Meet Nasser Al Saadun, your neighbor from Basra, Iraq. In 2008, he resettled in Harrisonburg with his family after seeking refugee status in Lebanon. They fled their war-torn city in search of safety and peace to raise their children.
“In 2004, the militia kidnapped my father, thinking it was me,” Al Saadun said in a recent interview. “They were looking for me because I was an interpreter for Americans. They took him, and they killed him.” The danger could not end without leaving the country, so they sought refuge first in Syria and then in a Lebanese refugee camp for three years to await United Nations refugee status.
In 2008, the UN assigned the family to the United States. At the time, he and his wife had one 3 year-old child. Now, they have four children, ages twelve, eight, five, and eight months.
His family resettled directly to Harrisonburg and has lived here ever since.
Safety was the biggest concern for Al Saadun and his wife upon arrival. “Our kids are our fortune,” he said. Before resettling, everything he knew about life in America came from American movies. “We [had] in mind drugs, robbers, these sorts of things. We didn’t know anything except, you know, action movies. So we were scared, and we didn’t have people we could contact and ask, Hey, how’s the life there?” When Al Saadun came, there were only a handful of refugee families in Harrisonburg.
“It’s different now,” Al Saadun said. “Now when I ask people, when we welcome them in the airport, they say, ‘Oh, we know Harrisonburg. There’s this, and this, and this…’ I’m surprised, [and] say, ‘How did you hear?’ [They say,] ‘Well, we contact people, they write blogs, and it’s all Harrisonburg, Harrisonburg, Harrisonburg.’”
Al Saadun finds passion in helping newcomers adjust to the area. He volunteers with a group under the Refugee Resettlement Office to welcome incoming refugees, helping to make their first impression of Harrisonburg a positive one. The group helps provide hot food, furniture, cleaning services, and interpretation. “We also translated the DMV booklet for the license,” Al Saadun said. “Transportation is very important. It’s not a luxury here—it’s a must.”
Outside of volunteering, Al Saadun teaches Arabic part-time at JMU. He also partners in a local restaurant called Babylon.
Al Saadun brings to the community “a way of living with diversity,” he said. He can be a “role model for a refugee that can add not only a number to the community, but a collective member that can assist financially.” He also brings credentials from his own country. “I brought my experience as an English teacher and I started teaching English for the newcomers.”
When he had lived here for five years, Al Saadun applied for citizenship. He described the process. After five years, security checks, an English and civil test, “if everything’s clear, you qualify. You pass. Simple.” The process is simple if you follow the rules, follow the law, and if you want to be a part of the community, he said.
The simplicity becomes complicated when you do not get to know your community. “It will be difficult if you entered and didn’t learn the language, because that means that you didn’t want to be a part of this community to communicate,” he said. “It will be difficult if you stay in a closed area without communicating with others, without knowing the culture of this country, the history. … Once you think that this is your country, it’s better.”
Al Saadun appreciates the welcoming attitude of his community, especially in light of the political atmosphere. “Right now, thankfully, I didn’t notice any [difference in attitudes]. On the contrary, my wife is telling me that she’s seen more welcoming after the new executive order. She’s wearing hijab, and she’s seeing more welcoming from people.”
When asked if he misses Iraq, most people are surprised when he says no. “I find here my dignity,” he said. “I find here my identity. This country allows me to worship whatever I want in the way I want.” America offers Al Saadun human rights, education, health, and safety. “That’s the country I should care for.”
Al Saadun wants his community to know there is nothing to fear about refugees. “They spend years in security checks in order to come here. No one dares to hide information. If there’s even 1% suspicion, they pick you up.” Refugees have sacrificed to come here, sacrificed their time waiting for the hope of being able to raise their families in safety.
“They have families like you,” he said. “They would love to have their families live at peace in a healthy community. And they want to be a part of the community. If you accept them of what they are, they will give you more than you think, of love, [and] respect.”
– Liesl Graber