Sunday, November 02, 2008

Kassem's Escape

In May of 2007 Kassem's life took an unexpected turn. While waiting on line at the UNHCR offices in Amman he met an Iraqi woman and her mom. She was single, having given up the opportunity to marry in order to care for her mother who was suffering from cancer. After several meetings it became apparent to Kassem that he was falling in love. At 42 and in exile in Amman for 12 years he had given up the hope of marriage. After all, he was working as a house painter, laborer, and occasionally as a tutor. How could he possibly marry when he couldn't provide a stable life for a family? But on meeting Lubna this all changed. Over time he told Lubna of his feelings and how he thought they could work together to see that her mother received all she needed. He called Lubna's brothers in Switzerland and England for permission to marry and they agreed.

Kassem takes out a file folder filled with photos, passports, documents, applications and paperwork. He shares the photos of his bride-to-be as well as photos of their wedding party, which consisted of Lubna, Kassem, her mother and a family friend. They look radiant. He smiles at me. Before they could officially marry, Lubna and her mother received the call that they were going to be resettled to the United States. Kassem insisted they go while the opportunity presented itself and he would follow as soon as possible. They departed for California on April 22, 2008. "Exactly 6 months and 10 days ago", says Kassem. Now, he eagerly looks to the future, marking off the days in his planner with poems and stories for his beloved. His mother, who remains in Baghdad, told him he must wait for this woman, because any woman who has given up her own happiness to care for her mother is a woman worth waiting for. Kassem says, "I will wait, and I will only accept relocation to California, it is the only place for me."

Kassem has learned to accept waiting. He has been waiting since he escaped from Iraq in the fall of 1996. As a graduate in Chemical Engineering in 1986 and in Nuclear Engineering in 1989, Kassem had hope of teaching at the university level, but the regime told him differently. He began his career working with nuclear waste treatment and disposal. Within a year he was told he was being transferred to the nuclear program and would be working uranium separation and enrichment. The first thing he learned was that the technicians handling the nuclear material were not protected in any way; they didn't even wear masks or gloves. Kassem began teaching the technicians of the dangers of what they were doing and he had his first run in with Saddam's regime. Seven months after beginning his career in nuclear energy he found himself in prison. He was placed in isolation and beaten for seven days. At the end of this time he signed papers specifying that he would only concern himself with his job and not interfere with other people's responsibilities. After the Gulf War in 1991, all the scientists were instructed to hide all papers regarding the program from the UNISCOM inspectors. If they failed to do so, their entire families would be at risk. By this time Kassem was disillusioned and afraid. He went to the ministry and told them he wanted to complete his masters in Chemistry and leave the nuclear program. His request was rejected.

Eventually he walked away from his job. In 1994 he was arrested again, but released. He told his managers that he was sick and simply couldn't continue in his work, and began teaching again. In May of 1995 he was jailed again, beaten for seven days and released. At this point he knew he had to get out. "I live with one thing. I insist on self respect. I can not harm anyone. I can not compromise on this issue." Kassem explains to me. He paid for a fake passport and identity papers and escaped across the border.

Even in Jordan he was not safe as Iraq's secret police were in Jordan at the time. He could tell no one of his past, or even that he was an engineer. He lived in fear. His family in Baghdad were regularly visited by the police and threatened. Kassem didn't dare call his family for the next 7 years. In order to survive he began working as a laborer painting houses earning 4 JD's a day (about $5 US dollars).

He kept quiet and hid. "I lost my degree", he says, "but I gained my humanity". It was not an easy loss. Kassem's father worked sixteen hours a day as a fisherman. He could neither read nor write, but he insisted that his son would become an engineer. His father died while Kassem was in Jordan. His family did not tell him until 2003, four years after he died, because they knew Kassem would return home and certainly be killed. Since the fall of the regime masked men carrying guns have visited the remaining family in Baghdad, asking of the whereabouts of Kassem. Two of his friends, fellow engineers, were killed in Baghdad in 2004. He has been unable to return home to see his mother. But now his heart is in America. Throughout his life he has looked for one thing, the love that would make him feel whole. Now he has found it but it is half a world away. Sitting in his humble home, Kassem tells me, "To reflect real feelings is the greatest thing we can do as human beings. I insisted that I find this feeling, this love in my life." So Kassem waits. He escapes from the daily grind of living in Jordan, alone and far from those he loves, by jotting another poem in his planner and crossing another day off the calendar.