Iraqi Refugee Finds Welcoming Home In The West
Driving to work one dark morning in February, Rob Hunter caught an NPR story about an Iraqi refugee struggling to find work in Florida. The young man, identified as Bahjat, had endured death threats and a car bombing because of his work with U.S. contractors. He was an IT specialist with a degree in civil engineering, yet the only job he'd been offered was cleaning hotel rooms for $7 an hour, not enough to support his mother and sister.
Hunter was far away, in Billings, Mont., but he felt pulled by a mixture of civic duty and religious faith.
"There's this chain of people and events that you find yourself caught up in, and you have to choose to step out of it," Hunter said. "Why not just stay with it? See where it takes you?"
Hunter owns a health care consulting company and had long had trouble filling a position for an IT systems administrator. He told his partner, Mike Young, they should offer the job to Bahjat.
"I though it was a great idea," Young said. "But I was shocked he didn't have offers coming from all over the place."
Nothing To Lose
Bahjat — who doesn't want his full name used out of safety concerns for a brother and sister still in the Middle East — was cautious.
"It's weird that somebody calls you and offers a job, and you don't know where is Montana, anything about that person," he said. "I was a little bit stressed."
Hunter just happened to be going to Florida on vacation, so the two met and liked each other. Bahjat decided he had nothing to lose. He figured out where Montana was, and in May he set out in a 1998 Ford Contour a Florida charity had given him.
Today, Bahjat has his own office at the Paradigm Group. A framed picture of a moose adorns one wall. At his desk is a U.S. map with his six-day driving route from Florida to Montana drawn across it, a welcome gift from his new colleagues. He says he loves his new job and his co-workers, and feels incredibly happy at the turn of events. The hardest part has been adjusting to small-town life after growing up in Baghdad, a sprawling metropolis of 7 million people.
When Bahjat researched Billings online, he saw a photo with two tall buildings — a promising sign, he thought — but when the GPS in his car told him he had arrived in the city, he thought it must be mistaken. He made Hunter drive several times around the central blocks of charming restaurants and shops before accepting that this was, indeed, "downtown."
Nonetheless, Bahjat has nothing but good things to say about the people here: "Billings is small by size, very big by heart."
Hunter's friends donated enough furniture, bedding and dishware to completely furnish the two-bedroom apartment Bahjat found. His mother and sister arrived to a "real home," he says, and his sister found a job in a restaurant after just a week.
When the local paper ran an article about his family, people mailed them Wal-Mart and Costco gift cards, and two dentists donated their services.
Hunter insists hiring Bahjat was not a case of charity. Unemployment in Billings is traditionally low, and he says there aren't enough graduates with his skills from the local university. He has come to see Bahjat as somewhat of an adopted son and is doing what he can to ease the family's transition to American life.
Hunter has passed on used bikes and taken the family to the symphony. Now and then, he and Bahjat work out together at the YMCA, which donated a family membership.
One lingering frustration is the lack of an Arabic-speaking companion for Bahjat's mother, Rajha. There are only a few Arabs in town, most of them men. One day at Wal-Mart, the family was excited to see a woman wearing a veil, but the woman spoke only English. Rajha says she'd love English lessons but isn't sure where to find them; there is no agency that resettles refugees in the entire state of Montana.
Bahjat keeps in touch with other newly arrived Iraqis across the United States, including several who moved recently to the state capital, Helena, four hours away. Many are still struggling, either unemployed or in low-wage "survival jobs" not in their professional field. That makes Bahjat feel all the more lucky.
"I live here between Americans," he says. "I work with them; I do everything with them. So even though I love my country, I feel I belong to this country."
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