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Dearborn family escaped Iraq war to give their children a better life

By: Tom Markowski, October 22, 2016, 2:00 pm

Dearborn – How quickly we forget.

A vast majority of our thoughts drift way in an instant only to be replaced by other thoughts destined to be forgotten. Other memories linger but are often clouded by the passing of time.

For Lina Khaleefah the horrors her and her family witnessed of war and bloodshed are both real and contained in the past. She can’t forget what happened. Khaleefah can only place them on a shelf in the back corners of her mind, speaking of them only when asked.


The road to freedom


Khaleefah, her husband, Mohmmed, and their three children, the youngest an infant, escaped Iraq’s civil war a decade ago. To Syria they fled and on to Egypt before arriving in the United States in 2007.

After living in Harrisonburg, Virginia, for three years, the Khaleefahs moved to Dearborn. Their journey would end here, and their new lives would begin. Mustafa, the eldest child, was nine. His sister, Sarah, seven and the youngest, Ahmed, a toddler. School for Mustafa and Sarah would be difficult at first. English was still a new language for them but they had the willingness to learn.

They would struggle with school work and, at times, socially as they melted in with others of similar ethnicity. They were greeted with open arms by family and later by friends but what was most important to Lina and Mohmmed is that their children, at long last, were safe.

“It was very bad,” Lina said of the war. “We kept on going to funerals. You never knew who was going to come and do the killing. That was the scariest part. You didn’t know your enemy.

“It was the bombing. They started bombing the bakery first. Then they started killing the doctors, then the teachers. It was bad. It was chaos. The summer of 2006…got bad. My husband’s cousin got killed. We packed our clothes and went to live with my parents. We tried to put our children in school. Then the kidnapping started. So we didn’t. They wanted to kill my husband. They put him on a list.

“There were killings in front of our house. Nobody knows who they were. They would come on motorcycles, start shooting and go off.”

Lina was sure of one thing. She and her husband had to protect their children. If that meant leaving Bagdad, so be it. If that meant Lina would have to leave her parents, they would do that, too.

“That was the problem,” she said. “I don’t care about my life. (The children) is what you think about.”

Lina and Mohmmed both worked. She was a civil engineer, Mohmmed worked on cars, restoring and reselling them. They had money to travel and had family, in Syria, Egypt and the U.S., willing to aid them in their quest.

But travel was not always easy. There were thousands attempting to flee the war. Time was running out. Going from Iraq to Syria was easy. But traveling from Syria to Egypt became more difficult as time moved on. It became a numbers’ game.

“It was hard getting into Egypt,” Lina said. “We were one of the last ones to leave. My parents are still in Iraq. To go to the United States, we got a work visa. I’m a civil engineer. They gave me and my children a visa. My husband had to stay in Egypt. For three months. It wasn’t easy. It’s all about the kids. He said even if he wasn’t able to come (to the U.S.) that it was best for the kids. We tried not to think about it.”

Eventually, Mohmmed was able to obtain a visa but the reunion had to be put on hold for a few hours. The timing of his arrival in Virginia was a bit off.

“I remember crying at the airport (in Egypt) when we left,” Mustafa said. “When (my father) did come, he woke me up at two in the morning. I hugged him and went back to sleep. When I got up later it was better. We were able to talk, and we cried.”

Even as the eldest, Mustafa, now 17, has few vivid memories of living in Iraq. But some of the horrors will stay forever. Playing in the streets or on dirt fields with a soccer ball will remain as snapshots of the good times.

“It was dangerous,” he said. “We lived next to a school. My dad said it was too dangerous just to go to school. There were good times but the bad times stand out. My sister saw a guy get killed outside of our house. She was looking out of the window. He got shot right out in front. I remember my dad cleaning up the blood.

“Even as a little kid, you really don’t understand it. You get used to it. It was stressful for my parents. As kids, you don’t know. You don’t understand.”


Finally, a permanent home


The Khaleefahs shared an apartment with family when they first arrived in Dearborn in late 2010. Mustafa entered the seventh grade, Sarah the fifth. Lina and Mohmmed quickly found work, Lina as a math teacher, and later as a supervisor, Mohmmed sticking to his work with automobiles. In a year’s time they were able to move into a house of their own.

It was yet another step toward independence. Learning the language remained a work in progress but Lina and Mohmmed were adamant that their children would learn to speak English well. Living in a new place has its own social difficulties. Being ostracized as an outsider, with language as a barrier, can only make it more stressful.

Participating in sports is often a good means to making friends. Mustafa played soccer in Iraq and Egypt, and continued to play when he moved to Virginia. When his family moved to Dearborn he left soccer behind and concentrated on academics.

Although Mustafa, physically, was above average when he was in eighth grade, approximately 6-feet tall and 210 pounds, he didn’t take to sports.

“I was too lazy,” he said. “My freshman year I came to football practice in August. Later that month I went to see my cousins in Ohio and I never came back (to practice). Yeah, I was still too lazy. I didn’t play sports at all that year. I just hung out with a lot of people, and my grades were good.”

That’s through the eyes of a 14-year-old but not the way Dearborn varsity head coach John Powell saw it. He doesn’t think Mustafa was lazy. Instead, there might have been some fear involved.

In 2011 Dearborn had one of the state’s best players, Bearooz Yacoobi, a lineman who was entering his senior season, and who now is a member of the Purdue football team.

“Mustafa comes in and sees Bearooz and says to himself, ‘I’m not going against him’,” Powell said. “Heck, Mustafa was a freshman. I’m going to let him go against Bearooz. But he didn’t know that.”

Powell kept in touch with Mustafa, talked to him a number of times in the halls, and convinced him to participate in a sort of a mini-camp for the football players in the spring. They would go through certain drills to show off their skill level. Powell knew he had something in Mustafa, who by that time approached 6-3 and 240 pounds.

Mustafa latched on to a number of the players, especially those in his class. By the time the summer arrived he was all geared up to see what he could do on the football field.

There was one stipulation.

“My parents told (Powell) that if I didn’t keep up with my grades, I couldn’t play,” Mustafa said.

His grades remained above the 3.0 grade-point level and his play immediately caught eye of Powell and his staff.

“His first (junior varsity) game he absolutely dominated,” Powell said. “His second game he absolutely dominated. We decided to bring him up with six other sophomores.

“He was a can’t-miss kid from the first time I saw him. If you’re 6-5 and can move you can play at the Division I level as long as you’re intelligent and listen.

“He’s really a bright kid. He’s like a sponge.”

Dearborn began the ’12 season 0-2 but with the addition of these seven sophomores the Pioneers won six of their last seven to qualify for the state playoffs.

Mustafa liked to hit, liked his friends and liked winning.

“I did pretty good,” he said of his first season. “I started to enjoy it, the team dinners and such. It would have been different if I was the only sophomore (on varsity).”

Mustafa played just one way his first season, right guard on the offensive line. By season’s end he was 6-4 and weighed 250 pounds.

Dearborn lost its playoff game to Monroe that season leaving Mustafa with a bad taste admitting he played his worst game of the season. But there was hope, and there was positive support from the coaching staff for what many hoped would be a bright future for Mustafa and the team.

“Coach (Mike) Guido, my O-line coach, we were going to do great things here,” he said. “He said we’re going to go as far as (I) could take us.

“I did learn a lot that year.”

He learned that he needed to get stronger and that’s just what he did. Mustafa never lifted weights until after his sophomore season. His bench press was a paltry 185 pounds that season. The following winter it went to 305 and college recruiters took notice. Coaches from Eastern Michigan, Toledo and Western Michigan invited him to their camps. Powell told him he could play at that level. Mustafa wasn’t convinced.

His opinion changed that summer and into his junior season.

“I was up to 270 (pounds) and it was different,” he said. “That first game I was killing kids.”

Two weeks later the coaching staff from Eastern extended his first scholarship offer. There would be many more.

Mustafa would continue to improve and college coaches, from across the country, would come calling. Dan Enos, the offensive coordinator at Arkansas, was but one. The former Dearborn Edsel Ford and Michigan State star knew of Mustafa and wanted a closer look. Powell extended an invitation and Enos came to a practice, and liked what he saw. It is likely Arkansas would have offered Mustaa a scholarship but this became moot when Michigan State offered a scholarship this past June.

“They asked me how long would it take until I commit,” Mustafa said. “I told them not long.”

It took him one day to commit to MSU.

Now 6-6 and 280 pounds, Mustafa was moved to left tackle this season and also moved into the starting lineup on the defensive line.

After a disappointing 5-4 season in 2015, the Pioneers are 8-1 heading into the Division 1 playoffs.

It’s been a quick rise for Mustafa and for his team.

The Khaleefahs have adapted to life in Dearborn, and an affinity to the football program.

“What I like,” Lina said. “Is that when (Mustafa) went to high school, and started playing football, he said I’m going to get a scholarship. It’s good to have a goal.”

And it’s good to have parents who did so much to give their children an opportunity to achieve those goals.