By Wayne Schutsky GSN Managing Editor
At a time when the debate over U.S. refugee resettlement policy rages nationwide, Saba and Nazhoon exemplify what can happen when a community opens its arms to others in need.
The couple built a new life for themselves in Gilbert after being driven from their home in Iraq by violence in the early 2000s.
Forced to move from home to home in Iraq for years before fleeing to Egypt, they waited nearly a decade to be resettled in America.
When they finally arrived in spring 2017, Saba and Nazhoon faced the tall task of adjusting to a new culture and society at the ages of 73 and 66, respectively.
They had the added challenge that Saba, who was a structural engineer in Iraq, does not speak much English, though his wife speaks the language very well.
They were able to meet the challenge with the help of new friends they met along the way at Gilbert’s Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church.
Several members of the church stepped in to provide material and emotional support after they were resettled in Gilbert with the help of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest.
One couple in particular, Brad and Randi VenHuizen, took a particular interest in Saba and Nazhoon.
The church members have taken their new friends on day trips around Arizona, provided rides for errands around town and even played an instrumental role in making sure the couple’s green card application did not fall through.
“When I meet him, I feel that (Brad) is my father, my brother, my friend, my uncle,” Nazhoon said.
The two couples since have developed a close friendship, though it was a friendship that almost did not happen.
Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, which operates as a refugee resettlement agency, does not typically resettle refugees in Gilbert because there are fewer resources and ethnic community groups located there than in other Valley cities, according to Stephanie Petrilli, director of development communications.
However, Saba and Nazhoon had a friend in Gilbert who said she would help the family, so the organization made an exception.
When the couple arrived in Gilbert, they stayed with the friend for three weeks, but the friend had throat cancer and could not provide further support.
That is where Spirit of Joy stepped in.
Volunteers from the church have helped Saba and Nazhoon become acclimated to their new community by taking them to the library, teaching them to ride the light rail and helping them make connections to the community.
Beyond those everyday tasks, Saba and Nazhoon, who are Christian, are thankful to be part of a church community again; much of the persecution they faced in Iraq resulted from their faith. Nazhoon said they had not been able to attend a church for 20 years.
“They make us love this church so much,” Nazhoon said. “Really, all the people – all the people in this church. I love them. I feel they are in my family.”
They are so close with their church family that Nazhoon now sends videos of worship services to family in Egypt.
Saba and Nazhoon’s journey to joining the Gilbert community took nearly 15 years.
Shortly after the beginning of the Iraq War, the family was victimized by violent militias who told them they must leave the country because of their Christianity. Over the next several years, they were forced to move among several different homes in order to remain safe.
Still, they were witness to acts of unspeakable violence, including a moment when their son witnessed masked men abduct three of his friends from his university and kill them.
Eventually, Nazhoon was able to take her son to Egypt to stay with family members. After returning to Iraq, she eventually fled to Egypt with her daughter in 2006 after receiving another death threat.
Saba stayed behind in Iraq with his brother. It would be five years before he was able to travel to Egypt in 2011 and be reunited with his family.
Even at that point, their wait had not yet ended. Nazhoon received refugee status and asked to be resettled in 2008, but the couple would not make it to the U.S. until March 2017, helped by the exception for Christians included in an old version of President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
The couple’s adult children still live in Egypt.
The resettlement process is an arduous one with an array of background and security checks for applicants.
The White House released an infographic in 2015 that detailed the refugee process. According to the graphic, refugees typically apply through global agencies like the U.N. before undergoing interviews and submission of their names, dates of birth and, in some cases, eye scans.
Less than 1 percent of the global refugee population moves past that step and is received by a federally funded resettlement support center that collects data and information for background checks.
Candidates are then checked by several U.S. government agencies, including the F.B.I., Department of Homeland Security, State Department and National Counterterrorism Center.
Candidates also are subject to a Department of Homeland Security interview, fingerprint screenings and medical checks before being referred to a domestic resettlement agency.