On a recent, muggy afternoon in the city of El Cajon, I hugged Maladh Mohammed Ali in the parking lot of her drab apartment building next to a school.
I hadn’t seen her since we first met, shortly after she stepped off the airplane for the first time in San Diego. She was exhausted then after a multi-day journey from her home in Baghdad.
The Mohammed Ali family arrived in San Diego as refugees five years after Maladh’s son, Mohammed, was killed along with six American soldiers in an explosion in 2008. He had been working as an interpreter for the U.S. military, and had endeared himself to the troops.
Now, six months after arriving in the U.S., Maladh smiled warmly. She looked well in a pale headscarf and stylish, thick-frame sunglasses. Her English was better, though still rough.
But as we walked through the parking lot of her apartment complex, it became clear that things were not going well.
“I hate everything here, really,” she said.
Her apartment has rats and cockroaches, she said. Her husband is too sick to work. And there have been delays in the insurance payments she’s supposed to get from the U.S. government for her son’s death.
“There’s no future,” she said.
We got into her niece Sama’s car, with Sama at the wheel. Maladh doesn’t drive, which, she’s discovering, is a serious handicap in sprawling Southern California.
Maladh had just gotten her first job ever — cleaning rooms at a resort on Mission Bay — but the commute on public transportation proved to be too much.
At best, it was an hour-and-a-half commute each way, the women told me as we drove west on Interstate 8. After four frustrating days, missed busses and tears shed, Maladh gave up.
Now, we were going to pick up her check.
“And I, I’m not young,” Maladh said. “I’m 50. So it’s hard, to me, maybe.”
Most refugees are all too familiar with such false starts.
“I think when refugees first arrive there’s a sense of euphoria,” said Bob Montgomery, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in San Diego. “They’re safe, their families are safe.”
The IRC helps refugees from all over the world resettle here.
“After the initial euphoria fades away, there’s a period of time where, I don’t want to say it’s depression, it’s not clinical depression, but clearly it’s people being confronted with the realities of how difficult life here in the United States can be,” Montgomery said.
Maladh and her husband share their two-bedroom apartment with their 12-year-old daughter Sukaina; Maladh’s sister, who came from Iraq about a month ago; and Maladh’s niece, Sama, and her two young children.
Back at the Mohammed Ali family’s apartment in El Cajon, Arabic pop music floated up the stairwell.
Maladh’s 22-year-old son has gone to live with his cousin in El Paso, Texas, where he has a temp job working for the U.S. military.
The kids seem to be adjusting better then their parents. Sukaina said she liked her new school and she’s getting good grades.
Maladh and I sat on her couch and talked about the things she misses in Iraq, like drinking coffee with neighbors at noon. Her sister brought out tiny cups of strong, sweet coffee spiked with cardamom.
Maladh’s mood seemed to lift as the afternoon went on. She joked and played with the young children of the household.
I asked her niece, Sama, about her experience arriving in the U.S. from Iraq three and a half years ago.
“Was it really hard for you at first?” I asked.
“Yes, but it’s more hard for her (Maladh) because she lost her son,” Sama said, referring to Mohammed, the one who was killed in Iraq.
“She didn’t want to come here,” Sama said.
Adding to the family’s trials, Maladh’s husband, Amer can hardly walk. His diabetes and blood pressure got worse after Mohammed’s death, the family said.
But Sama thinks Maladh and her family will be OK with time. She said she’s going to start teaching Maladh to drive and get her into English classes.
Sama told me in the family, Maladh has always been the one people confide in and trust. And Maladh’s strength and confidence are obvious even as she says she’s miserable.
But behind her — behind all refugees — is a backdrop of immense sadness. Her son is dead and she may never go back to her home country. At least the rest of her family is finally safe.
“I miss Iraq and I’m sad because I see the situation is bad,” Maladh said. “I see blood everywhere. No food, no jobs. So, and I say, 'I’m good. My children is good.' I say, ‘Thanks, God.’”
With the help of her family and the community, Maladh said tomorrow, she’ll make another go at this new life she never wanted.