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Iraqis find new home and safety in Q-C
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Photo: Gary Krambeck
Wissam Abdulkareem and his wife, Zeinab, are an Iraqi family from Moline.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Wissam Abdulkareem and his wife, Zeinab, are an Iraqi family from Moline.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Wissam Abdulkareem and his wife, Zeinab, are a Iraqi family from Moline.
Like so many Iraqis, Wissam Abdulkareem and his wife, Zeinab, fled their home country during the U.S.-led war, with their then 1-year-old son, Samir.

Living in the Quad-Cities now for 4½ years, the friendly, gracious doctors said they love their new life of peace.

"It's the safety here, the future. You can raise your kids here. It's the American dream," Wissam said in their cozy, tastefully decorated Moline apartment. "In Iraq, in Jordan, it was not safe. You were always afraid about your kid, your future."

Since the Iraq war began in 2003, the United Nations estimates roughly 2.2 million Iraqis have fled the country, with at least 100,000 moving to Syria and Jordan. In the past six years alone, 64,174 refugees have been admitted to the U.S. by Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Wissam, 35, and Zeinab, 33, met in medical school at the University of Baghdad, married in 2004 and worked as family physicians in Baghdad. Zeinab said it's common for women to be doctors in Iraq. "There are no restrictions, no discrimination."

"Iraq is different than many Gulf areas. It's more modernized; Baghdad is a big city," Wissam said. Yet, after the first Gulf War and U.N. embargo against Iraq, the country was left with aging, limited medical facilities and older equipment, he said.

The couple didn't like the repressive regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein and wanted to leave Iraq after they graduated from medical school.

"The situation is not good over there. After 2003, the situation in Iraq becomes so bad," Wissam said. "We were threatened, like, to death there. Most of them were religious problems. There were problems between the Sunnis and Shiites. You can't stay in any place."

Between 2003 and 2006, they worked in hospital emergency rooms and treated many victims of battle. "I was always exposed to people, from fighting. People would come to us injured, with traumatic injuries. I spent a lot of time there," Wissam said. "It gives us good knowledge. It's like a disaster situation. It was not easy — 13 or 15 people would come in at the same time, with massive injuries."

The family moved to neighboring Jordan in 2006, but felt like outsiders and still unsafe. "It was more modern, but it is a small country. They had a lot of refugees from all the areas," Wissam said. "It was just a transient thing."

Wissam studied epidemiology and did a residency there under the protection of the United Nations, while Zeinab worked at an infertility clinic. "I really got good experience there. It was one of the biggest hospitals in Jordan," she said.

In Iraq, the government paid for their schooling, and they worked for government-owned hospitals, Wissam said.

They immigrated to the Quad-Cities in September of 2008, first to Rock Island by working with the Moline-based resettlement agency World Relief. They chose this area partly because Wissam has a physician friend he went to college with who now lives in Iowa City.

"It was difficult because you have to leave your family, but we get a lot of folks who help us here," Zeinab said, adding that World Relief has been very helpful.

Even though they were doctors in the Middle East, the couple cannot practice medicine in the U.S. without passing the national exams and a three-year residency. Zeinab has passed the long, difficult exams (including clinical ones in Houston involving patient care) and is in the process of finding a residency.

She's applied to more than 50 programs nationwide — including Genesis in the Quad-Cities — but hasn't gotten an interview yet.

"It's very competitive," Wissam said of residencies. "It's a long process. Getting into a residency program is not easy."

He works for Metropolitan Medical Laboratories and is studying for his exams.

They say they hope to stay in the Quad-Cities.

"I get to know people here. People are fine and nice and helpful," Wissam said. "They make you feel welcomed."

They want to assist others in their chosen profession."What makes us go into medicine is helping people," Wissam said.

"You're happy when you see people who need you, and you can help them and send them to the right way, with the exact treatment needed," Zeinab said.

Wissam's brother, a pharmacist, moved to Cedar Rapids, and their parents moved to the Quad-Cities last April and live in Moline.

Zeinab's family still lives in Jordan; She has gone back four times since 2008 to see them, most recently in October.

"I hear it's still not good," Wissam said of the situation in Iraq, from which U.S. forces have withdrawn after nine years. "From the people I know still living there, it's not safe, especially for doctors right now."

He is upset with how much money Iraq invested to train doctors and engineers, and so many have fled, and those resources "are wasted if they can't get residencies" in the U.S., Wissam said. He has Iraqi friends in other states and knows about 20 Iraqi families in the Quad-Cities.

They expect to become U.S. citizens in September, five years after having "permanent resident" status. "We are so excited," Zeinab said.

-- Location:Middle East, bordering the Persian Gulf, between Iran and Kuwait.

-- Population:31,129,225 (July 2012 estimate). No. 39 in the world.

-- Languages:Arabic (official), Kurdish (official); Turkmen (a Turkish dialect) and Assyrian (Neo-Aramaic) are official in areas where they constitute a majority of the population; Armenian.

Source: CIA World Factbook.

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