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Faced with threats against his life by Iraqi terrorists, Thabit Khalaf, 66, fled his Baghdad home in July of 2008. After spending a year in neighboring Jordan, he and his family were granted refugee status by the United States.
Last June, they arrived in El Cajon. The city was already home to one of the country’s largest Iraqi communities, and it has welcomed thousands more who have arrived as refugees from the current war. Like Khalaf, many of East County’s Iraqi refugees are highly educated and struggling to find work in their fields.
Khalaf, an architect who received his doctorate in Britain, has spent the last several months waiting out the economic slump.
I sat down with Khalaf in his El Cajon apartment to find out why he fled Iraq, his impressions of San Diego and his hopes for the future as he starts over here after leaving a successful career back home.
Why did you come to San Diego?
Two reasons: the first is that my wife’s sister came about a year and a half before us, so my wife said, “If we go to the USA, I want to be closer to my sister.”
The second reason is that I have a fair idea of the weather in this part of the country. It’s not very cold in winter. You have to be well off to stand very severe weather, because to be comfortable in very cold weather, you have to spend money. So thinking I might not be able to find a job for some time, obviously I have to find a place where I don’t have to spend most of the money that I have on fuel or energy.
Why did you leave Baghdad last year? (At this question, Khalaf’s wife, Nisreen, who was sitting in a chair beside him, stood, took a tissue from the coffee table, and excused herself)
My wife, she gets sad, because they kidnapped our boy. He was 22 and at the university. He was kidnapped by supporters of the old regime of Saddam Hussein. They wanted money for their political activities. They asked for $50,000, which I collected from my friends and family, and paid them, but they did not give me the boy.
I kept on searching, but I was getting threats by telephone telling me to stop, or otherwise.
So first I sent my wife and family to Jordan. Then I had no other choice but to join them because the threats kept coming. I had to think of the remaining members of my family. I could not take any more chances.
When I realized maybe it was too late to think my boy was alive. I had to draw back and leave.
When did you arrive in Jordan?
In July 2008. When we arrived, we were not really welcomed. They were telling us we were like traitors — we had let our president down. But our president himself had let us down so many times before.
When I left Iraq I was doing very well. I had a good job at the university. I was the head of the department of architecture. I was responsible for most of the post graduate studies. I was doing a lot of architecture work for myself.
I had to make a decision. I personally wanted to stay, but my family was in Jordan and my wife needed care. She could not sleep, she was worried, could not stop crying. It was very hard, because I knew when I left Iraq, I would lose everything I built: my reputation as a university teacher, as an architect, as a member of a society with a lot of friends and relatives. I had to leave all of that.
Are you still inquiring about your son?
I know a lead, but what I know now, I have to be there to follow up. I cannot put people at certain risk to follow something. It is my war. I have to do it myself.
What did you do once you arrived in Jordan?
My first concern was to look after my wife. I did that for three months. Then we applied to the United Nations. I told them I wanted to be in a place where they speak English — Britain, Australia or USA. A few months later they told me my file had been accepted by the United States. We prepared to come over — me and my wife and our 15-year-old son. Another son is 31 years old and a dentist, and his wife is an architect. We told him we would not come unless he came with us. So he accepted. He came to El Cajon for six months but couldn’t get any job. He is in New Jersey now teaching dentists’ assistants.
What did you think of San Diego when you first arrived?
They put me in a car, drove through the motorway, and I was in El Cajon. To be in El Cajon — such a nice little place, compared to Baghdad — it was quiet, peaceful. You walk during the day. There is nobody in the streets! This is what I noticed. The streets are empty! This is something I am not used to.
So I walk in the morning in the street. Sometimes I see some people. And what strikes me most is that people I have never seen in my life just say, “Hi, how are you today?” I find that very interesting. They don’t even know if I speak English or not. It’s very friendly. I found that really beautiful.
You’re an architect. What are your impressions of it architecturally?
I am used to seeing a lot of tower cranes. In El Cajon, there are builders, contractors, but no tower cranes. They don’t need them. Everything’s so low. As an architect, I was amazed because maybe the population in this part of the country is not too heavy, and there seems to be a lot of land. There is no shortage of land, because if there was shortage of land, they would build up. But they are building horizontally, not vertically. So to me it means plenty of land available.
Wherever I go I see houses on top of mountains, on top of hills, and houses have big gardens. You think, “Oh, thank goodness, we are OK.” Each person takes so many hundreds of square feet. Not in other places where it is cramped and crowded.
On top of all that, I noticed the traffic in the city is well-organized. Over there, the road is for those who have nerves. Here, no. There is a thing called traffic law. Nobody would ever dream of crossing a traffic light when it is red. Even at 4 o’clock in the morning, when there is nobody.
What did you do after you got settled into your apartment?
They showed me that you have a sea. Other friends did some barbecues. I began to know the place pretty well. Then I started my struggles to find a job. To get a job, especially as an architect with this economic tightening, it is not easy. So I thought I have to be patient. I am taking lessons now at the Adult Education College. I’ve been improving myself computer-wise.
There is a school of architecture in San Diego, the New School of Architecture. The people from Survivors of Torture asked me to prepare a CV and they sent it to the dean.
There were some students submitting a project. There was a committee of architects who were going to give them a grade. They said, “Come join us.” As a volunteer. I enjoyed listening to the students. It was a very enjoyable experience.
The dean told me that next year they’re opening for post-graduate studies, so there’s a chance they might take me to teach there next year. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, and wish them the best of luck. I would be happy to contribute, because sitting here at home not doing work is not easy.
Do you have a source of income?
Because I am over 65, they said Social Security would help me. They started giving me about $850 per month to pay for the rent. My wife gets about $500. So at the moment, your professor is getting some help to pay for his rent. They are giving us about $350 of what they call food stamps. It is not enough, but that’s it. We have to manage and economize. But when the people become well off, then I will become well off.
Do you see yourself going back to Iraq?
As long as each party has more bodyguards than workers and farmers, I cannot. I am an architect. I want to build. When I see everyday an explosion and people dying and buildings demolishing, how can you spend the rest of your life with people who don’t care for life? For those little details we make in buildings to make them look pretty? Pow — gone. This is the agony inside each sincere person in Iraq.
We architects tend to look at things peacefully. We are builders. We want to build not just bricks and things, but human society.
If I cannot be of any use there, I can be of use here.
Do you want to build in San Diego?
Of course. I would love to build here.
San Diego is a marvelous place, not only because of the weather situation but also because of the people coming in from all over. When I walk in San Diego, I see Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexicans, Arabs. They’re all Americans. All these people from all these parts of the world, suddenly they are all under one flag. This is a great achievement. There is a ship that was involved in the Second World War! This is the making of a city.
Every time I go to San Diego, I feel like a little boy jumping, because of so many great details to please the eye. San Diego is romantic. It is delicate. That is my impression.
— Interview conducted and edited by ADRIAN FLORIDO