Wael: Finally Home
BEDFORD — Forks and knives clatter against ceramic plates as Wael and I sit down for lunch. The Old West Cafe is a far cry from his traditional Iraqi fare, but we leaf through the menu and each select a chicken dish. It’s the end of the lunch hour, and the restaurant growls more than roars. We’ve just finished shooting his interview, but I still have questions for him. Off the record, of course. In the brief time that I’ve known the refugee and his family, I’ve learned to cherish our conversations. They’re electric, exciting, and essential in an era of division.
Wael has a lot to teach us.
A native of Baghdad, he and his family were some of the first to encounter American troops in the early 2000s. Wael — who goes by ‘Al’ to make things easier here in the states — grew up under Saddam Hussein’s regime. He had two television channels, and both told him that Americans wanted to kill him. Decades after the war brought American tanks to his doorstep, however, he’s proud to call Bedford, Texas home.
Confronting the Foreign
For Wael, life is divided into two parts: “Saddam Time,” and the journey that followed the dictator’s death. His childhood memories are as carefree as anyone’s: school, mischief with friends, and soccer in the streets. He had no idea that his world had been carefully constructed by an oppressive regime. No one in his generation could remember life before Saddam. Naturally, the arrival of American Troops in his hometown shattered his worldview.
“It was chaos. Some Iraqis were fighting Americans, some threw flowers. You don’t know which side you want to take,” Wael remembered.
Unsure what to think of the occupying force, Wael tried to go about business as usual. But the troops he interacted with challenged everything he’d been taught about America. He saved a few of them from spending their money on counterfeit goods, and they offered to buy from him instead. He refused. It was bad manners to sell them a bad product, but he wasn’t out to help them; all he wanted was to be a hospitable host. And yet, he was fascinated by these uninvited guests as they joked and swapped stories with him.
“I was one of the people that didn’t like Americans,” he said. “After the war, things happened and we didn’t know if they were better for Iraq or not. But step by step we started talking to Americans. We found out they were just human. They were no different from us.”
The Cost of Service
Over the next few years, Wael would come to serve as an interpreter for the United States Military. He helped them train Iraqi troops, install local fire departments, and build hospitals. Eventually, he worked on the Army’s Humvee Fielding Initiative, overseeing the transfer of American vehicles into Iraqi service.
“I got the chance to serve my country. To help Americans to capture a lot of terrorists. To help a lot of poor people by building schools, medical operations, you name it.” Wael recalled. “In the middle of all that, I got threatened a couple of times by terrorists… as much as you try to stay low profile, they can find you.”
Insurgents spotted Wael driving to and from the base. Within days, his house was set ablaze and his car was bombed. With a wife and two young boys under his care, he could no longer stay in his country. The family moved North, and Wael got a job on an American oil rig in the Kurdish region. But they were never Home.
“You never felt that it was safe and secure. No matter how much you make per month, how much you save in the bank account, what you’ve planned for your kids,” he said of the decision to move. “As a father, you think that one bad guy can still kidnap your kids and you won’t know what will happen next.”
Because of his service, he was offered the chance to immigrate to America on a Special Immigrant Visa. It took two years — 6 months in Turkey and 18 in Egypt — for the family to undergo the necessary background checks.
Welcome to America
Wael planned on moving to Houston, where he could secure a job in the oilfields of south Texas. At the last minute — for reasons he still can’t explain — he changed his mind. The family came to DFW instead.
“You find out after things happen that it’s not your plan. It’s God’s plan. When you make plans for yourself, you know nothing. God knows better, and He does better for you,” he said. “[Our family] came here and we knew almost no one here. We had no money. We had hope, but we weren’t sure about that.”
The first thing Wael saw in the airport was a crowd of people with an unexpected sign: “Welcome to America.” He later found out that three families from 121 Community Church had partnered with World Relief to help his family settle into their new lives. Finally, his search for a place to call home — with all of its uncertainty and mistrust — was nearing its end.
“The Joneses, Jolleys, and Sanders showed us all kinds of love. That’s what you need. Money, as a parent, you can do that. You can work hard and you can do it. A house? You can find it. But love that makes you feel like you belong? That’s different. That’s a feeling that we were missing for a long time.”
That Crazy Love
After weeks of searching, Wael found a job and an apartment. Their first month in America saw all four refugees sharing the Jones family’s spare bedroom. Both boys enrolled in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District. They ate dinner with their new friends at 121 Community Church. Everywhere they went, they found the same crazy love that met them at the baggage claim at DFW International Airport.
“You would think this is only three families. They do that; they’re just weird families that are full of love. The rest of society is different. You would think that, but they would invite you to their church — 121 Church — and everyone is the same,” he said.
When the family ran into needs that their hosts couldn’t cover, their friends referred them to 6 Stones. In the last two years, the refugees have been part of both Operation Back 2 School and Night of Hope. For a family on a tight income, those resources were invaluable. The money they saved helped them to stabilize, but the events themselves did more than stretch dollars. They reinforced, once again, that crazy love.
“We got two big bags when we went back home, full of supplies,” Wael said, remembering Operation Back 2 School. “But we got 1,000 bags of love. That’s what I told my wife… I found the right path with big help from 6 Stones. It’s not about all the supplies they gave me. It’s the kindness and the meaning behind it.”
Two years after arriving in Texas, Wael is actively involved in his community. He’s taken home Employee of the Month awards, become a fan of FC Dallas, volunteered to repair homes through Community-Powered Revitalization, and helped to coach junior high soccer players in Liga HEB. For the first time in a long time, he feels not only safe but loved.
“My understanding of how 6 Stones works is that they give you an opportunity. First, you feel like you are not alone,” he said. “We got too much love here. I’ve heard a term here in America: ‘It’s like drinking out of a firehose.’ I think that’s what it is… we learned that it was inside of them. Those three families are Jesus followers. Their religion is to help others, and it’s genuine inside them, to help others.”
“They show you what Jesus tell them. I call it The Walk. It’s not just talk; they walk the Jesus Walk. They want everyone to walk this way… that pushed us, from inside us. It took us inside out. We started helping others. Nobody told you that, but you felt inside you: this is the responsibility… this love should not stop here, with me.”
This community loves in an exceptional way. A way that welcomes the outsider, encourages the foreigner, and overall Walks the Walk. Because of your willingness to step outside of yourself — to reach out to and learn from those who are not like you, as Wael did in Baghdad — this community is a better place. A place where a war-weary refugee can go to bed every night believing that tomorrow will be a better day.
A place we can all call home.
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