A family’s fortitude: Forced to flee Iraq, the Aldajaeis have been through a lot together

Forced to flee Iraq, Jamal Aldajaei has been through a lot – but with his family by his side, no obstacle could deter him from completing his degree.

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The first time the secret police came for Jamal Aldajaei he was in school. It was a graduate chemistry class, and he was studying with his classmates when a call came from the teacher at the front, asking him to report to the dean’s office.

Murmurs swept the room. He knew what would come next, as did his fellow students, who told him goodbye and wished him good luck. They would pray for him, they said. He rose reluctantly from his desk, accepted their best wishes and walked to the dean’s office. Then he disappeared.

Aldajaei had refused to sign a document pledging his allegiance to the Ba’ath Party, Saddam Hussein’s ruling political party in Aldajaei’s native Iraq. It was 1983, and he says signing the document was a requirement for attending graduate school. Aldajaei knew this before he enrolled in school, but it did not prevent him from enrolling anyway. In his view, it was his country and his right to study whatever he wanted. He believed that decision did not belong to the government.

He was wrong.

Aldajaei was taken to a secret prison for political opponents of the Hussein regime. No one was told his whereabouts or what had happened to him – not his family, his friends or Kifah Alsaleh, the young chemist he had fallen in love with. He was one of thousands in the country who had simply disappeared without explanation.

In prison, Aldajaei says, he was tortured with avid regularity. He was whipped and slashed on his bare back, arms and torso. Perhaps most painfully, he was hung upside down from a circling fan for hours, day after day, doing extensive damage to his knees. The police’s idea, he says, was to bludgeon him into submission – to teach him to bow.

Thirty-one years later, though, Aldajaei scoffs at the secret police guards and what he believes was their misunderstanding of human nature. When a country imprisons its political dissidents, Aldajaei says, those who are imprisoned will always be smarter and stronger than those who lock them up.

“It is like this: the more you push, the more resistance you get,” Aldajaei says. “Even in science it’s this way. Every action creates an opposite reaction. In prison, they try to make you weak and you become stronger. I became stronger.”

Now, approximately three decades later than expected, Aldajaei finally has his graduate degree, a Ph.D. in chemistry from the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences, earned earlier this month. He has overcome a multitude of difficulties, including more prison stays and additional torture. He’s spent time in hiding, on the run and as a refugee. An educated and highly trained chemist, he’s worked a host of jobs that do not reflect his level of expertise, including one stretch when he held three part-time jobs while studying as a part-time student. With his wife and two children, he’s twice settled in new countries. Twice they’ve rebuilt their lives together. The process has been painful and filled with frustration and doubt.

But now he’s got it, the degree he so badly wanted, and he did it without compromising his beliefs or acquiescing to the demands of others. In light of all that it took to complete the journey, he’s stunned to be at his destination.

“I am too happy,” he says, shaking his head. “This is my dream. I did it. I know there was a lot of suffering and hard work, but I did it.”

Raising a family and an opposition

After his eventual release from prison, Aldajaei did not attempt to return to graduate school. He did find work as a chemist, however, and he reunited with Kifah Alsaleh. They married and eventually had two children, a daughter named Manar and a son named Ali. The Aldajaeis settled in Baghdad, where both Jamal and Kifah Alsaleh had family.  

Kifah Alsaleh and Jamal worked as part of a team that built a factory that manufactured syringes to send to Europe. Later, they worked in a pharmaceutical plant. Jamal was stationed in the laboratory researching medicinal syrup, while Kifah Alsaleh served as a quality control manager, overseeing 80 people.

Jamal, meanwhile, became increasingly politically active. He began to attend protests that condemned Hussein and called for new leadership. The protests were tense, frightening scenes with the participants often surrounded by tanks and heavily armed members of the police and military. Some protesters wore bracelets so they could be easily identified if they were killed. Jamal was jailed multiple times for his participation in them.

One day in 1995 a general visited Jamal. The general wanted him to be part of a team that would work for the military, according to Jamal. He refused, saying he had pursued chemistry “to heal people, not kill people.”

He was sent to closed military court and disappeared again. He spent more than 100 days in jail, where he was tortured and deprived. The family had no idea where he was. They bribed an official with a new car just to find out his location. After they found him, one of Kifah Alsaleh’s brothers visited him in jail. He was horrified at the sight of Jamal. Normally a large and garrulous man, Jamal was emaciated and quiet. He seemed like someone else. After the visit, Kifah Alsaleh’s brother was so haunted he didn’t eat for three days.

The family worked hard to move Jamal’s case into civilian court, where it was dismissed for lack of charges. Jamal returned to the world, though no longer a chemist in a factory but a driver in a cab. The protests against Hussein continued.

The pressure on dissidents intensified, including killings, and Jamal was driven underground, worried that he might be one of the next targets.

Even though Jamal was determined to demonstrate his opposition to Hussein, he worried about his family being targeted for his efforts. Manar and Ali were taught to keep their opinions about Hussein and his followers to themselves, except Kifah Alsaleh trained them to repeat the simple phrase, “Saddam Hussein is a great president.”

Ali remembers once riding around the neighborhood on his bike with a photo of an assassinated opposition leader taped to the handlebars. An uncle slapped him, wanting him to remember his lesson to keep his mouth shut. It was too dangerous to do otherwise.

Jamal hid for weeks in a friend’s home, before fleeing the country for Syria. After all that he had sacrificed already, it was a difficult defeat to take.

“He’d seen his future collapse because of what he believed in,” Ali says. “It wasn’t easy. He could have been quiet, but he believed in making his community better. It was hard for him to have to leave.”

Kifah Alsaleh did not hear from Jamal for three months. She did not know where he was or what his plans were. She held together the family and kept her fears from her children. Eventually, Jamal called to tell her he was in Damascus and that he had arranged for the family to immigrate to the United States through a United Nations program. They all needed to be in Damascus, though, for the application to go through. Kifah Alsaleh and the children would need to get out of Iraq.

Kifah Alsaleh was in shock.

“That had never been the plan,” Kifah Alsaleh says. “Going to the United States was not even in my mind.”

Ali was 8 years old, and Manar was 12. They didn’t want to go. Manar, who is social and outgoing, was particularly upset, devastated to be leaving her friends. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t stay with relatives and keep going to the school she loved.

Looking back now, though, Manar understands.

“He was attached to us,” she says. “Leaving us behind wasn’t an option for him.”

Ali remembers that it all seemed very sudden. He was out one night playing with some friends, and he came home and the car was packed. They left that night. Manar was crying as the car left. She remembers an uncle trying to calm her down and tell her that it would all work out for the best.

Kifah Alsaleh approached Syria terrified that they would be discovered and identified before their escape was complete. They were on the country’s no-travel list, so they traveled with fake passports and other fabricated identification. In the car, Ali was drilled with questions and reminders about his fake name and invented birthday, because his mother was nervous that the youngest in the family would be the most vulnerable to a mistake with a border guard.

When they reached the gate at the border crossing, they could see Jamal waiting for them on the other side. They crossed without incident and watched as Jamal dropped onto his knees to pray with gratitude.

Syria and the long wait

Syria was an adjustment. The family had lived in an expansive villa-style house in Baghdad with six bedrooms and more space than they needed. In contrast, the quarters were much smaller in Damascus, their full apartment less than the size of their old living room. They had no close friends in the city, no strong connections from their home.

Still, their stay was supposed to be a brief one. The U.N. program was designed to help immigration occur relatively quickly. They would be bound for the U.S. soon enough.

Then the 9/11 terrorist attacks shook the world and the U.S. put an indefinite hold on accepting immigrants through the program. Suddenly, the Aldajaeis were unclear about their future.

Jamal pleaded that his application be outright rejected so that he could apply for immigration to Europe or Canada, where other Iraqi refugees were heading without interruption. However, the Americans were withholding action – acceptance or rejection – on all applications. The Aldajaeis were stuck in a holding pattern. Syria was no longer just a pit stop.

Manar took it the hardest, slowly adjusting to her new country. She did not attend school for two years. Kifah Alsaleh had held a prestigious job with significant supervisory responsibilities in Iraq, but she initially struggled to find work in Syria. When she did, the pay was low.

Eventually, though, the family adjusted. They found perks in their new home. The society seemed more open – their TV carried 600 channels instead of the four they knew in Baghdad – and they made friends, including others who had left Iraq. Jamal and Kifah Alsaleh gradually landed well-paying jobs at a pharmaceutical factory, and Manar went back to school, thriving academically right away.

The Aldajaeis came to terms with their open-ended stay in Syria. They began to think of it as something closer to permanent, and after five years they began to go house hunting. Manar finished high school and was accepted to dental school, which was her dream.

Then, without warning in 2005, they received word that their application to move to the U.S. had been accepted. They were uncertain about the move. They were happy in Syria and felt settled. Still, they were technically in the country illegally, and they could be sent back to Iraq at any moment.

Manar begged to be left behind to start dental school, but Jamal and Kifah Alsaleh were determined to keep their family together. It was time to uproot again and start all over in a new part of the world.

The U.S. and the search for opportunity

The Aldajaeis’ introduction to American life was demoralizing. They were placed in a rough neighborhood in Richmond and found themselves exposed to the kind of daily danger that they had never faced as a family in either Iraq or Syria. They encountered SWAT teams on cases nearby, routinely heard gunfire. They knew little English and struggled to decipher their new circumstances.

Ali said school was miserable – “8th, 9th and 10th grades was the worst time of my life” – and Manar hit her lowest emotional point in the first few months in the country, still asking her parents to let her return to Syria for dental school. She’d been told by an aid worker to forget any hope for higher education and to look for work instead.

Things were no better for their parents. Despite their skills and background, they were encouraged to find jobs in the service industry – to set aside their training in favor of finding whatever paycheck they could secure. It was not what they’d expected at all.

Fortunately, they had what they call “our guardian angel.” Debbie Stanley, who was working as a nurse at the time of their arrival, took an interest in the Aldajaei clan and provided advice and direction. She let them know about resources available to them, and she helped make the U.S. seem less mysterious. She showed them how Manar could apply to college at VCU.

“So much of where we are is because of her,” Ali said. “And she wanted nothing in return from us. She just wanted to help.”

Manar was accepted at VCU and started school in the spring semester of 2006 – just four months after she’d arrived in the country. She found renewed purpose as a student and soon was eyeing dental school again. She made friends immediately and embraced the school. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 2011.

It took Ali a few years but he learned the language, adapted to the culture, gained some American friends, joined a soccer team and chess club, and came to a realization that he owed it to himself and his parents to work harder in school.

“I never had the right to whine,” Ali says. “My parents worked so hard for us. I shouldn’t get to complain.”

His grades rose sharply his final two years in high school, and he was accepted into the VCU School of Engineering. He’s just completed his third year, studying electrical and computer engineering.

A graduate degree, finally

Jamal Aladajaei, Ph.D., gives a thumbs up to his family at the spring commencement ceremony.
Jamal Aladajaei, Ph.D., gives a thumbs up to his family at the spring commencement ceremony.

Jamal visited with Maryanne Collinson, Ph.D., professor and director of graduate recruitment in the Department of Chemistry, in 2008 and expressed his desire to pursue his doctoral degree. Collinson told him that it would be tough and that he should first take four courses in a single semester and see how he did. He took four 400-level classes, battling through difficulties with English and his long break from academic study to earn three Bs and an A. He joined the department part-time as a student. His first year at VCU he held part-time positions as a cashier at Circuit City, a pharmacy technician at Walmart and an overnight security guard at VCU. It was a sleep-deprived time.

Then, in his second year, he earned a job in an endocrinology lab at VCU, and he’s since worked in labs in anesthesiology and pharmacy at VCU, making his schedule more sustainable.

Jamal says his teachers, such as Collinson and Scott Gronert, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Chemistry who served as Jamal’s adviser, have been warm and welcoming. They have been patient with his visits to their offices and open to his requests for help. He’s also been allowed flexible hours and responsibility in the labs where he’s worked, such as in the endocrinology lab of John Nestler, M.D., William Branch Porter Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine in the School of Medicine.  

“It has been great,” he says. “People have been great to me.”

Jamal finished his dissertation and the Ph.D. program this spring and proudly received his doctoral degree at spring commencement ceremonies. His family was there, watching in the Richmond Coliseum stands, and, caught up in the emotion of the moment, he surprised himself by flashing a thumbs-up to them as they cheered him on.

The hero of the story

It’s important to note that Jamal is not the only Aldajaei accepted into the doctoral chemistry program at VCU. Kifah Alsaleh also was. A doctoral degree was her dream, too. However, for her husband and children to pursue their goals, she needed to work to provide a steady and solid income. She did it without complaint, despite five surgeries related to the sometimes agonizing rheumatoid arthritis that has stricken her since 1989. She was, her family says, relentless. Once, she underwent knee replacement surgery in the morning and was asking for a physical therapist to start her rehabilitation by the afternoon.

Today, Kifah Alsaleh continues to work, commuting four days a week to a job in a laboratory in Hampton to serve as the family’s primary breadwinner. Her family expresses amazement at her fortitude, particularly the way she has maintained it through difficult times. They know she’s in pain, but “she’s never even showed that she was tired,” Ali says.

“Anyone else wouldn’t be able to handle what she has,” he says.

Manar says her mother has always been the steady one in the family, the one that remained rooted in reality no matter what obstacle had emerged. Manar says she is proud of her father and loves him, but that he is also a headstrong man “who is not always an easy person to deal with.” But Kifah Alsaleh always found a way to deal with him – “my parents are meant for each other,” Manar says – and to stay calm in many nerve-wracking times, somehow absorbing the family’s stress.

“I’ve asked myself if I would be able to do what she’s done and the answer is absolutely not,” Manar says.

Kifah Alsaleh does not see what the big deal is, shrugging gratefully at her family’s appreciation.

“My accomplishment in my life is my kids and my family,” she says. “This is my investment. I think it’s a good investment.”

The family looks back

Ali and Manar were no fans of the move to the U.S. when it happened, but both are grateful their parents chose to bring them here.

“I think it’s miraculous what they’ve done for each other and for us,” Manar says.

Both can look at the turmoil that followed in both Iraq and Syria after they left those countries and feel blessed that they were not in the midst of the violence.

In addition, they learned to love it here. Ali said the U.S. is “where I learned the most, where I grew up. I owe a lot to the states.”

“Looking back on it, even with the bad times, I’m thankful for all of it,” he says.

Manar will start dental school at New York University this fall, her pursuit of that profession delayed by circumstances but not canceled.

“I wouldn’t change anything now,” Manar says. “I don’t want to go through it again, but I also wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t be the same person with the same perspective and the same values without it all.”

Jamal and Kifah Alsaleh, too, express no regrets.

“We’re good now,” Jamal says. “We’ve got two amazing kids who are well educated with good futures. What else is there?”

Jamal walks with a serious limp today, gingerly descending stairs sideways to ease the pain in his knees that is a constant reminder of his first time in graduate school. He has severe scars on his upper torso, arms and back from when he was whipped.

Sign this or you will never get your degree, he was told. But he didn’t sign, and he still got that degree. In fact, he says, it means more now than it ever could have decades ago.

“They were wrong, you see?” Jamal says, his eyebrows raised and a wide grin on his face. He is holding out his hands for emphasis. He wants this point to be fully understood. “They didn’t get to decide this for me.”


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