- Associated Press - Saturday, January 18, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - “So, here’s a snapshot of our life,” said Marcy Luek, a smile creeping across her face.

“We’re in the car, Israa and I, taking Maryam, the baby, to Children’s Hospital for her checkup. Danna, 4, is in the back, singing, ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round … more! more! … The wipers on the bus go swish, swish, swish!’ Israa whips out her cell phone and calls her mother in Iraq. She wanted her mom to hear Danna singing in English! They are so proud of her.”

So it goes with this blended family, Mohammed Mahmod and his wife, Israa Younus, from Iraq, their two children, ages 4 and 6 months, born in this country, and Luek, a retired teacher from Richland, whose lives have become intertwined.

When Mahmod considered immigrating to the United States from war-ravaged Iraq his friends discouraged him. “You’ll end up under the bridge,” they warned him. Quite the opposite. Mahmod and his family are, if not on top of the world, close to it.

The Iraqi family resides in a cozy home in Richland, which is connected to a new addition where Luek, 65, now lives. Mahmod is working for U.S. Bank’s Pittsburgh office at Station Square as an accounting service representative.

There have been many twists and turns on this family’s journey.

Mahmod had a small business in Baghdad in March 2003. “When the invasion came, I went to the roof of my house and said, ‘Wow! It’s freedom!’ But the situation was not as we expected. We thought we would live better, but the reality is that the 90 percent who cheered the invasion now say things are worse and they wish (former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein) were back. That doesn’t mean he is a good guy. In Iraq, we have a saying: ‘If you face death, you’ll accept the fever.’ “

During the conflict Mahmod, fluent in English, worked for the U.S. Army as a translator and did distribution work for an American corporation. The decision to immigrate was easy for him. His father had been a pilot for Iraqi Airways, and the family had traveled a lot. But for his wife, seven months pregnant and not speaking English, the decision to leave her parents was difficult.

They came to Pittsburgh in 2009, supported by the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh, and settled in an apartment in the North Hills. Younus knew that she must learn English.

“That was the thread that connected us,” said Luek, who was asked through her church, Pittsburgh Friends Meeting in Shadyside, to tutor the young mother in English.

The tutoring evolved into a close friendship and a lifeline to the likable young couple, who also became an important part of Luek’s life.

The couple returned to Iraq to visit Younus‘ parents and were uncertain if they would return to the U.S. Mahmod had been unable to find work here, and they were still feeling isolated, but they decided to come back.

Things improved when he got jobs as a parking lot attendant and a security guard. Also, his sister and brother-in-law moved here, as well as his mother, providing family support. The relatives live in Crafton.

But with his education and language fluency, he wanted a better job. Through an intensive mentoring program, specifically tailored to a group of Iraqi refugees, Mahmod learned how to create a polished resume and prepare for interviews.

“My mentor, Allison Evans, who works for Wesco, met with me every week and taught me lots of things, like how to make eye contact. We don’t do that back home,” he said. “Here it means, if you don’t make eye contact, that you have no interest. And she taught me about ‘elevator speech,’ like when you say, ‘Hey, nice weather.’ … You know, small talk.”

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