or China. Montgomery sees a large number of new arrivals from South Korea, but that’s also followed by India and China. Statewide, Iraq does not crack the top 10 most common nationalities for new arrivals.
But Iraqis are No. 1 in Mobile. According to Department of Homeland Security data from 2009 to 2013, Mobile saw 205 green cards issued to former residents of Iraq. Vietnam was second.
Ahmed Hameed, sitting on a couch his modest home near Mobile Regional Airport, sips on a cup of tea and offers a reporter a bite of flakey Iraqi-style Baklava. With a sense of pride, the 48-year-old Baghdad native notes that he bought the pastries from an Iraqi distributor from Michigan.
One day, Hameed said he returned to his small retail store in Baghdad and found a letter that read, “We’re going to kill you if you come back.” He fled Iraq, with his wife, two sons, and two daughters in June 2006.
They left the family business in the care of a relative and spent two years in Syria before qualifying as refugees and arriving on June 12, 2008.
An Arabic speaker with little familiarity with the English language, Hameed was at a disadvantage when he arrived stateside. So he took grammar classes and a job as a women’s shoe salesman at Dillard’s in Mobile. There, he is required to speak English to interact with customers.
Two years ago, he, his wife, and their eldest daughter passed the civics test and became American citizens. Hameed’s youngest children became citizens by default. Their entire family has gone to Washington D.C. for vacation.
Asked about the situation in Syria, Hameed says that the U.S. should accept more Syrian refugees because there are “people over there dying every day.”
“I go to Syria,” Hameed said. “It’s happened to me. It’s happened to me and I came to the safe area. I feel them.” (end)