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Raise Your Hand if You’re a Mama!

By Lisa Zanoni, World Relief Spokane Relationship Manager

Raise your hand if you are a mama! Or have a mama. As a mother, or parent, we want our children to be safe and happy. Many of us have made the decision to move away from our family. The reasons are vast: we fall in love; we get a job transfer; we go to college and just never return to our home. I am a southern gal, born and raised in North Carolina. In southern culture, children, especially daughters, don’t venture far from the nest. I am an exception. I fell in love, married a man, and moved to Spokane 29 years ago. I know I ripped my mama’s heart out of her chest. The saving grace was the knowledge that I knew I would be visiting my family frequently. I had, and I still have, the freedom to buy a plane ticket and go home anytime I please.

But what if seeing my family wasn’t even remotely a possibility? What if that tear-laden, heart-wrenching goodbye in 1994 was the last goodbye?

I want to introduce to you Hamsa, Masar, and their three precious daughters. Here is her story of heartache, success and a beautiful reunion!

“My husband, Masar, 14-month-old daughter, Lina, and I moved to the United States in January 2013 as immigrants from Iraq through a program called *Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). Masar and I both worked as contractors for the U.S. government as interpreters. Subsequently, our lives were under threat during the widespread civil war and the harsh service conditions in Baghdad. Threats on our lives for serving with the U.S. military had become too common. The decision to leave Iraq was made when we came home to a gift-wrapped bullet on our front porch. Knowing everything and everyone we would leave behind; this was not an easy decision to make.

Due to the lack of security for our family, and fear of the retaliation that might be taken against my family, I was unable to tell anyone about my plans. I couldn’t even tell my mother. Keeping that secret from her was extremely difficult, but I knew that in order to keep her and my siblings safe, I dare not say a word. Therefore, I told my mother a week before my flight to the United States. We cried as we held each other close, knowing full well that this was probably the last time we would see each other, hug each other. The last time she would see her granddaughter. She was not ready for the separation, but at the same time she wanted a safe and better life for me. She knew she had to let me go in order for me and my little family to live. The day I said goodbye to her and my four siblings was one of, if not the, hardest day of my life.

We flew to US in January 2013, and I still vividly remember the day we arrived in Spokane ten years ago. It felt like magic where Christmas decorations were still being displayed everywhere. I was as excited as a child about our new life! World Relief and especially Lisa West-Zanoni played a great role in my life here from day one to this moment! They assisted us in the resettlement process and helped us to adapt to the new environment. In fact, World Relief staff treat immigrants and refugees as family members or friends. This had a huge impact on me and my family when we arrived to Spokane. Therefore, I am thankful to them. I also would like to give special thanks for Lisa West-Zanoni who was and is still there to support and encourage me as wonderful mother, sister, and friend!

My life in the United States has been challenging and blessed. I encountered multiple obstacles in my life and education journey. I got discriminated against because of the hijab/head scarf that I used to wear. I once was told to speak English at a bus stop. This did not prevent me from going to school. I hold a bachelor’s degree in English from University of Baghdad, and I was determined to continue my education in America and get a job to serve my community. I enrolled in the Vascular Ultrasound Program, and soon after, I got my US citizenship and graduated with an AAS degree! And I have been working in the field for about five years now. Masar and I bought our first house, and our daughters are happy and safe.

Despite our wonderful lives in Spokane, during the past decade, my family was ever present in my thoughts and heart. As primary SIV holder, my husband was able to bring his family to the U.S. As wonderful as it is to have my in-laws here, I was still so desperate to see my mother and for my mother to see her granddaughters. She had not met the two younger girls who were born in Spokane and had watched Lina grow up via FaceTime. I invited my mother and sister to come and visit me on a visitor visa in 2022. Unfortunately, they got rejected. After much discussion with my husband and reports that Baghdad had increased security measures in place, I decided to go to Baghdad and visit them in April 2023. However, I was nervous to go back. Would I be safe? Would I put my family at risk? My longing to see my mother, siblings, and relatives was too overwhelming, and I decided I would trust reports I had heard and take that chance.

The moment I stepped off of the plane and into my mother’s arms confirmed that I had made the right decision. I had four weeks to make up for ten years of separation, four of the most joyous weeks of my life. Very quickly my security fears abated, and instead, stories of missed birthdays and weddings were shared and priceless memories were made. I spent a lot of time just sitting with my mother, cherishing every moment with her. As I closely examined her face and hands, I thought to myself how she had aged. At times, I felt cheated for the hand that had been dealt me and that I was missing these years with her. I knew that she would have it no other way. She had peace knowing that I was safe.

My mother is an amazing cook, and we spent a lot of time enjoying her food. I felt safe as I walked around Baghdad and was thrilled to see rejuvenation occurring. My heart was full as I watched my daughters play with their cousins they had never met. I was thrilled for them to experience their culture that was all around them! It was good to be home and to be surrounded by familiar things that I have missed. But especially to be with my mother.

Those four weeks passed far too quickly. There wasn’t enough time. There is never enough time when it comes to our loved ones. The goodbyes this time although difficult, were not hopeless as before. As I left Baghdad and headed to my U.S. home, I was filled with love and encouragement, knowing that this was not the last goodbye.

I don’t know what the future holds for my family, but I am going to do my best to make this trip every couple of years. War, fear and persecution can tear our lives apart, but nothing will ever separate my mother’s love from my heart.

As we discuss the lives of those from Iraq and their struggle, please consider making a donation to support those coming to Spokane for a new life.

*SIV is a program for Iraqi and Afghan nationals who served alongside or worked with the U.S. government. SIV recipients legal permanent residents of the United States.

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