Volunteer joins Houston-Area Mosques to help Refugees

By Mike Tolson
Houston Chronicle
January 18, 2009

Mostaffa Mohammed had a good life, or as good as you could expect in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. A chemical engineer by training, he made a respectable income from an electrical tool business and never had to worry about a roof over his head or food on the table.

Now Mohammed, 35, finds himself much poorer in a much richer country. He lives in a down-at-the-heels apartment complex in southwest Houston with his wife and three young children.

He has a job driving limos, but no health insurance. He worries for his family’s safety and whether he will be able to pay the rent. He knows there’s a good life out there, somewhere, but he is equally sure that the road to reach it will be long.

“It is very difficult,” said Mohammed, who arrived in Houston in July after several years in Jordan. “We are strangers here. We have little money. Many of us do not speak English.”

America may be the promised land, but the promise is for opportunity alone. Mohammed is making plans to attend Houston Community College to study water treatment in hopes of building on his engineering skills. He’s looking for a second job and to polish his English.

In the meantime, he and the increasing number of other Iraqi refugees in Houston struggle. There is no established community of older immigrants to help them. They get a little government assistance for a few months, then are left to their own devices. That’s why Zulayka Martinez decided to step in.

A 33-year-old convert to Islam, she happened to meet an Iraqi woman who had been burned in a car bomb explosion. Martinez was shocked at how poor the woman was and how little help she had been given since arriving in Houston. With no experience in relief work and no money to offer, Martinez appealed to those who attend various local mosques for help.

Thanks to contributions, she is able to buy a few staples — rice, beans, potatoes, cooking oil — along with a bit of fresh produce, all of which she delivers twice monthly to a few dozen appreciative families.

On Sunday, she and a dozen or so volunteers who responded to President-elect Barack Obama’s call to volunteer spent most of the day providing two small bags of groceries to 50 families, most Iraqi, but a few Burmese.

“I started meeting more of them and seeing them with nothing in their apartment and without much food,” Martinez said. “It breaks my heart to see a widow with nothing in her pantry. This is not much, but something is better than nothing.”

Too dangerous

Many of the Iraqis she has met are educated. Many worked with U.S. forces or western non-governmental organizations, only to find themselves targeted as traitors by insurgents and militants. Mohammed left because the country had become too dangerous for him.

“Baghdad became very difficult for educated people,” he said. “Militants became the only players, and we didn’t have a place in the game.”

Martinez said the adjustment to a new country is made more difficult because the immigrants had status and a relative standard of living in their home country that will be hard to get back. The older ones feel they don’t have enough time left to get comparable American certifications and licenses, and the younger ones usually have families to support, leaving little time for education.

“Sometimes it’s hard to make them understand that they are not going to have the same career,” she said. “They are not going to be a doctor or an engineer or a scientist. Some can handle it, some cannot.”

Martinez, who works as an apartment leasing agent, does what she can to help. A lifelong Houstonian, she began to study the Quran 10 years ago as she was training for missionary work. Suddenly, the Bible and Christianity and her faith made more sense to her. She converted in 2000, forgoing her missionary plans.

“What I wanted in my life was a way to serve God, and I have that,” she said. “A calling is a calling.”

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