Originally published by The Washington Post
Georges met Ali Abdul Almuna on a sweltering July afternoon outside the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in Dearborn, Mich.
Members of the mosque and the local Shiite Muslim community had gathered to express their opposition to the Islamic State group in the aftermath of a bombing that killed more than 200 people in a Baghdad market.
Almuna, now 48, was wearing a checkered tie and a light brown suit, a miniature Iraqi flag protruding from his breast pocket. He stood on the steps of the mosque, alongside the imam and other religious leaders.
Facing the crowd outside the mosque, Almuna spoke, in English, about the importance of the Muslim community in Michigan sticking together. Later, he told Georges about his life and family, how he came to the United States and how he views his adopted country.
During the course of the following year, Almuna; his wife, Anwar Chaiwan, 41; and their three boys shared their daily routines. They shopped and cooked and ate. They went to school, work and sporting events, and to the mosque to observe Shiite religious holidays. They watched television, played video games, slept, joked. They lived what they have come to see as the American Dream.
Almuna was born in the Shiite holy city of Najaf in 1969, and he left Iraq as a refugee in the early 1990s, after having participated in the failed Shiite uprising against Saddam Hussein. Almuna resettled in Michigan, where he and his wife met and started a family.
In many ways, the Almuna family is unremarkable; theirs is an immigration experience shared by millions over the course of generations. Their journey has parallels with Georges’s memories of arriving in the United States as a teen: “Not knowing anything and having to build up and start from zero,” Georges said. “Not knowing the language.”
Almuna and Chaiwan struggled at first. Almuna worked two jobs, learning English in his spare time primarily from a dictionary. Chaiwan grappled with loneliness, and she didn’t like Michigan’s frigid temperatures, one of the main reasons the family made a move to Florida. There, they faced racism during a July 4 fireworks display, leading to another move, back to Iraq, a place foreign to their children, all three of whom — Baqer, Mustafa and Ridha — were born in the United States. After a short stay there, they moved back to Michigan.
Almuna became a U.S. citizen in 1999. Chaiwan became a citizen in 2006.
The family bought a suburban house with a grassy lawn and a garage in 2011. Chaiwan now teaches at the mosque on Saturdays, and Almuna, whose first job in this country involved waking at the crack of dawn to work on a printing company’s assembly line, now wears a suit to his job as a real estate agent. He takes families — some of them just starting out in a new place, as Almuna and Chaiwan once did — on tours of homes in the Dearborn area.
Almuna tries to visit relatives in Iraq whenever he can — usually once a year, and usually alone. But he’s hoping to pack up the whole family for a visit this summer.
Almuna and Chaiwan marvel at the opportunities and luxuries that their children are able to enjoy in Michigan that they might never have had access to in Iraq.
They go to school, play sports, visit friends and attend the mosque with their parents, without the fear of violence and political oppression that Almuna and Chaiwan left behind.
Almuna delights in joining his son Ridha, 11, at the controls of his video games some evenings. He takes pride in Mustafa, a 16-year-old honor student with an outsize devotion to basketball. And he is thrilled that his oldest son, Baqer, 17, will graduate from high school next year, having played football and worked part time at a pizza restaurant. Baqer hopes to study automotive engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit.
“I want my kids to succeed,” Almuna said. “I believe this country is the country of opportunity. . . . Young people are very lucky in the States. They have the opportunity to be something. . . . America is great because of its people, not because of its government.”
As the children grow up, it has been important to Almuna and Chaiwan that they maintain an appreciation for their Iraqi heritage and their identity as Muslims, even though Muslims are a tiny minority in the United States — they made up just over 1 percent of the U.S. population in 2017, the Pew Research Center found — and Iraq can seem wholly foreign to the boys.
“My kids were born here. They learned American traditions,” Almuna said. “Me and my wife are trying to teach them the Iraqi tradition as Muslims and as Muslim Americans. . . . They can be open-minded. They can see and do anything they want. But they have to obey the rules and regulations of Islam.”
Almuna and Chaiwan don’t want their boys to drink, do drugs or hang out with troublemakers. They’d prefer that their children marry other Muslims, but, Almuna says, “if they choose a different route, I can’t control it.” And they hope that their sons will continue to attend the mosque, learn about Shiite Islam and participate in the rites and prayers of their religious community.
“I want them to be good Muslims,” Almuna said. “I want them to focus on their future and study their education.”