Nahla Ghanwan & Khalid Alkinani
Nahla Ghanwan and Khalid Alkinani, with their son and three daughters, left Iraq and began their American journey in Reston, a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington D.C. The cost of living was prohibitive and violence plagued the schools. A teacher warned Khalid to take precautions with his beautiful eldest daughter, intimating that the boys were not to be trusted. In Iraq, they had lived in a luxurious home. In Reston, Khalid’s salary didn’t even pay the rent and the children felt terrorized at school. They came to America in the name of safety.
Khalid does most of the talking. His English is stronger than Nahla’s, but her comprehension is solid. They tell their story with with the ease of any long-married couple. “Community is really a big thing in Iraq. If you cook a meal, you’re gonna eat five different meals the same day because everybody is gonna knock your door to give you what he cooked.” In Westbrook, Maine, they introduced this tradition to their neighbors. They arrived in Maine five years ago. Khalid jokes that they are still freshmen, but in a state that considers a person to be “from away” if their parents were born in Massachusetts, what they have achieved is remarkable. While we are talking, a neighbor stops by to borrow their minivan. Nahla and Khalid have created community.
In just four years, their eldest daughter, who spoke no English when they arrived, received a full scholarship to college. Their son, Mohammed is a ranked mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter, and college student. Nahla and Khalid left Iraq to save their children. That their kids are now flourishing justifies the struggle. Nahla used to teach. In Maine, she worked at an Arabic store and had a seasonal job at Macy’s. Then she met Ben and Whitney, owners of American Roots, a company that ethically manufactures fleece products in Maine. The company employs dozens of resettled refugees, mainly women. It’s where we first met Nahla. Khalid manages a gas station and store. He likes the owners and feels trusted. In Baghdad, Khalid ran a catering company and other enterprises in the market, where he says he knew everyone. “But I’m just a stranger here. It’s hard to start business, so this is my work.”
It is winter and Nahla and Khalid are remembering the rose bushes in their garden in Iraq. It was delightful to sit there in the evenings and drink tea with friends. “It’s in my nose,” Khlalid says of the garden. We talk about how smell is a powerful link to our memories. Nahla most loved the scent of the orange trees; she used to make fresh orange juice and jam. Khalid remembers the smell of dust after rain. He takes a moment here. Nahla explains, “it’s difficult for him.” He continues, “there’s a special smell when its raining. It’s the smell of home.” I ask if they are home in Maine. Nahla says it is home for their kids. Khalid explains the duplicity of loving two homes, likening Iraq to his mother, and America, to his beautiful wife.
Nahla misses her mother. She shows us the vibrant blue prayer beads her mother gave her. Running her hands over the smooth beads is calming. Her mother also sewed a beautiful wall hanging with fine golden and silvery threads. There is a pocket to hold the Koran, their holy book, but inside Nahla also keeps a picture of her parents. They are waiting for their citizenship and cannot leave the country until they receive it. When that happens, Nahla will return home to see her family. I ask if the wait times are longer in the current political context. Khalid just smiles. “We are waiting,” he says.