June 7, 2013

A new life of hope

Catholic Charities Indianapolis program helps refugee on journey to fulfilling dream

A refugee from Iraq, Basim Najeeb, left, has not only made a new life in Indianapolis with the help of Catholic Charities Indianapolis, he also helps new refugees through his work with the archdiocese’s Refugee Resettlement Program. Here, he talks with Teresa Jones, match grant coordinator for the Refugee Resettlement Program. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

A refugee from Iraq, Basim Najeeb, left, has not only made a new life in Indianapolis with the help of Catholic Charities Indianapolis, he also helps new refugees through his work with the archdiocese’s Refugee Resettlement Program. Here, he talks with Teresa Jones, match grant coordinator for the Refugee Resettlement Program. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

He can still see the two gunmen rushing toward the room, their faces covered with masks.

He can still picture their weapons as they tried to burst inside, opening fire on him and the seven others there.

He still remembers how he “played dead,” and how he prayed that he would see his wife and his children again.

Basim Najeeb also recalls hearing the gunmen leave, and discovering that he had been shot in the stomach and his right thigh.

Fortunately, no one died during that attack which happened as Najeeb, a lawyer, represented a client during a meeting at a real estate office in Iraq. Yet, Najeeb suddenly realized that life in his homeland had become too dangerous. He knew that he needed to flee from that country with his family.

“The two were covered by masks, however I knew from their talking they were Iraqi militia,” Najeeb says. “I don’t know why they were doing it. I don’t know if they came to kill me, the real estate people or everyone. I did not do anything wrong. I did not hurt any people. I was not guilty of anything. And it wasn’t just like that for me, it was like that for many people. It’s still happening now. It doesn’t stop.”

Seven years have passed since the attack, but darkness still shadows the face of the 39-year-old father of three as he recalls that terror. The shadow only changes to a smile when he talks about the journey of hope that his life has become—thanks in great part to the Refugee Resettlement Program of Catholic Charities Indianapolis.

In search of a better life

The journey of hope that has led Najeeb and his family to Indianapolis began in 2007—a year marked by tragedy for his extended family.

“In addition to my situation, the reason I left was that the militia killed my cousin in 2007,” Najeeb says.

In that same year, he and his family fled to Syria, where they lived for two years as refugees with the help of the United Nations. Near the end of that time in Syria, a U.N. official called Najeeb to tell him that his request for resettlement had been transferred to the United States. An interview with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security led to the approval for his family to come to Indiana, where a distant relative of Najeeb lives.

“We left Syria on March 9, 2009,” says Najeeb, who has been married for 16 years to his wife, Asmahan. “We arrived to New York the same day. We came to Indiana on March 10. We came as Catholic Charities refugees.”

The Refugee Resettlement Program of Catholic Charities Indianapolis provided an apartment, food and furniture for Najeeb’s family. They also helped them to open bank accounts, fill out forms for insurance, and understand the culture of the city and country that was their new home.

Najeeb also had his own plan—and a dream.

“I always tell people, ‘Don’t rely on other people to do your work. You have to do it,’ ” Najeeb says. “From the first day I came here, I was looking to study, to get a degree. First, I love to study. Second, you have to get a degree to get a good job in the United States.”

The path to a moment of great joy

Najeeb’s long-term plan included earning a degree that would allow him to be a lawyer again, a career he was able to pursue with a bachelor’s degree in Iraq. Yet before he earned a law degree, Najeeb realized he had to take smaller steps, including learning the language and getting a job.

He came to America with “a little English,” and his language proficiency improved as he took English as Second Language classes at the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library. He used that improved ability to study for the test to get a driver’s license.

“I took the first test without a translator. I didn’t pass,” Najeeb says. He smiles before noting, “The second time I passed, in July of 2009.”

He also found work.

“In the apartment complex where we used to live, I met an electrician from Iraq,” he says. “I used to help him in the complex. I became a good electrician.”

He also had a part-time job with Catholic Charities Indianapolis, helping new refugees in their transition to life in Indianapolis.

While he worked, he started taking classes at Indiana Vocational Technical College in Indianapolis. After a year of college, he had earned all A’s. In 2011, he began studying at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. In 2012, he continued his studies as he switched to a full-time job with the Refugee Resettlement Program.

All the hard work led to a moment of great joy in May when he earned a master of law degree. He shared that success with family and friends, including fellow refugees and colleagues at Catholic Charities Indianapolis.

“Even with a heavy course load and an accelerated pace, he was able to masterfully balance his school obligations with those of his job and his family,” says Russ Fackrell, Najeeb’s supervisor at Catholic Charities Indianapolis. “I have seldom seen such a great accomplishment among the groups we serve. He should be proud. All of us in the Refugee Resettlement Program are.”

‘There is hope for the future’

Najeeb continues to make plans for the future for him, his wife and their children: Maryam, 14, Ahmed, 12, and Jomana, 2. The couple is expecting the birth of their fourth child in October.

One possibility for Najeeb involves taking the bar exam in New York. Unlike Indiana, New York is one of the states where a lawyer who has a law degree from a foreign country and a master of law degree from an American college is eligible to take the proficiency test for practicing law. Najeeb is also considering enrolling in law school in Indiana in 2014.

“I want to work as a lawyer again,” says Najeeb, who continues to provide the pro bono legal help that he started while getting his master of law degree. “For me, it’s helping people.”

In the meantime, he continues to serve other refugees as a transportation specialist for Catholic Charities Indianapolis. He drives them to and from work while also steering them through the intricacies of everyday American life. And when they hit an occasional roadblock, he goes the extra mile to help them around it.

He talks about helping to resolve a rental payment situation for a refugee from Sudan who has disabilities.

He also mentions his care for an elderly woman from Iraq who doesn’t speak English. He visits her in the nursing home where she lives and translates for her with the staff of the facility.

“When I came here, I needed help,” says Najeeb, who is Muslim. “I feel thankful for the people at Catholic Charities. And I am proud to work with them.”

The feeling is mutual.

“Basim is one of the most resilient, positive and determined people I have ever met,” says Gabrielle Neal, director of the Refugee Resettlement Program. “He came here four years ago, knowing no English and leaving behind family, a career and home. He came to protect his wife, his children and himself.”

Najeeb remembers the fear, but now he lives with hope.

“That day, I thought maybe I died,” he says. “But I’m still alive. I always say I’m lucky. My life is better here. It’s safer. There is hope for the future.”

(Najeeb and three other refugees will share their stories during the 3rd Annual World Refugee Day Dinner at 6 p.m. on June 20 at the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis. The event will also feature ethnic food, music and dancing. Tickets are $25 or $150 for a table of eight. For more information, log on to www.catholiccharitiesindpls.org.)

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