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From the Mideast to the Northeast

THE "Walter Cronkite of Iraq" lives in Northeast Philly in a second-floor apartment next to a gas station on Bustleton Avenue.

Hayfaa Ibrahem Abdulqader and her husband, Bahjat Abdulwahed, now live in Rhawnhurst after fleeing the violence in Iraq. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff)
Hayfaa Ibrahem Abdulqader and her husband, Bahjat Abdulwahed, now live in Rhawnhurst after fleeing the violence in Iraq. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff)Read more

THE "Walter Cronkite of Iraq" lives in Northeast Philly in a second-floor apartment next to a gas station on Bustleton Avenue.

Bahjat Abdulwahed, now 72 and an Iraqi refugee, was a dashing young man in his 20s when he worked as the chief TV news announcer for the government-run station in Baghdad in the 1960s.

He then jumped to the radio side of the government-owned media complex, lending his perfect Arabic diction to broadcasting the major news events for two decades, including the daily anxieties of the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988.

As he spoke on radio in his deep, serious voice, he at times cradled a cigarette in his left hand while holding a microphone in his right.

Like Cronkite, he had his own signature sign-off: "This is Baghdad station. Ladies and gentlemen, goodnight."

"He was really a superstar," says Shameem Rassam, a former Baghdad TV talk-show host, who worked with Abdulwahed at the TV station. "Ask any Iraqi [of the older generation], he is well-known. He had a good command of the language."

Given his role as one of the pioneers of Baghdad TV, Juliane Ramic, director of social services at the Nationalities Service Center (NSC), the Center City agency that resettled Abdulwahed and his wife in Philly, nicknamed him the "Walter Cronkite of Iraq."

Big adjustments

Abdulwahed and his wife, Hayfaa Ibrahem Abdulqader, who was also a TV announcer in Baghdad (they met at the station, when she worked there), are among the more than 500 Iraqi refugees who have resettled in the Philadelphia area as a result of the U.S.-led Iraq war.

The NSC has resettled the majority of the refugees, many in Northeast Philadelphia - chosen for its good-quality housing, family-friendly feel and access to public transportation, said Ramic.

With Middle Eastern food markets and meat shops, Northeast Philly also offers the newcomers a little bit of home.

But the dramatic change for refugees, coming from a place of violence, then living in a new world where many face a language barrier and an adjustment in their position in society, can be traumatic.

Ramic said it takes about three years for refugees to integrate into American society.

"The first year is fascinating - bright lights, big city," she said. "Then, reality sets in. Sometimes, there's a mismatch of expectations."

She describes part of the adjustment process in three tiers: One, "if they can see a physician, an expert telling them they're OK," they feel better. Then, if their children are accepted at school, that's a second level of comfort. Then, once they get a job, things are all the much better, she said.

But, if they have family members separated from them, she said, "that stalls everything."

Iraqis didn't begin fleeing their country in large numbers until February 2006, when sectarian violence broke out after the bombing of the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.

Many first fled to countries like Syria or Jordan.

The NSC has resettled nearly 400 refugees since 2008. Refugees have also been resettled here by Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society Pennsylvania and Lutheran Children and Family Service.

Alyaa Abbood, 30, a case manager at JEVS Human Services' Center for New Americans, which assists refugees in obtaining jobs, said she has seen the trauma that affects some refugees.

"I meet many families who are very lonely," she said. "Many families I meet are very traumatized. It's a big culture shock for everything."

Parents with children "fear having their kids go out by themselves" because of their experiences in Iraq, she said. If they have young girls, they may fear that the girls will get raped or kidnapped, she said.

Iraqi 'Cronkite'

Abdulwahed and his wife moved a few weeks ago to the bright apartment in Rhawnhurst.

In their cozy living room, they have a photo of Abdulwahed being honored at the Iraqi Cultural Center in Washington, and family photos, including of their beautiful daughter, who lives in Amman, Jordan, where she will be starting a TV-broadcasting job.

Speaking partly in English and partly in Arabic through an NSC case manager who interpreted, Abdulwahed recalled the major news events he announced when he appeared on black-and-white TV screens in Iraq from 1962 to 1968: the Baath Party's brief seizure of power in 1963, and its bloodless military coup in 1968, which brought the party of Saddam Hussein to power.

Saddam, already a powerful figure in the party, formally took over as Iraq's president in 1979.

"He was a very good leader, but a dictator," said Abdulwahed, who worked for much of his career under Baath Party rule and had met Saddam.

Like other refugees, Abdulwahed and his wife left Iraq after their security was threatened during the recent war. Someone sent them an envelope with two red X marks and Abdulwahed's name on it, his wife said.

Inside was a bullet.

"It means, if you stay here, you will be killed," Abdulwahed said.

They don't know who sent the envelope but figured it had been sent because, as a former broadcaster for government-owned media, he might have been seen as being part of the old regime.

The couple first fled to Amman, where they lived with their daughter for two years, before resettling in Philadelphia in November 2009.

Abdulwahed has found Philadelphians to be kind. When he walks the streets with an oxygen tank he sometimes uses for lung problems caused by childhood asthma and smoking, he said people "come down from their cars and they help me."

He doesn't know who Walter Cronkite was as there wasn't much exposure to Western media in Iraq.

But asked if he himself was famous, Abdulwahed replied: "Oh, of course!"

In the 1960s, TV broadcasters in Iraq were seen as "celebrities," he said. "When we go out, people see us, talk to us."

After his retirement from Baghdad radio in 1988, Abdulwahed began writing books and worked as an Arabic lingual supervisor for various satellite-TV stations. He is writing a multivolume book on Arabic grammar and the Quran.

Ahmed Alobaydi, director of public relations at the Iraqi Cultural Center in Washington, said that Abdulwahed was honored in 2010 because he "was one of the oldest announcers in TV and radio in Iraq. . . . He was very famous and very well-known in Iraq."

"Mr. Bahjat was considered one of the founders of Iraqi TV and radio at the time," he said.

'It's safe here'

About 2 1/2 miles away in Oxford Circle, Samy Ghazi Dawod, another refugee with a beaming electric smile, is optimistic despite the violence he and his family fled. An older brother, now in Syria, had been shot in the shoulder in Baghdad.

Their cousin was killed in the attack.

Meanwhile, Dawod's wife, Sameera, lost two brothers to violence, one of whom was first kidnapped. They don't know why any of their relatives were targeted nor who the attackers were.

In all, they said they have lost 38 people to the war who were part of their tribe in Iraq.

The family fled their suburban Baghdad home, with its farm of date, orange and peach trees, to live in Syria in 2005. They resettled in Philadelphia in January of last year.

"The killings, and the bombings, and the kidnappings" in Iraq forced them to leave, Dawod said in the family's two-story brick rowhouse, with a tidy, sloping front lawn.

"It's all like sad memories we have from what happened to us," Dawod, 32, said, speaking in Arabic. "It's like trauma to me."

In their living room, a framed photo of Dawod's brother who was shot and now lives in Syria hangs on the wall.

He took a few moments at his computer to video-chat on Yahoo with a younger brother, Saif, 29, who now lives in Latakia, Syria's main port, which has seen its share of violence in the recent uprising. Latakia is about two hours from Homs, site of some of the fiercest fighting.

His brothers are trying to come here as refugees, too.

Like the other Iraqi families interviewed by the Daily News, Dawod and his wife were extremely welcoming. As is customary in their culture, they had prepared food and drinks for their guests, including a generous fruit platter, crackers, orange juice and water. They also offered each guest a large rectangular slice of white-frosting cake, about six times the size of a regular serving.

As Sameera, 31, held their 2-year-old daughter, Dina, her husband said that "before finding a job, we were worried. But now finding a job, I got adjusted, we are happy now."

Since May, Dawod, a former construction worker, has been working about four or five days a week making doors in a factory on Erie Avenue in North Philly, a job that the Nationalities Service Center found for him. He takes public transportation to get there and has been learning English from his co-workers.

The couple also have three sons, ages 6, 7 and 9, who are doing well in school here, they said.

Asked about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Dawod said that "nobody likes his country to be destroyed." Iraqis wanted change, he said. "Maybe that wasn't the best way for the change, but the only way possible."

As for the U.S. withdrawal, he said: "It's a good step. . . . Iraqis want their government to pay more attention to them and do more for the people."

Sameera said that life here initially was difficult, particularly with the language barrier, "but it's getting better, and God willing, it'll get better next year," she said through the interpreter.

The Dawods shop at the Middle Eastern stores on Bustleton Avenue, and take their kids to the nearby parks or to the library, where they do their homework.

"It's safe here," the husband said. "We can't go back to Iraq. Here is the safest place."

Majeid Hameed and his wife, Layla Kasim, feel the same way.

They and their two daughters, 10 and 17, who were resettled here in August on a quiet street in Castor Gardens, also experienced the chaotic violence in Baghdad. Their older daughter had been shot in the knee outside her school.

The family left Iraq in April 2006 and lived in Syria for five years before coming here. Hameed, 42, works at the Walmart in Bensalem, stocking items, a job he obtained through the NSC.

They like the relative peace of Philadelphia, but wish they knew more English to be able to speak with their neighbors, the NSC interpreter said.

"They only wish for other people who are waiting to come" to be able to "start their beautiful life here."