- Associated Press - Monday, June 26, 2017

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Nassil Abdullah galloped sideways, her sneakers toeing the faded blue boundary line of the soccer field.

“Go! Go! Go!” she screamed, her cries cutting through the noise of several youth soccer games on a cloudless Saturday morning at Merrel Medley Park in south Oklahoma City.

A few paces away, wearing a green T-shirt with the word “COACH” printed across the back in thick, white letters, her husband Estabraq Al-Adhami picked key moments to call out to his players, his calm composure a contrast to his wife’s unbridled enthusiasm.

The couple’s older daughter, Hala, 9, was playing in the final game of the season with her YMCA team, the Stars. Nearby, their other daughter, Lamar, 6, and a friend pushed a pink plastic Jeep across empty bleachers, oblivious to the on-field action.

Soccer games have become a beloved part of the family’s busy schedule since coming to the United States nearly five years ago.

The Oklahoman (https://bit.ly/2sTqGZO ) reports that Estabraq, 46, an Iraqi, and Nassil, 37, a Palestinian, arrived in Oklahoma from Lebanon in September 2012 with their two young daughters, determined to forge a brighter future for their family. Like many other refugees resettled in the United States, their family’s journey to get to this point was long and difficult, at times solitary, and filled with sacrifices and challenges. But it has been worth it, the couple said.

At a time when President Donald Trump is seeking to suspend refugee admissions to the country, they are grateful to call the United States home.

“We’re just trying to take advantage of every single minute because we really appreciate everything,” Nassil said.

Many refugees now living in the Oklahoma City area feel uneasy in the wake of President Trump’s executive order that, in part, seeks a 120-day suspension of refugee admissions. Even though the courts have blocked the ban from taking effect, many were unwilling to share their stories, worried about possible repercussions.

Nassil hopes that talking about her family’s experiences will help combat misconceptions and give people a “real impression” of who refugees are.

“We are normal people,” Nassil said on a recent weekday evening, wearing a tank top that read “Running Late is My Cardio.”

Her husband, just home from his job as a lead maintenance worker at the Oklahoma County Juvenile Bureau and still in his work uniform, added, “We work hard for our life.”

Between Jan. 1, 2007, and Dec. 31, 2016, Oklahoma took in 3,047 refugees from 20 countries, according U.S. State Department. The vast majority - 2,404 - were from Myanmar, followed by Iraq (279), Eritrea (84), Somalia (36), and Ukraine (36).

Of those, about 1,300, from 14 different countries, were settled in Oklahoma City, with assistance from Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.

Nassil is thankful that their girls are growing up in a country where their cares center on things like school and what they’re going to wear and what sport they’re going to play - unlike the thoughts of children in war-torn countries who worry about survival and for whom sleeping is a privilege. She and Estabraq don’t like to think about the tumultuous environment or the hardships they left behind.

“We’re lucky to be able to forget,” Nassil said.

Seated on a brown, L-shaped couch in her family’s living room, Nassil spread out a stack of her daughters’ scholastic awards - everything from a trophy for outstanding citizenship to certificates for reading 169 library books and making the honor roll.

Like any proud parent, Nassil beams about her daughters’ accomplishments. She and her husband focus so much on education, she said, because they believe that’s what takes people places.

“If they are educated, I don’t think anything will stop them,” Nassil said of the girls. “Especially being here now.”

The United States is a country of freedom and opportunities, she said, where hard work is rewarded.

“Unfortunately, in our countries now, it reached a point where no matter what you do, there’s no improvement,” Nassil said of her home country. “You can’t do anything. You can’t progress. You can’t have a future for your kids.”

In May 2008, a brief period of gun battles between Hezbollah supporters and government supporters broke out in the streets of Beirut. Snipers roamed the rooftops around Nassil and Estabraq’s home. Nearly nine months pregnant, Nassil dragged her mattress into an interior hallway, away from the windows. She thought she’d be safest there.

She slept in her clothes, not knowing when she might need to run. She prayed nothing would go wrong with her pregnancy because she didn’t know how she would get to a hospital. The day after hearing news of a truce, Nassil’s water broke. She delivered Hala several weeks early, she believes, because of stress caused by the violence and turmoil.

Nassil said the family’s last couple of years in Lebanon were like living near a volcano ready to explode, with occasional gunfire, school lockdowns and heavily armed civilians who would sometimes stop people in the streets and demand to see identification.

Nassil and her husband were used to living in that type of environment. She remembered taking shelter as a child in the basement of the building where her family lived during the Lebanese Civil War, which spanned 15 years and resulted in an estimated 150,000 deaths. To this day, thunder wakes her because the sound reminds her of the bombs she used to hear.

Nassil and Estabraq wanted a different life for their daughters.

“No matter where you live in the Middle East, all Middle Eastern kids live through war and know what war is,” Nassil said. “There’s no safety.”

Estabraq fled Iraq in the late-1990s when he was in his 20s. He declined to discuss the details surrounding his departure, citing concerns for family who still live there.

He applied for refugee status in Lebanon. Estabraq paid about $1,000 a year for a permanent residence card and had to have someone who was Lebanese sponsor him. Often, people were sponsored by their employer and worried they could lose their sponsorship at a moment’s notice should their employer have no more use for them.

As a Palestinian in Lebanon, Nassil faced her own challenges. Despite being born in the country, she was denied employment opportunities because of her Palestinian nationality. Lebanon bars Palestinians from working in a number of professions.

“I reached a point that before I (would) go apply to a job, I would call and ask, ‘Is it OK if I’m Palestinian?’ as if it’s a disease because I got turned down so many times,” Nassil said.

She managed to get a teaching job at a school desperate to fill a mid-year opening. The school’s principal watched Nassil teach a lesson as part of the interview process. Afterward, Nassil overheard the principal on the phone saying, ‘What can I do? That’s the only person I found that the kids loved, and she did a great job.’ “

The school gave Nassil a shot, and she went on to be named Teacher of the Year. She was decorating her classroom when she and Estabraq got word their family could come to the United States.

Nearly 15 years had passed since Estabraq first applied for refugee status. The family had just 15 days to pack - allowed to bring just eight suitcases among the four of them.

A U.S. Embassy official had warned the couple that nothing was official until their feet touched American soil. Estabraq spent the entire 26-hour journey - from Lebanon to London to Chicago to Oklahoma City - worried it could all be taken away.

Before coming to the U.S., the family went through background checks, health screenings and at least 10 interviews, each time taking a day off work and bringing their young daughters for the all-day affair.

Officials would never tell them the status of their case. They had to keep their phones nearby at all times because if an official called them about making an appointment and they missed the call, they would miss their opportunity.

Sometimes months would pass with no updates and no movement in their case.

The wait was worth it, they said.

“I’m here so my kids will have a better future, will see how . people respect you no matter what color you are, no matter where you’re from, no matter what your religion is,” Nassil said. “That’s what we knew about America. That it’s the country of freedom. You’re free. People will protect you as long as you’re not hurting anyone. I don’t want this to change for them.”

Nassil is a paraprofessional for Moore Public Schools, working one-on-one with special needs students. She always makes sure students stand during the Pledge of Allegiance.

Nassil said she understands the fearful climate that exists among some Americans and people having concerns about safety. She wants the United States to be safe, too.

After all, her family lives here.

Refugees who settle here are protective of the United States, Nassil said. They don’t want to harm the country; they want a new chance in life, and they want to contribute to society, she said.

“We appreciate everything,” Nassil said. “Every single thing.”

Arriving in Oklahoma City, the family moved into a two-bedroom apartment with a small TV, a love seat and metal bed frames.

Within months, the couple started paying the government back for their plane tickets to the United States - $99 a month until they had repaid the entire $4,000.

Within the first month, Estabraq, who didn’t speak English, had an assembly line job.

Although he had years of experience doing HVAC work in Lebanon, he needed a license to do the same type of work in the United States.

For about a year, Estabraq spent hours every night after work and on the weekends studying for the licensing test, which he passed.

Estabraq has since received several other certifications. Next, he’s planning to apply for a contractor license.

“He’s rocking it,” Nassil said proudly as she showed off two wooden plaques her husband received for being named “Support Employee of the Year and for a Making a Difference Award.

Nearby, a vase of red and yellow flowers adorned the center of the family’s dining table. The flowers were a gift from one of Nassil’s students during Teacher Appreciation Week. Nassil has volunteered to make colorful decorations for her school for testing week and other occasions, including posters and cutouts of characters from Pokemon, “Inside Out” and “Star Wars.” The posters were so popular among the students that school officials decided to raffle them off as a fundraiser.

The principal at Nassil’s school asks her when she’s going to get a teaching certification to teach in the United States. One day, the principal gave Nassil a note that said: “I would love to have you one day as a teacher.”

“When we tell our story, they tell us, ‘Oh, you’re living the American dream,’” Nassil said. “Well, we worked hard, we tried, did our best not to be dependent.”

In 2014, Nassil and Estabraq bought their first home - a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in south Oklahoma City. The couple couldn’t buy a house in Lebanon because Palestinians aren’t allowed to own property there.

Their family is embracing American life and traditions. The couple flipped through photos on their cellphones from their first five years in the U.S.

In one, the family is dressed in Halloween costumes. In another, the girls are dressed up for Future Career Day at school. Hala is a doctor; Lamar a police officer. Another photo shows Nassil and the girls wearing red, white and blue for the Fourth of July. In another, Lamar holds her ponytail she cut to donate to Locks of Love.

Their family is so thankful to be here, Nassil said. They want to make the most of every opportunity. They are counting down the days until they can apply for U.S. citizenship later this month.

“We’re so excited and scared,” Nassil said with a laugh. “But hoping for the best.”

After the referee blew the final whistle of Hala’s season finale, Nassil clutched her right hand to her chest.

She had spent the entire game in motion, at times jumping up and down with her dark brown ponytail swishing behind her and other times leaning to the right, her balance teetering on one foot as if she could will the ball into the other team’s goal.

“Oh my goodness!” Nassil said. “That was so stressful!”

“Good job, guys,” Estabraq said, clapping for his team. “Thank you parents.”

Nassil hung a medal around each player’s neck and handed out goodie bags filled with sweatbands, stickers and soccer trophies with each child’s name that she had stayed up after practice the night before assembling.

“That’s from the coach,” she said.

Wearing their new medals, the players flashed thumbs-up signs and posed for a photo with Estabraq.

When Estabraq first decided to volunteer as a coach, Nassil wasn’t sure how it would work out. She worried the kids wouldn’t understand his accent or the parents would think he took the game too seriously. Estabraq played volleyball on the Iraq national team, so athletics are important to him.

After the final game, Estabraq apologized to the parents if he was ever too hard on the kids. They argued his apology with applause, a chorus of appreciation and other tokens of thanks.

One parent gave Estabraq a jar of homemade grape jelly. A red-haired boy ran up and gave him a hug, and a blonde-haired girl asked if he was going to coach again next season. She wasn’t the only one who wanted to know.

Estabraq and Nassil hope to be able to stay with the same group of kids next year. After all, the parents have gotten used to Nassil’s wild cheers, they joked. Estabraq told the team that he and Hala will be practicing this summer. He invited the rest of the players to join them.

Then, he and Nassil packed up their belongings, including a blue folding chair that sat empty for the duration of the game. As their family headed back to the car for the short drive home, Estabraq and Nassil were already looking forward to next season.

“We’re proud of what we’re doing,” Nassil said, “and we’re happy.”


Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com

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