While many people might picture refugees as adults fleeing their country, a large portion of refugees’ experiences are like that of Dayton resident Mohamed Al-Hamdani: children looking to find a stable and safe community to grow up in, who eventually grow up and find ways to give back to their adopted country and new home. His time in Dayton demonstrates how people create roots and build community in new places. After graduating from college, Mohamed left Dayton and used his linguistic and cultural skills to help the US by working with the Department of Defense in training Iraqi Military, Police and Border Patrol troops. He has since returned to the Gem City and is excited to be starting a family with his wife in the city he calls home.
My family came here as refugees back in 1992. We were living in Iraq in the 1990s. During that time, there was a war in Iraq with Kuwait, and after that war, there was an uprising of Shiites in the south following Desert Storm. My dad participated in that uprising against the Saddam Hussain regime.
The uprising ultimately failed, and we were forced out of our homes into refugee camps in Saudi Arabia. Our family was one of the lucky few; we only spent 18 months in the refugee camps before we got picked for asylum in the United States. We were very lucky.
When we got to New York, they told us we were going to Philadelphia or Dayton, and it’s not like we knew either place, so they picked one for us. So we didn’t really have a choice to come to Dayton, but I think we were lucky to come to Dayton.
Adjusting to Life in Dayton
Coming from Iraq where everyone was Muslim and Arab (or at least in our part they were), to living in refugee camps in a desert with tents and no running water no electricity and hopelessness everywhere, to America with big buildings and bright lights and a house—it was all very shocking to our system.
The weird part is that we literally had just escaped a country that had been bombed by a bunch of airplanes only to come to Dayton, Ohio where airplanes were constantly flying around. Every time we heard a sonic boom, we were like, “What’s going on?”
I remember the day we landed in Dayton, there were all these people speaking English and none of us knew English. I was about 10 years old, and I remember trying to figure out the words that I recognized. I remember recognizing the words “boy”, “girl” and “window” and that’s about all I recognized.
I went to Dayton Public Schools. It was easier for us kids to adjust than my parents; English was easier to learn for us, we made friends easier, we had school and we could watch TV and learn. My parents had to look for a job and navigate the system of coming here.
As a kid, the hardest part was getting over homesickness. You really miss all your friends. We left all our friends in Iraq, then we left all of our friends in the refugee camp, and now we were making new friends all over again.
Dayton as a Welcoming City
I grew up here. This is home to me. This is really the only real home I’ve ever had.
I left Dayton after graduating from college and worked with the Department of Defense in San Francisco during the last war in Iraq, but I came back [to Dayton]. I enjoy the people, I enjoy the amenities, and there’s a lot of entertainment—there are a lot of things to do in Dayton. Also, the economic recovery makes it much easier to work in Dayton, especially for younger people. It’s a good place to raise a family; it’s safe, it’s very affordable, and there are tons of good schools.
One of the great things about coming to a city like Dayton is that it is very diverse; there are people of all different back grounds. When you see all the crazy talk today about refugees—specifically Muslim refugees—well, we never experienced that here, and I haven’t yet. I think a large part of that is that the leadership in this city embraces people of all background.
It’s important to realize that there are still refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria and that region as a whole. Those folks are really stuck between a rock and a hard place: 99.9 percent of them are people who are just looking for a new beginning, and half of them are children.
The refugee crisis is hitting kids, and it’s hitting families like ours. All they really need is someone to say that there is a better place. It’s sad to see the U.S. only taking around 10,000 refugees while smaller countries in Europe have taken millions. I understand that people are afraid of extremists that may come out, but I can tell you that the process refugees are put through before coming to the United States is very rigid. It was rigid in the 90s and it is rigid today.
I’m excited to see where Dayton is going. I am excited to see the economic recovery take hold in the area and begin to accelerate. I think refugees have been a huge part in that recovery, from creating new businesses to rebuilding neighborhoods.