- Associated Press - Saturday, August 15, 2015

LOWELL, Mass. (AP) - Mohamad Pyriadi recalls finishing up his residency in 1995 when he faced an order from Saddam Hussein’s government: Chop off the ears of military defectors.

He remembers when one victim was brought to his Baghdad hospital for the punishment. He thought it was inhumane.

“We are doctors to treat people, not to disfigure people,” he said, arguing that he couldn’t stand it anymore. “I’m a doctor, not a butcher.”

Pyriadi knew then: He had to leave Iraq.

In Lowell, Pyriadi is among some 600 other Iraqis who’ve dodged danger, bobbing and weaving through other Arabic countries before arriving here.

Their youngest children are immersed in English in the city’s public schools. Their oldest children have graduated high school and are on their way to higher education.

But the adults of Lowell’s Iraqi community have seen something that their younger generation has largely not - Hussein’s regime, the invasion of Kuwait, and the false hope of a better future for Iraq.

Escaping would not be easy. Doctors and engineers were not allowed to leave the country.

Pyriadi faked a passport as a businessman to cross the borders into Jordan, leaving behind papers that proved he had medical training.

Erasing his six years of higher education at Saddam College was worth it.

“After the invasion of Kuwait and after long wars with Iran for eight years, the idea in the community is that this army is not for the country,” Pyriadi said. “This army is to serve a person and a family.”

He found medical work in Yemen, where regulations were less strict, making a measly $200 a month. He met a patient, Baraka, who would later become his wife.

Back in Iraq, trouble still managed to find his parents. Both professors at Baghdad College of Science, they were threatened around 2003, Pyriadi said.

His father wrote an article on how to get rid of the terrorism that was leaching into the country, and afterward he received a phone call to their house.

“They said ‘We know you, we know your house, we know your address,’” Pyriadi said. “He said, ‘You are harming us with these articles, you are affecting our strategy, our tactics, so if you don’t stop you’ll be killed.’”

His mother, he said, returned from a lecture one day to a small envelope with two bullets inside.

His parents sought refuge in Jordan. Meanwhile, he and his wife had their first three daughters in Yemen.

Watching Hussein fall from afar, Pyriadi thought Iraq would rebuild, becoming successful like Germany and Japan after World War II.

“But it was the opposite … worse conditions than before,” he said. “All our dreams were collapsed, really.”

After he moved his family to Jordan to care for his parents, he told workers from the United Nations Refugee Agency his story.

Meanwhile, he supported his family working under the name of a Jordanian doctor. Even after completing another degree in radiology, he said, he could not get approval to work.

“The first day we came here to America, within a month or less we got our permit for authorization to work,” he said. “You see the difference in thinking?”

The family arrived in Lowell in 2013, moving out of downtown to the comfortable apartment on Pawtucket Boulevard.

Pyriadi worries about his daughters, in a new country with new customs. He takes comfort knowing that they were told at school to keep away from boys. Be aware of their surroundings, he tells them.

At school, his daughter Shereen shares her heritage with the class by pointing to a country she has never seen.

“They are happy to be here, really,” he said. His daughters sit around the kitchen table, browsing their electronic devices. “They say, ‘This is our country. Not Iraq. Not Yemen.’ “

Pyriadi said life in Lowell is a chance to start something new for his daughters. He works caring for his elderly parents, while his wife works at Golden Fleece Manufacturing in Haverhill.

“My investment now is my kids here, because now I’m not a doctor in front of the government,” he said. “I told them, ‘We are spending all our money and our time and our energy for you, so don’t let us down. Complete what we cannot do now.’ “

Abdul Khadim Al-Sheikh became a lawyer in 1970 because he wanted to achieve justice.

Perhaps the biggest legal ruling of his life was the one that posed such a danger to it - in 2004, he said, he was chosen as a judge for the special tribunal that prosecuted Hussein and his regime.

The 73-year-old keeps certificates of his legal training sessions. They include a U.S. Defense Institute seminar on crimes against humanity, international criminal law teachings from the UN, and more.

The ruling that Al-Sheikh helped deliver along with 21 other judges ultimately led the country’s dictator to death.

After Hussein’s death sentence in 2006, Hussein’s supporters remained in the country. Al-Sheikh feared for his life.

Now in Lowell with his daughter and son-in-law, he gets by with a monthly payment of $540 for him and his wife, he said. His English is limited, so he shares his story with his son-in-law as a translator.

His feelings on the current state of his homeland are succinct. “Very, very, very, bad,” he says. It makes him sad.

Sitting down with an interview for an Iraqi show on the Lowell Telecommunications Corp. channel, the focus is on the future.

The show is the brainchild of former Babylon restaurant owner Ahmad Al-Zubaidi, a journalist who says he also received death threats after reporting on Hussein’s crimes.

Al-Zubaidi got the idea for a TV show after noticing all the Iraqis who came into his restaurant. He realized nobody knew about them.

“He started the idea to focus on them, to let people know about them,” said Hajj Wafaa, an Iraqi calligraphy specialist who just wrapped up an interview on Al-Zubaidi’s show. “What did they do when they came here, what they are doing, how they are successful in their life here.”

Al-Zubaidi sees himself as a head of Lowell’s Iraqi community.

Right now, Al-Zubaidi sees a problem with some people who try to put a bad image on Iraqis. In 2012, his restaurant on Merrimack Street was vandalized with a stone thrown through the window.

His goal with the TV show, Wafaa translates for him, is to shed light on Iraqi people who were specialists in their craft - art, medicine, or academia.

Does he ever miss Iraq? Wafaa laughs as he listens to his answer.

“He dreams every minute to live in Iraq,” Wafaa says. “To go to Iraq.”

Mahmood Alani spends almost every minute of every day fearing for his family.

The husband and father worked for the government both before and after Hussein’s reign, but he decided to flee for political and religious reasons. For safety purposes, he’d rather not specify.

He came into the U.S. for a business trip in 2011, he said, when he got a visa from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

He never left.

“My main goal is to run away, not to attend the conference,” he said.

His plan was to file for asylum, so that he could bring his family into the country with him. Four years later, he sits in limbo here in Lowell - still waiting for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to process his request.

“I cannot go to my country, (it’s) not easy to go to another country,” he said. “I don’t know when and where I’m going to meet my family again.”

Without a decision on his asylum status, he said, he doesn’t know his next step. If he goes to another country, he argues, they will ask where he’s coming from and simply send him back to the U.S.

“I could leave the country, I could take my bag and go to the airport, but where?” he said. “If Europe, I have to get a visa.”

For years, Alani has tried in vain to seek an answer - he keeps papers from InfoPass, the USCIS appointment service, and correspondence with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office. Nothing has helped.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, his wife receives financial help from family as she takes care of their children, he said.

“She is very tired without me, alone,” he said. “In my country, it’s different from the U.S. We don’t allow our wives to work, the main job for her is to take care of kids in house.”

Alani said he can’t sleep some nights, and with a seven-hour difference he is constantly calling or texting home.

“Iraq is not safe from 2003, after the war, until now,” he said, noting groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “They killed Christians, Sunni, Shiia. ISIS, they are very bad entity borne in Iraq and Syria now, and I don’t know how they’re going to stop these people.”

USCIS cannot comment on individual cases. The agency allows pending asylum applicants to apply for work authorization while they await their decision.

Alani said he has his work authorization, and has worked various jobs in the past. He is not very active, however, with other Iraqi families in the community.

“I don’t have time to do something funny or laughing in my life now,” he said. “Maybe if you see my face, smile, but inside I am sad.”

The only person who has helped him in his dilemma, Alani said, is the American in whose house he lives.

“The Iraqi people, they still need help,” he said. “They don’t have enough power to help me.”

Until his case is decided, Alani will live in the two worlds he has balanced for four years, his body in Lowell but his mind constantly in Iraq.

His family would like to join him, he said.

“They believe I could draw the future to them,” he said. “I believe there is a lot of opportunity in this country.”


Information from: The (Lowell, Mass.) Sun, https://www.lowellsun.com

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