Iraq to Lansing

By Nick Robinson

May Fathallah described the Iraq of her childhood as idyllic. It was a country where “everyone could have what they wanted.” But in 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran, things started to get worse.

“We lost so many things,” she said. “From that time until now, life in Iraq has not been good.”

The Zonta Club of Meridian East, the local chapter of a global organization working to advance the status of women, hosted two Iraqi refugees at its meeting Thursday night. Fathallah and her mother, Amirah Anayi, shared the story of their journey from Iraq to Lansing.

During the eight-year war with Iran, Fathallah said, boys would have to go to war right out of high school and would be “killed for nothing.”

“We thought life would be okay after 1988,” she said, “but then Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. People started killing each other over money, and it kept getting worse.”

After America invaded Iraq in 2003, Fathallah said, people were happy that the old, oppressive regime was gone.

“We believed life would change,” she said. “We waited for the moment it would be better, but life chose something else.”

Fathallah spoke of the dangers of walking the streets for fear of being the next victim in a suicide attack or being kidnapped and held for ransom.

“Anyone could die,” she said. “You would find 20 people dead in the street. You can’t go to the café because it will be your turn.”

After the invasion, Iraq grew increasingly divided along religious lines and Fathallah and her family, who practice Catholicism, were persecuted.

“We are second level citizens in Iraq,” she explained. “We share the duties, but not the rights. We are supposed to love our enemies, but it is hard when the enemy wants to betray you whenever they get the chance. Why give them the chance?”

They would be forced to pay for protection and the only work available was with the Americans — which provided a “good reason to be killed,” as Fathallah put it.

But working with the Americans turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Fathallah worked at a U.S. embassy, which allowed her and her family into a refugee program. They were asked if they had a relative in America, and when they said no, they were sent to Lansing.

“We were in America in four months,” she said. She and her family came to Lansing on Sept. 24, 2007.

She came with her mother, her two children, Dana and Majd Majeed, and her sister, who has since gone back to Iraq to work as an interpreter. They have other family members still in Iraq that are making their way here.

Fathallah has been very fortunate here in America, she said. She began volunteering for St. Vincent’s Catholic Church, and was eventually hired working on computers and “keeping everything straight.”

When asked if they had encountered any prejudice here in America, Fathallah said yes, but not directly.

“We are treated like strangers,” she said. “My daughter feels we should imitate the language, and maybe that’s a part of it.”

Fathallah and her family live in Okemos now, where her son, Majd, is a senior in high school. Her daughter, Dana, who was unable to attend the group meeting, is pursuing a degree at Lansing Community College. They are planning on applying for citizenship in three years when they are eligible.

At the end of the meeting, Fathallah gave thanks for the help her and her family got in their move to a new culture in a new country.

“It’s not easy to find good people like you,” she said, wiping away a few tears. “It’s tough, but there is still hope.”