'I'm an Iraqi Refugee Who Settled in the U.S. Now I Help Trauma Victims'

I was young when I left Iraq, just 13-years-old. At that time the relationship between Iran and Iraq had broken down, and they had been at war for about a year. My parents began to hear rumors that Saddam Hussein was drafting younger men to fight. My three brothers are younger than me, so my dad was really concerned about their safety.

My dad arranged for us to flee to Greece in 1981, since my uncle Adnan was there at that time. He arranged it to seem like a holiday to Greece, so we travelled through former Yugoslavia, then we got a train to Greece.

When we arrived in Greece we registered with the British Red Cross as refugees. But we weren't able to enter the U.S. for four and a half years due to limits on immigration by President Ronald Reagan's administration. During that time two of my younger brothers and I had to work to support the family.

We arrived on June 18, 1985—we have just celebrated our 35th anniversary of living America. We stayed with my uncle Adnan for a month until we were able to rent a house and move out. The first few years after our arrival, we had to learn the hard way, it was "trial and error" basically. But we learned valuable lessons from our experiences.

I still live in Michigan, I've been living here with my three brothers and my parents since 1985. Sadly, my father passed away four years ago.

After we arrived, we were determined to stand on our feet, even with the limited resources and services available for refugees at that time—we worked, we went to school and built our lives though we didn't have much.

But I was not fond of high school. It was strange and scary as I had missed four and a half years of schooling. I had the feeling that people did not want us to be there or to succeed, though the teachers were wonderful with us, especially my biology teacher Ms. David. But I was frustrated I could not speak English and I struggled to make friends, except one good friend, Suha.

After high school, I completed a bachelor's degree in psychology and a masters in clinical social work, both at Wayne State University, Michigan. I was married, I have a daughter who is 22-years-old, but unfortunately my marriage didn't work out.

I didn't really know how to treat refugees, even though I was one, but I was told I just needed to provide therapy for them.

After completing my Masters in 2008, I worked in the ER in several Michigan hospitals as a social worker. Then an HR recruiter from another Michigan hospital contacted me and about a position for a bilingual clinical social worker, working with refugees. At that time, in 2009, the UNHCR had been able to help resettle Iraqi refugees in the U.S. after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in 2003.

These Iraqi refugees started to arrive in Michigan as it is the state with the biggest population of Iraqis and Chaldean Catholics. I didn't really know how to treat refugees, even though I was one, but I was told I just needed to provide therapy for them. I did it for several years and it was very intensive work. But I learned from them, and they learned from me.

Although I lost my job in 2011, the following year was actually very prosperous for me. Because of my work with refugees I was accepted into a program at Harvard Medical School's Global Mental Health Trauma and Recovery Certificate Training Program. I had been encouraged by others to take it over the years, and that year I did.

It was a very intensive program, but on it I met the journalist and refugee advocate Omar Bah. He encouraged me to join Refugee Congress, which is supported by the UNHCR, representing Michigan. I've learned a lot from the group, they gave me a push to go to Washington and taught me how to meet Congress members and advocate for refugees.

Around that time, I also established St. Rita Family Services Inc and St. Rita Hands of Hope and through my work with the state I have incorporated working with refugees. Believe it or not, there are still people who think that refugees are illegal. I have been asked if refugees who enter the U.S do so legally and have had to explain that being a refugee is not illegal.

In 2014 ISIS began invading Christian villages in Northern Iraq and capturing Yazidi women and girls. I had previously been attempting to establish a trauma center in Iraq but had so far failed.

Then, while I was helping my village, Alqosh, in 2014 I met a Chaldean priest, Father Araam Romeel Hanna Qia, who provides aid to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) and helps to settle some of them in Alqosh. Through our work, we were able to establish and co-found New Hope Trauma Center of Iraq in Alqosh and Telesqoof. Both of which are still operational.

In America, refugees have safety, security and freedom. I see a lot of refugee mothers and they tell me that they don't have to worry when they take their kids to school because they know they are coming back. My parents felt the same when we came to America, they knew they could send us to school and we would come back.

Refugee, Iraq, America
Jihan Daman arrived in the U.S. as a refugee in 1985. She has lived and worked in Michigan for 35 years. JIHAN DAMAN

I'm 52 now, but when I was 34 years old, I was going through a divorce and I decided to go to school to complete my Masters, and open an agency. So the ability to excel doesn't stop at a certain point or age in the U.S. You can fly and fall and get up again. You might have obstacles or people who want to knock you down— and I've lived through that—but I've managed to keep going.

You cannot just pick up and leave your country unless you are forced or people are going to lose their lives if you stay.

I also don't have to be afraid if I need to express my opinion. And I have freedom of religion, I can go and practice as a Chaldean Catholic and I'm not afraid that I am going to get killed. Religious persecution has been an issue for Chaldeans for hundreds of years. Here in Michigan the Chaldean community is very strong, and the churches have a great leader; Bishop Francis Y. Kalabat.

Unfortunately, there are extremists, but I can vouch that it is an extremely tiny portion of refugees who might be a bad apple. The rest are here simply because they don't have a sense of security and freedom in their own home.

You cannot just pick up and leave your country unless you are forced or people are going to lose their lives if you stay. People who do not agree with refugees may not realize that refugees are vulnerable. Imagine living in a house with cars, living normally and somebody comes in and says, "you need to leave within 24 hours".
And all of a sudden, you've lost everything.

I have treated so many refugees and heard so many stories like this. One man I treated as a therapist was having real anger issues. He was in his 60s, and he worked in Baghdad and had built two houses. He was so scared for his three boys that he had to leave Iraq in the middle of the night with just their paperwork. He lost both houses.

My question today, on World Refugee Day, to anyone who resists refugees is that if they were faced as a father or as a parent, with this type of dilemma, wouldn't they want another country to accept them, so they can bring a sense of security and freedom to their children?

This is who refugees are. They are people like me, and my brothers. There are millions of refugees who work long hours each day, who go to school, who build communities. That bad minority should not represent the rest of the refugees who are doing good.

Because evil is everywhere and it is not based on whether you are a refugee or not. What we are seeing now, unfortunately, with the George Floyd case, those police were not refugees. But hatred and evil can always be replaced by being compassionate and opening your arms to others.

If I have to, I will go and knock on every door and say to people that there are hundreds of thousands of refugees doing great work. And I will tell them that I was a refugee, and to look at what I have accomplished.

Jihan Daman M.S.W is the Michigan Delegate for the Refugee Congress, and CEO of St. Rita Family Services, Inc. and St. Rita Hands of Hope. She is the co-founder of New Hope Trauma Center of Iraq.

All views expressed in this piece are the writer's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.

'I'm an Iraqi Refugee Who Settled in the U.S. Now I Help Trauma Victims' | My Turn