“In 2007, when I got a job with the coalition forces, things were unbelievable,” said Qasim “Steve” Hazim. “I was in Baquba. The insurgents would come with a severed head. They would tell you, if you serve with the coalition forces—if you serve with the Iraqi police—this will happen to you.”
Steve was injured by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). It exploded under the striker he was in and he suffered significant head trauma. Steve rallied, and was back at work within a month. Work was difficult. Steve was stationed in some of the hardest hit areas of Iraq – Baquba, Tikrit, and Erbil. He was far from his family, but traveled to be with his wife and son on his leave every three months.
The roads were treacherous, and military and insurgent checkpoints were everywhere. One trip he was threatened at a checkpoint. Fearing for his life, he sped away as threats and shots rang out around him.
He continued to have to pass through that checkpoint to see his family and then to report back to work.
“I pulled my hat down low, I grew out my beard, I tried everything to disguise myself,” Steve said. “But I constantly lived in fear.”
He was afraid to let his commanders do anything, afraid of reprisal for him and his family. Finally, he knew it was time to take his family and leave. He applied for and was granted a special immigrant visa (SIV) for Iraqis who have served with the coalition forces. “By the time we received our visa and went to the airlines to buy our tickets, my wife was 8 months pregnant. The airlines said there was no way she could fly.” Amel had their baby in November. They were warned the baby’s visa could take a year. They didn’t know what to do as the threats continued to plague them.
On January 19th, they left the country for the United States, too afraid to stay any longer—but they were forced to leave the baby behind with Steve’s parents. The separation was agonizing for the family.
“Amel began crying all the time. She could not control herself,” Steve said. “It was so hard.”
World Relief DuPage, a Wheaton-based refugee resettlement agency, picked Steve and his family up from the airport and provided them with housing, orientation, connection to public services, employment, English classes, counseling, legal services and an introduction to Wheaton Bible Church. Members of the church were eager to walk alongside them as they adjusted to their new life.
Amel’s despair soon landed her in the emergency room three times. She feared she’d never see her baby again, that he would be killed, that she had abandoned the baby to its death. Immediately, friends at Wheaton Bible Church—including Chris McElwee, the Local Impact Pastor, and Isaac Heath, Steve’s volunteer—jumped to action to provide the care and support the family needed.
Catherine Norquist, World Relief’s Immigrant Legal Services Director, worked to ensure all the paperwork was filed both here in the United States and in the embassy in Iraq so that Steve could go back to pick up his son. Steve would have to travel on his Iraqi passport, availing himself to the protection of Iraq, a risky move. Filing the correct forms to name herself Steve’s legal representation and Steve’s mother the power of attorney, Catherine cleared the way for Steve to return to the country he had fled from three months prior.
Meanwhile, Steve’s mother journeyed from northern Iraq to Baghdad where she was escorted into the green zone around the embassy. After a medical examination for the baby and an interview to obtain the baby’s visa, she returned to northern Iraq to await Steve who was due to arrive days later. When Steve received the phone call that the visa was ready for his son, Wheaton Bible Church bought his ticket to Iraq.
“I was afraid to go back,” he said, “I knew my life was still at risk, but I had to get my son.”
With a turnaround time of less than 48 hours, he flew into northern Iraq, met his family, gathered his son and boarded a flight back to the United States via Germany.
When he attempted to get on his flight in Germany, the ticket agent asked him for his baby pass—an unexpected and unexplained expectation. Steve did not have a ticket for his son, nor did he have a credit card or enough cash to purchase one. “I was so worried that if we didn’t get on the flight, my wife would panic,” he said. “She has been through so much, I needed to get home.”
So he did the first thing that came to his mind—he called his friends from Wheaton Bible Church. Isaac picked up his phone at 1 in the morning, knowing that Steve likely needed help.
“You know people are your real friends,” Steve said, “when you need something right away, you can call them—even in the middle of the night.”
Isaac jumped to action, managing to purchase a baby pass just in the nick of time. As Steve walked down the jetway, the flight attendant closed the doors behind him.
Their arrival at the airport in Chicago was a tearful reunion. “I am so happy now. I don’t cry anymore. I was so depressed and could only think about the baby before. When I saw the baby, I just ran and hugged him. We were all crying,” said Amel.
Transition to the United States continues to be a challenge—the economic situation has turned Steve’s job from full-time to part time. He would love to go back to school, to continue to provide for his family, but he is still grateful for the safety his new country provides for his reunited family.
“It is hard, but thank God we are safe here. I feel I did something for Iraq—for my people and my country. And for the United States—for my new country.”