World Refugee Day was created by the United Nations and is celebrated every year on June 20.
When Murtadha Al-Shaikhli arrived at his familys Dublin doorstep in January 2018, his parents didnt recognize him.
He was 26, and they hadnt seen him in six years.
"The last time they saw me, I was like a kid without a beard," Al-Shaikhli said.
Born in Baghdad, Al-Shaikhli lived with his family through the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 before they fled to Jordan in 2006 amid Iraqs civil war. They struggled to meet basic needs, such as clean water, gas and electricity, and their freedom was limited.
They were separated in 2012 when he was studying civil engineering in Ukraine and his parents, brother and two sisters moved to the United States, settling in Dublin.
Now the family is among the more than 16,000 refugees who have resettled in the Columbus area since 1983, according to the 2015 Impact of Refugees in Central Ohio Report by Community Research Partners. Their plight is highlighted today by World Refugee Day, which is designated by the United Nations and observed annually on June 20.
Angela Plummer, executive director of Community Refugee and Immigration Services, one of two resettlement agencies serving central Ohio, sees the day as one to honor the strength of refugees and to build understanding.
"The refugee experience is not knowing and being in someone elses hands for a long, long time," Plummer said.
CRIS typically hosts a festival with food and games to celebrate the various cultures of central Ohios refugees, who come from countries as far-flung as Somalia, Iraq and Bhutan. This year, however, CRIS is recognizing World Refugee Day virtually because of the coronavirus by putting together a video featuring refugees explaining what the day means to them and why it is important.
"We hope having these conversations and having refugees speak for themselves and tell their own stories can help bridge the gap," Plummer said.
After leaving Iraq, Al-Shaikhli never spent a lot of time in one place. He finished high school in Egypt, then moved to Ukraine, where he received a college degree in 2014. Once his family moved to America, he spent six years being repeatedly rejected for a visa, and the final year navigating President Donald Trumps restrictions on refugees from majority-Muslim countries.
Al-Shaikhli, 28, said he never lost hope, though. He kept thinking about his mom, who would visit the CRIS office each week to check the status of his case. When his background check was approved in August 2017, he started thinking about how he could make his arrival as memorable as possible.
"When I was thinking about this event, I was thinking that this is a moment that will never be repeated, I hope," Al-Shaikhli said. "So I was thinking what to do with that, and I couldnt think of anything except that I have to surprise them."
Al-Shaikhli met his brother and Plummer at the airport the night his flight landed in Columbus. He remembers his parents crying when he arrived unannounced at their house and they realized that it was really him, finally reunited with them.
Plummer said CRIS hasnt had new refugees come through its office since mid-March due to travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before that, she said, the agencys numbers had been lower since the beginning of Trumps presidency. During the first half of this fiscal year, CRIS resettled about 45 refugees, compared with about 500 refugees it would resettle in an entire year during past administrations, according to Plummer.
Al-Shaikhli was the only Iraqi refugee to resettle in Columbus during the 2018 fiscal year. He said that his biggest challenge has been learning English, his third language after Arabic and Russian. Still, he said, people are generally patient with him.
"Here, when I speak something and someone doesnt understand me, they try to teach me," Al-Shaikhli said. "They do their best to understand me or teach me the correct way to say it."
Four months after he moved to Ohio, Al-Shaikhli got a job as a structural designer at SMBH Inc., an engineering firm in Grandview Heights. Stephen Metz, SMBHs president, described Al-Shaikhli as a go-getter.
"In my mind, I would think that having some of the background that hes had, he might not be as optimistic and upbeat as he is," Metz said. "Maybe some of that is because hes here and not some of the places hes been in the past."
Al-Shaikhli is also a member of CRIS Refugee Speakers Bureau, through which he encourages fellow refugees to get an education and break down common stereotypes.
"I feel a responsibility to do something for this community for the refugees," he said. "If you tell someone that youre a refugee, the first thing that pops up in his or her mind is low-wage or minimum-wage people working in a warehouse or people who are illegal or people who dont pay taxes. I just wanted to change this background around refugees."
Today, Al-Shaikhli lives with his family in Hilliard. After two and a half years in central Ohio, he said, he no longer needs GPS to guide him as he drives. He finally feels like he has a place to call home.
"I feel that this city is my city now," he said. "Now when I say, Im from Columbus, I mean it."
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