From Baghdad to Belleville: New citizen appreciates help from American friends

Forty-six immigrants became citizens Nov. 1 at Central Junior High

News-DemocratNovember 24, 2013 

They came from 27 countries.

England, Pakistan and Jordan. Finland, South Africa and Mexico. Vietnam, Kenya and Taiwan.

They ranged in age from 19 to 77.

Some came to the United States as college students. An Englishman said he came because of love, no other reason. Others arrived in hope of a better life.

Imad Yousif came to the United States to feel safe.

Distinguished looking in a dark suit and striped tie, he sat down on the middle school bleachers before the naturalization ceremony and told his amazing story.

"I am from Iraq," said Imad, 61, who now lives in Belleville. "I have a Ph.D. I speak three languages. I came to the United States in 2008.

"Do you know why? After 2003, the situation of Christian people in my country was very bad. It was very, very dangerous. All the terrorists from the world came to my country."

Imad, who lived in Baghdad with his wife, Silvana Kandala, and three grown children, was a business owner and college professor. He had earned a Ph.D. in France.

"I had a good position in my country," he said. "I was famous in my domain. I was the owner of a company and assistant professor, head of the department of engineering materials in Baghdad, Iraq."

In 2007, Imad survived a drive-by shooting, an assassination attempt. One of the bullets grazed his head.

"I got shot in my car. Seven shots (were fired), and that forced me to leave my country."

Imad's wife and two of his children lived two years in Beirut, Lebanon, waiting for visas. Imad stayed in Baghdad a year while his younger son finished college."Everything happened in two weeks," said Imad. "'OK, you got the approval. You are leaving on Sept. 9, 2008.' We had to pack and prepare ourselves in two weeks. United Nations booked our flights."

They were relocated to Spokane, Wash., where they stayed for three months.

"I don't know anybody," said Imad. "I needed somebody to support me."

An American friend

Imad had worked in Baghdad with Robert Bayham, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. The U.S. managed construction and renovation projects inside the Green Zone, an international area of the city. Imad was one of the contractors. Eventually, it got too dangerous for contractors to work with U.S. forces.

"(Robert) is retired now and is in Ohio," said Imad. "At that time, he was the only person I knew. He stayed in my country about 1 1/2 to 2 years. I have a good relationship with him."

They kept in touch through email.

"He knows everything about me," said Imad. "He gave me many certificates that supported me in the United Nations. I called him ... We needed support. He immediately supported me."

Robert, of St. Marys, Ohio, lived in O'Fallon and was deputy commander of St. Louis District Corps of Engineers.

"I've been responsible for military units and teams before," said Robert, by phone. "It was a challenge that I took on, knowing the importance of it."

But helping the Yousifs long distance was difficult.

"I said, 'Hey, why don't you get a vehicle and a U-haul," said Robert. "They bought an old GMC Jimmy ... and traveled to St. Louis where we tried to find them affordable housing. My wife (Tammy) helped them get an apartment. That was in November 2008."

The Yousifs knew proper English, but everyday conversation was tricky. So was life in general.

"The first six months when I came to the U.S. I cannot sleep all the night," said Imad. "It's not easy at my age to start from zero with this economy. It's not easy to go from the top to the bottom. If I spend $1,000 every day in my country, I don't think about money. Here, if I spend one dollar, I think about it.

"I lost my retirement, (after) 34 years. My house. ..."

But he kept his faith.

Church connection

Imad, a Chaldean Christian, found comfort and familiarity at church.

"All the Christian people in all the world have the same behavior," Imad said. "I went to St. Clare (Catholic) Church. The father there, Father Jim (Deiters), is a very nice Father. He helped us a lot.

"The first time when I entered the church I didn't understand what the priest said. But what he did, I know it 99 percent because it's the same."

The Yousifs befriended families through church.

"Two or three families invited us into their home," he said. "This way, we know other people."

The Yousifs relied on the Bayhams for guidance.

"For the first few years, it was everything from helping them with tax preparation to advice on buying used vehicles and securing a home loan," said Robert. "As they progress along in their inclusion into U.S. culture, they call me less and less for advice. I guess that's a good thing."

Back to work

Robert also pointed Imad in the direction of Southwestern Illinois College, suggesting he take English as a second language.

"The problem here is if I would like to work, I have to have someone who knows me here," said Imad. "Because I took English, the language teachers know me. They helped me get a job at SWIC."

Sue Tyler, SWIC's program coordinator for community education, met Imad a few years ago when he signed up for her morning English as a second language class.

"It's a very diverse group," she said of her students. "They're from many different countries, and at many different levels. When Dr. Imad came, he obviously had a fairly good speaking level. He needed to learn everyday language, to live the language."

When Imad asked if she knew anybody who could practice with him, she set him up with a conversation partner, her dad Roger Smith, of Belleville.

"They met once a week at a coffee shop. They had a lot of common interests -- world history, an interest in cultures, traveling.

Sue also schedules and hires teachers for non-credit classes.

"Dr. Imad was asking what he could do to find a job. He was not used to not working."

She knew he was fluent in French and Arabic and that he had been a college teacher in Baghdad. She also saw he was intelligent and dedicated.

"I offered, 'Would he like to teach conversational noncredit (French and Arabic) classes?'

"He's done very well, just like I knew he would.

"For one to two semesters, Imad taught a noncredit Arabic cooking class," said Sue. "My whole family was invited to his house to try traditional cuisine. It was delicious."

Imad teaches earth science and astronomy for credit.

"In the spring, I will also teach at Lindenwood, geology and physical geology," he said.

Imad's mentor Robert Bayham is impressed, but not surprised.

"It's typical of people who have motivation and drive to do well wherever they are," he said. "In five years, they went from new to the U.S. to the family all being employed or going to school. Eventually, they bought a house in Belleville. ... They've come quite far."

Becoming a citizen

The United States is Imad's home now.

"Here I am free and everything is better," he said. "I like the United States and I will work very hard here. I taught my children to work hard and make everything better."

Sue Tyler, Imad's English teacher, watched Imad become a citizen. He acknowledged her during the ceremony.

"My father and I went to support him," she said. "It was a proud moment for me, too."

Imad's family -- wife, Silvana, and grown children, Sayl, 31, Sahl, 28 and Sally, 22 -- were proud, too.

"It's a big moment for him," said Sayl. "It's going to make his life easier in the U.S, plus if he would like to see his mom in Sweden, or see cousins around the world, it will be so much easier for him (having a U.S. passport)."

The Yousifs' life is a blend of old and new. They speak Arabic at home and meals are often food they grew up with. For Thanksgiving, they'll make a turkey.

"We stuff it, but we don't use gravy," said Silvana, who also will make kebee, a type of ground rice patty stuffed with meat, onion and spices, then cooked in a soup broth made with lamb. She'll bake cookies for the holidays, filled with dried apricots and dates and spiced with cardamom.

"All my food takes a long time," said Silvana, smiling. "That's why I spend most of my time in the kitchen."

The Yousifs miss their social life and their extended family scattered around the world. Imad skypes daily with his 84-year-old mother who lives in Sweden.

"It's not easy," he said, "but with the computer, it's better. .. This year, one of my relatives will come from Baltimore, and we celebrate Thanksgiving here in my home, Iraqi family, Syrian family and American."

But for a dining room wall hanging, their home looks much like any in the quiet neighborhood off Greenmount.

Yousif opened a lap top that showed photos of his Baghdad home, three floors with ceramic and porcelain everywhere. He pointed out its double kitchen, his home office.

"We always have a nostalgia," said Silvana, "especially my husband."

She misses her career as a chemist in a cement factory, and her siblings. She struggled at first with everyday English, but now speaks easily. New interests help.

"I am on the hospitality (committee) of St. Clare Church," she said. "I have American friends. ... Always when I pray, I thank God for letting us live safely. When I see my own children safe, and also my husband, I feel so happy."

Silvana is also in school.

"I take an English class at SWIC. I am in an academic class writing an essay about my husband. He is a teacher, a good father, a good handyman.

"The title is 'An Amazing Man.'"

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