Millions of Iraqis fled their homeland during the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the ensuing civil war. At the time I began documenting this story in 2008, only a handful of Iraqi refugees had been granted asylum in the U.S. or Europe. For the most part, displaced families languished in neighboring countries, struggling to survive in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey.
On May 25, 2005, an Iraqi named Haider Bahar entered the arrival gate at Cairo International Airport with his young son, Karrar. His goal: to find medical care for Karrar, who was steadily going blind. Karrar's eyesight had drastically deteriorated since his birth in 2002, and he hadn't seen a doctor since before the American invasion of Iraq, as many of Iraq's health professionals had either been killed or left the country.
Haider was also escaping the violence of his Shiite Baghdad neighborhood, Al-Dora. In the past year, Haider's brother and a friend were gunned down in the street, Haider's car was blown up and death threats bearing the Al-Qaeda signature were left at his family's doorstep. One day, gunmen forced the large middle-class family from their home. Karrar witnessed the killings of two people, including a child. He was traumatized and suffered from anxiety attacks and nightmares.
Haider began spending his savings on visits to Cairo eye specialists for Karrar. The diagnoses were varied but no doctor seemed able to treat him. Several recommended he seek medical care abroad, in the West. Haider began to set his sights on the only option for Karrar: resettlement in America or Europe.Meanwhile, Haider's wife Shaemaa and new baby Ali arrived in Cairo the following year. Like many of Cairo's estimated 100,000 Iraqi refugees, Haider was unable to find adequate and steady employment in Egypt, where 40% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. The family's finances began to teeter precariously. They couldn't even afford badly needed new glasses for Karrar. Refugees in Egypt rely on strapped non-governmental organizations and charities for support, as the Egyptian government provides no safety net.
The young couple struggled to hold the family together. Their sudden poverty, uncertain future, separation from family and lack of outside support exhausted and depressed Shaemaa, who said she felt hopeless. She and Haider worried about Karrar's decreasing eyesight, his isolation and his emotional fragility. The family's attempts to seek asylum in the United States were inexplicably stalled, and Haider began to talk about returning to Iraq, an idea that terrified Karrar. Finally, the United States, which had accepted only a handful Iraqi refugees since the war began in 2003, streamlined the resettlement process. As the cogs of America's bureaucratic immigration machine began to turn, a ray of hope filtered in to the small Cairo apartment-after months of paperwork, interviews and meetings, Haider's family received a medical referral from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) because of Karrar's vision problems. The referral allowed them to apply for refugee status.On Dec. 8, 2009, Haider, Shaemaa, Karrar and Ali emigrated to the United States, settling in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio.