Iraqi family discusses life




Hiyam Al Dosakee labors part time as a Walmart sales associate, stretching each paycheck to care for her family of five. She rushes her 11-year-old son with Down syndrome to the emergency room for headaches and cares for her husband, Jamal Al Obaidi, who uses a wheelchair.

As tough as life is now for the Iraqi refugees in Dallas, it has been rougher. Much rougher.

There were the tanks that rumbled by their house in the Baghdad moonlight, shaking the ground and rattling the dinnerware. There was the day militiamen kidnapped Jamal, an affluent journalist, and imprisoned him for a month for an article he wrote. And there was the night Hiyam and her family escaped across the Iraq border, seeking salvation in Syria.

The captors stole Jamal's words, his livelihood, his purpose. One of Jamal's American friends wants to bring the words back.

Jamal's tale of flight and survival inspired Justin Banta and his sister, Lauren, to find an outlet for refugees to tell their stories. They created Refugee Writers, a group designed to share the tales of Dallas-area refugees with their American neighbors."He was a man who lost almost everything," Justin Banta, 28, said of Jamal. "The act of writing again is an act of reclaiming his former life. His identity."

The Bantas first met the family last winter when they heard from a mutual friend that the family needed a dinner table and chairs. At a restaurant one night with their parents, the Bantas described the struggles Jamal and his family face in their new land. Jamal's stroke, Hiyam's part-time job, an 11-year-old with disabilities, and two teenage sons.

The Bantas, from Colleyville, wanted to do more than just deliver a table and a few chairs. Lauren said empowering refugees like Jamal to share their experiences can be cathartic, liberating."Everyone has a story to tell, and it touches people in different ways," said Lauren, 25.

There are groups that provide refugees with common household supplies or educational opportunities, she said. Lauren and Justin said they aren't aware of any other group that seeks to write the refugees' stories."With Refugee Writers, we're not trying to provide basic needs," said Lauren, who works as an office manager for a business consultant. "We're trying to help them and experience with them."

In Baghdad, the family lived comfortably. They had a nice house with good furniture. Jamal's family owned a printing house and people brought in magazines, newspapers and books for Jamal to publish. He also wrote articles.In one of his last pieces, he wrote of a violent militia that harassed Iraqi citizens who didn't share similar political views. A few weeks later, the bandits nabbed Jamal.

The Bantas grew up a long way from the ravages of war in cozy Colleyville, a Fort Worth suburb, the children of a telecom executive and an educator who teaches autistic children.From the time they were small, international affairs were as close as their dining room table.

When Lauren and Justin were children, their parents flew to Brazil to adopt a 5-year-old boy. They later adopted a 4-year-old stricken with polio. Three years after that, it was a 10-year-old hearing-impaired boy from Bangkok and then, in 1999, they adopted a 5-year-old with spina bifida from Thailand.

Julie Banta took Lauren and Justin on a couple of those trips. She said it changed their worldly outlook."I don't think they'd be the people they are if we would've stayed in a closed environment in Colleyville," she said.

As adults, Lauren and Justin continued traveling. Lauren studied international business at Trinity University and recently returned from Senegal, where she did work for the Peace Corps. Justin studied English at Baylor University and graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in May. He recently completed a trip to Uganda, where he volunteered for an organization that sought improvements for the country's orphanages.

Both learned what it means to be uprooted and placed in a foreign land. They began to understand that refugees aren't just rural farmers displaced by war. They leave behind careers, wealth, family.

"For me, there was a lack of understanding," said Justin, who works in the nonprofit industry. "They're professionals, they're intelligent. Now they're members of our society."Once across the Syria-Iraq border, Jamal and Hiyam knew they couldn't go back to Baghdad. They relied on U.N. workers to place their family in a safe place somewhere far way.

They lived off their lifetime savings in a ramshackle stone structure with few furnishings, waiting for a breakthrough in their case.Justin Banta said the Refugee Writers project is still in its organizational stages. He hopes to one day gain nonprofit status and publish a journal with refugees' writings.

He said this project can create a human connection with people who are now Americans' neighbors."These people aren't a threat," said Justin Banta. "They're an opportunity for our community to be enriched."

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com/

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