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From A Syrian Prison To A Chicago Apartment: An Iraqi Refugee's Story

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Kasim Kasim couldn't believe his eyes. Coming from the elevator was the woman who had taught him in Sayeda Zainab, home to Damascus' greatest concentration of Iraqi refugees, where she ran English and math classes out of her apartment despite pressure from Syrian authorities. The woman who'd let him assist her humanitarian work, using his wealth of contacts to locate specific refugees for the journalists, aid workers and NGOs that relied on her. He hadn't seen her since his family's resettlement over a year ago. He had agonized ever since he'd heard, five months earlier, that she had been imprisoned in Syria, and he'd heard, but could not bring himself to believe, not until he actually laid eyes on her, that she had been released from prison days ago and resettled right here, to apartment 512, 6011 North Kenmore Street, in the Chicago neighborhood of Edgewater. Find her, his friend Firaz had told him hours earlier from Washington D.C., after receiving word of her arrival. Make sure she is okay. Through a family whose phone she'd used earlier that day, Kasim had tracked her down. Now, at nearly one in the morning, after repeated knocking had yielded no response, and after laying on her doormat to wait because he didn't know what else to do, there she was, Ahlam Ahmed Mahmoud. "Mom!" he exclaimed, unable to hold back tears. "It's you! I can't believe it!"

Hugging, crying, they went inside and called Kasim's family. They talked. As in Damascus, Kasim remained plugged in to the Iraqi community here, and he told Mahmoud about their problems. Unable to find work, their benefits running dry, and struggling with depression brought on by post traumatic stress disorder, culture shock and loneliness, Iraqis were struggling to pay rent, to provide food and clothes for their families, to survive. Mahmoud, Kasim reasoned, could help Iraqis here, just as she'd helped them in Damascus.

But Mahmoud was tired. In the span of three days, she'd gone from a Syrian prison cell to a sudden release and reunion with her two children to a plane ride through Budapest and New York City to Chicago. She'd arrived wearing the same clothes she had on during her arrest five months earlier. Two hours before reuniting with Kasim, plagued by a brutal headache, she'd gone out into the October night looking for a pharmacy and quickly got lost, without knowing her address or phone number. The police had helped her home. How she could possibly solve the problems Kasim now told her about, let alone her own, with no idea how things worked in this foreign country, this alien world, she did not know.

"They expect me to help them," she said later. "Like I was helping them down there in Syria. Well I'm just here, I'm just a person. I don't have anything to offer them."

But Mahmoud's trepidation would not last long. As word of her arrival spread and Iraqis, as they had in Damascus, began knocking on her door asking for help, Mahmoud decided she needed to do something. Her plan: start an organization to help Iraqi refugees.

- - -

By the time Mahmoud began running a makeshift school out of her Sayeda Zainab apartment in mid-2007, Syria had taken some 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, the most of any country. In a nation of less than 20 million, social repercussions such as huge increases in prices of living spurred resentment toward Iraqis. Syrian military intelligence closely monitored them, paying special attention to any organizations they formed. According to the 2007 Human Rights Watch report "No Room To Breathe," Syria's powerful security forces would "routinely harass human rights groups and scrutinize their leaders, activities and funding," a statement Mahmoud's experience confirmed.

Back in Baghdad Mahmoud had worked as a fixer, (a translator and general guide for journalists and NGOs,) then as a city counselor and prominent aid worker for the U.S. Army before she was kidnapped for five days, beaten and interrogated, released for $50,000 ransom, and forced to flee the country, all of which was documented in a 2007 Salon article.

In Damascus, she continued the kind of social service work she'd done in Iraq, but primarily of her own volition. Engaging in what Deborah Campbell, a journalist who worked with her, described as "self initiated community organizing," Mahmoud helped people with the problems they came to her with, connected NGOs like UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, with the needy families they sought, assisted individuals and organizations looking to donate food, clothing or money, and became an unofficial community leader.

"All roads led to Ahlam," Campbell said. "She was a one woman NGO, basically the center of the Iraqi refugee community in Syria. If you didn't know her, you weren't paying attention."

SMI did pay attention, and as her teaching operation expanded to include a downstairs apartment and over 70 students, pressure increased. Intelligence officers came about every week, Mahmoud said, always unannounced. They'd search books and watch classes, threatening to shut down the school if they found anything suspicious. Nonetheless, Mahmoud and her volunteer teachers continued. Iraqi children often did not or could not attend school, and Mahmoud, the first girl of her Sunni tribe to finish high school and its first, period, to graduate college, wanted to make sure the children, girls especially, had the same opportunity.

"The Iraqi people, the first concern in their life is education," said Mahmoud, now 44. "Every one of the children, I can say they are my children. They just need somebody to encourage them, to support them, to push them ahead to join the school and never quit from it." She pauses, taking a drag of her cigarette. Her eyes fall as she breathes smoke. "I don't know what's happening with them now."

Early in May 2008, Mahmoud gave her contacts and passport to her friend Sheryl Mendez, a photographer. It was a precaution, she said, just in case something bad happened to her.

"By this way I saved my life," Mahmoud said.

- - -

As she headed through Sayeda Zainab's dusty alleyways, Campbell had the feeling she was being followed. She'd returned to Damascus to follow up on a piece she'd written for Harper's Magazine and was on her way to visit Mahmoud, as she often did in the mornings. Now, the morning of May 31, 2008, that disconcerting thought flashed through her mind. She ignored it.

Campbell arrived and found Mahmoud making breakfast for her son Abdullah, then 12, who'd returned home from the hospital the previous day after breaking his hand. Mahmoud made tea. After 15 minutes, they heard knocking downstairs. Mahmoud opened the door to four intelligence officers.

"She went downstairs to talk," Campbell said. "Apparently they didn't want me to see them. I'd had that feeling I was being followed, and then it turned out they didn't want me to see them."

The intelligence officers told Mahmoud to come with them to their office to talk. They wanted her to do something for them. They didn't say what. Mahmoud went upstairs and told Campbell not to worry, that she wouldn't be gone long, and left with the officers in a white station wagon.

Since Mahmoud had been similarly summoned before, Campbell didn't think it was serious. But if the officers had taken Mahmoud because of her association with her, a blond foreign female journalist, she didn't want to jeopardize her other Iraqi contacts. So she ceased all phone calls and became extremely circumspect about email.

A few days later, Campbell got a call from an American friend who ran a magazine there, asking her over to talk about something. When Campbell arrived, the friend asked what had happened to Mahmoud. Nobody had heard from her, she said, and nobody knew where she was.

The white station wagon had taken Mahmoud to SMI's local office. In a small, dark room, officers told her they wanted her to spy on the American journalists and aid workers with whom they knew she associated and write a weekly report. Surprised by their questions, she refused.

"I'm just a humanitarian activist," Mahmoud said. "I can't do anything like this. How can I betray anyone who gives me their trust?"

Without letting her contact anyone, they locked her in a cell. After a few days, they moved her to a prison in Damascus' outlying Kfar Sousa district. To everyone she knew, Mahmoud had simply disappeared into the Syrian prison system.

Over the next several months, Mahmoud passed the time praying, reading the Qur'an, talking to the women around her--anything to keep her mind off her children. Prisoners came and went, and new ones told stories of the outside world.

Once, she heard a noise outside the cell. Peering through holes in the door, she saw guards moving a man's limp body, their clothes covered in blood. From their conversation, she knew he had used his glasses to cut and kill himself.

One day, Mahmoud had heavy chest pains. Fearing a heart attack, officers took her to the hospital for a night. The next morning, back in prison, they opened her cell door and told her she had one minute to prepare herself. For release.

Over the past five months, Campbell and others had been endeavoring for Mahmoud's freedom through a variety of channels, pushing international human rights groups like UNHCR and various governments to pressure Syria's. Earlier that week, Amnesty International had finally threatened to go public. Whether their efforts worked or some other force set Mahmoud free, neither she nor Campbell can say.

Mahmoud was brought to the UNHCR offices, where her children were waiting. As a condition of her release, UNCHR had made an agreement with SMI, taking her into their responsibility and ensuring she'd leave the country in seven days. They told her she was to be resettled in the United States. They let her call her brother and sister, and she only said goodbye, because she did not know when or if she would see them again. That night, October 26, 2008, Mahmoud and her two kids were on a plane to Budapest.

"The first sunshine after five months," she said, "I saw it when I was up in the sky."

- - -

Smiling faces, Iraqi and American, on Mahmoud's computer screen. She points out a blond woman, then a shaggy haired twenty something wearing a San Diego Padres t-shirt.

"There's Deborah," Mahmoud says. "And Kasim. He moved to New York to find a job. He's a mechanic now."

Back in December, Mahmoud hosted a gathering of Iraqi and American families. Now she cycles through pictures of them sitting on her apartment floor, nearly bereft of furniture. They shared food, talked and played with one another's children until past midnight.

"Now they are friends," Mahmoud says. "The Iraqis can call them if they have any kind of problems or need anything. The most difficult thing is the mail they have. They cannot read it so they ask help to explain what's going on. Even this tiny thing, it helps so much."

For Mahmoud, a vast personal network provided that initial support her first few weeks. Friends like Deborah sent people to visit or flew in themselves, helping her with things like setting up internet or going to the eye doctor.

One person sent to check on her was Beth Ann Toupin, a 26-year Amnesty International volunteer who coordinated work in the Middle East. As Toupin helped her, Mahmoud told her her story and they became friends. Mahmoud saw that unlike her, Toupin knew the system here. So one day, about a week after they met, Mahmoud asked if she would help her start an organization to help Iraqi refugees. I need your help, she explained, because you're an American.

Toupin was skeptical at first, but Mahmoud, the persuasive advocate people often describe her as, convinced her. They began gathering information, talking to Iraqis about needs and looking into what services existing organizations weren't adequately providing. In late December they met 48th Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky at their shared Edgewater office. Smith arranged for a meeting that day with Steve Brunton, executive director of the Chinese Mutual Aid Association. He agreed to help them apply for a joint grant along with potential Burmese, Congolese and Nepalese organizations, and they became the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society.

They've since assembled a board of directors, attended conferences and tried to figure out exactly how they can help without repeating what's already offered. They had trouble engaging Iraqis at first, as almost no one came to their first life skills class in May, but 40 showed up to a recent meeting, a huge breakthrough. They've had a few events; Iraqi author Mahmoud Saeed spoke at their inaugural Third Friday Salon, a monthly discussion of Iraqi art, music and literature, on July 17.

Since entities teaching English and job search skills already exist, they've decided to focus on "information and referral" and building an Iraqi community center. An ethnically specific organization would help Iraqis overcome the cultural misunderstandings, language issues, post traumatic stress disorder and suspicion of bureaucracies and false promises that impede communication, Toupin said, bringing the messages they receive closer to the message intended. And by pulling them together to solve their own problems and giving them a place to go, it would create more of a community among Iraqis here, easing them into life in America and teaching them about civil society.

They also want to establish regular professional groups, like health professionals or engineers groups, and address re-certification, because so many Iraqis were affluent professionals before the war. And in the spirit of Mahmoud's December gathering, they want to train American mentors to assist new refugees.

"She's got the Iraqi end and I've got the American end," Toupin said. "All the administrative stuff is mine. She's the one who can tell the story and work the people."

A private donor recently gave $5,000, allowing the women, among other things, to begin paying Mahmoud a small salary. But it's not much, and Mahmoud is still searching for a job. Most of her public aid benefits ran out months ago, and she's getting by on friends and food stamps. A lawyer she knows pays for her phone and internet, which she needs for her IMAS work and to talk to her family in Iraq every morning at five. And she's three months and over $2,000 behind on her rent.

But all she can do is keep trying.

"I cannot stand it," Mahmoud said. "The Iraqi people, they suffer a lot. They deserve a better life." She sighs. "I try to help. It's a long way. I know it's a long, long way."