Iraqis start anew in Tucson
Arizona Daily Star
April 13, 2008


TUCSON - When the first call came to Thameer Aziz, the caller threatened to kill him and his family.

But when the second call came, Aziz, leaving nothing to chance and leaving everything behind, took his family to Syria.

"There was no question," said Aziz, 41.

After two years of uncertainty in Damascus, moving from apartment to apartment, and knowing they could not return to Iraq, Aziz, his wife and their five children are starting new lives in Tucson.

"My children are safe now. There is a future," said Maha Aziz, 36.

The Aziz family arrived in Tucson in August, part of the exodus of an estimated 2 million Iraqis who have fled their country after the U.S. military invasion five years ago.

But the Azizes are seven of just 3,559 Iraqis admitted to the United States since last spring, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Last year, the Bush administration said that by the end of 2007, as a goal, 7,000 Iraqi refugees would be allowed to resettle in the United States.

Aziz knows his family is fortunate.

The Azizes live in a three-bedroom apartment on Tucson's east side. Aziz, who speaks English and has a university degree in chemical engineering, works in the dining room of an elderly care facility in the Foothills neighborhood.

Three of the five children are enrolled in their neighborhood school, enjoying their classes and classmates, their parents said.

"They wish the school day was longer," said Maha, who also speaks English.

The Azizes never imagined they would be here after the start of the Iraq war. Thameer worked in a government ministry before the war.

But after the invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Thameer became a translator for the American provisional government.

Later, he worked for the Iraqi government as a liaison with the U.S. Embassy.

Initially, post-invasion life was relatively calm in Baghdad, but then the security evaporated, the Azizes said. Violence and death became part of daily life.

The Azizes, a Muslim Shia family, had to leave their home in a predominantly Muslim Sunni part of Baghdad for a Shia section of the city.

But threats came closer when Iraqis who were associated with the United States were targeted, Aziz said.

"I saw videos of slaughter," he said. Some of the dead included his friends.

The threat of death became real when gunmen attacked the family in the Azizes' home in July 2005, Thameer said. The family escaped, but Thameer knew his family had to flee Iraq.

While they were safe in Syria, life was hard. Thameer could not work. The family had to periodically return to the Iraq-Syria border to renew visas. And Syrian schoolchildren taunted the Aziz children, telling them to go back home.

But there was no more home. Thameer's mother, a brother and sister are refugees in Syria. Two other brothers and a sister and their families remain in Iraq, as does Maha's mother.

Home is now Tucson. While her husband is at work and the older children are in school, Maha takes the two younger children, 4-year-old twins, to the park and the library for story time.

Several Tucson families have befriended the Azizes and assist them in their transition.

"American people are very friendly," Thameer said. "We are very thankful."