One could forgive a UR student if he or she overlooked the streets adjacent to Lake Avenue in Northwest Rochester. After all, the duplexes and one-story homes, which sit on small, tight-knit plots, are a staple of the city.

This neighborhood is different. If you pay close attention to the streets and the grocery store cues, you catch a microcosm of a more diverse population. The Bhutanese, in their traditional dress, stroll down the streets, their weight in groceries dangling from their arms. As many as eighty Burmese kids can gather after school at Mary’s Place, a non-profit organization helping refugees become proficient English speakers. And every refugee family has a different story. The roads to the United States are plentiful.

For the Mamdoh family, who have lived in Rochester for about 18 months, that road started in the streets of Baghdad. And like any other refugee family, that road was riddled with obstacles.

I have known the Mamdoh family for a little over a year. Through the Catholic Family Center, a small group of UR students, myself included, showed up to the Mamdoh house on a bitter night last January. Our goal was to teach the basics: how to read the mail, pay the bills and complete homework assignments. What we found was an opportunity for much more. We found teenage boys looking to compare favorite hip-hop songs. An uncle searching for medical advice. A compassionate mother concerned for kids. A family looking for friendship.

But until Monday night, when I sat down in the Mamdoh living room, voice recorder in hand, I had never heard the real story the truth about where the Mamdoh family lived, or what the Mamdoh family had seen. As I suspected, and ultimately confirmed, the Mamdoh family took a road less traveled.

The Mamdoh family uncle Mustafa, mother Zahara and children Braa, Mamdoh, Ahmed, Mahmood and Bushra (now ages 19, 18, 16, 15 and 12) lived in Al-dhira, a small neighborhood of about 150 houses in Baghdad. Al-dhira’s residents were injured soldiers from wars waged by Saddam Hussein. Mustafa Mamdoh was injured by flying shrapnel in the Iran-Iraq War, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Confined to a wheelchair, he and his family had access to a hospital, a gym and a swimming pool part of the amenities Saddam provided to his ex-soldiers.

Outside the friendly confines of Al-dhira, the streets grew violent as the U.S. occupation continued. Ahmed and Mahmood had a soccer game interrupted by a kidnapper, who shot his captive to death and left him by the side of the field.

The violence was everywhere. ‘One day, me and my brother [Mahmood] were going to get some bread,” Ahmed recalled. ‘We were just walking and we saw the police. And Mahmood said let’s go see what happened. I went with him and we found nine bodies, dead on the ground.” While the violence never reached inside the Al-dhira neighborhood, it struck pretty close to home.

The terror peaked for the Mamdoh family on an evening in September 2006. The Mamdoh family was at home when they discovered a package in the front garden. It was an envelope and inside was a bullet.

‘[It meant] if you’re not going to leave, we will kill you,” Bushra said.

The occurrence was common, according to Ahmed, who along with his other siblings, translates for Mustafa and Zahara. The next-door neighbor got a package, but refused to leave his house. That refusal cost him his son’s life. So, as soon as the Mamdohs could secure passports, they packed up and left. A lifetime’s worth of belongings and memories, crammed into a minivan. No time to dwell on days gone by. To this day they haven’t seen many of Zahara’s relatives, who still live in Baghdad admist the violence. Mustafa’s brother simply packed the family up in the van and left. Their destination: Deir ez- Zor Syria, which was home for the next two years.

‘We had relatives there,” Bushra said. ‘We all spoke the same language and had the same culture. But we still felt sad changing places.”

Syria has become saturated with Iraqi refugees since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. According to an Amnesty International report in July 2007 when the Mamdohs lived in Deir ez-Zor there were approximately 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria.

Mustafa and his family had to go to United Nations in Syria numerous times to do interviews. According to the Mamdohs, the UN was seeking to weed out those who didn’t have the proper rationale to go to America.

‘Some people want to come to the US for no [good] reason,” Bushra said. ‘But we had good reasons.” Yet the wait was almost unbearable. ‘It took so long,” she added.

But finally, the Mamdohs got their clearance. Yet as much as they left behind in Baghdad, perhaps more was left in Syria. Their sister, Braa, 17 years old at the time, became engaged. The Mamdohs couldn’t bring her.

Still, the Mamdohs continued on the final leg of their journey, to America and high expectations.

‘We always watched [American] movies,” Bushra said. ‘We expected everyone to be rich and blonde.”

But the sectarian violence the Mamdohs escaped from in Iraq came full circle in Rochester. The reason: the Mamdohs are Sunni, while the Iraqis here are Shia.

‘When they knew we were Sunni, they didn’t talk to us,” Bushra said.

So the Mamdohs had to make do with well not much. Told to leave everything behind in Syria, they came with just their clothes. With the local Iraqi community not talking, the days turned into long, restless affairs.

‘No television, no telephone,” Mustafa recalled, smiling slightly as he wheeled himself into the room. ‘Nobody to speak Arabic to. We could only sit.”

Bushra concurred. ‘We cried a lot, those first three months,” she said.

Today, things are better. The family has become good friends with other Iraqis in the area, who often come over to help them fix their TV or computer. In the kitchen, Zahara whips a special Iraqi bread together. Her English is quite limited, but as she filled our plates with food, her smile said it all. ‘Delicious,” she laughs, as she points to the fish.
Around the makeshift table a plastic sheet spread on the living room floor the kids joke with Mustafa.

It’s his favorite part of the week, he says, when we come over. Ahmed and Mahmood talk soccer with me. The two are teammates on the Jefferson High School soccer team. Meanwhile, Bushra marvels at the high level of education she is receiving here, compared to back in Iraq.

‘They let us use notes on our tests,” she exclaimed happily.

The noticeable absence is Mamdoh. He’s at the grocery store, hard at work. This summer he hopes to take his mother and uncle to visit Braa in Syria.

The Mamdohs are relatively safe on the streets of Rochester now. The kids can peacefully walk to pick up bread without having to sidestep bodies.
Back in Baghdad, though, the situation is different. According to the Associated Press, coordinated suicide bombings on three hotels in Baghdad two weeks ago left at least 41 dead and 106 wounded. The violence remains.

Yet when asked if they would like to return to the streets of Baghdad one day, the answer was simple.

‘If it got better, we would love to,” Bushra said. ‘It’s our country.”

Willis is a member of the class of 2011.

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