Starting a new life in Winston-Salem after fleeing war-torn Iraq

Dania Yadago, who fled with her family from Iraq, is studying for a degree in teacher education at Salem College. (photo by Jordan Green)

A refugee who fled with her family from her village in Iraq in 2009 has recently become a US citizen and found her calling at Salem College as an educator.

Dania Yadago, a 23-year-old education student at Salem College, recently celebrated her first Fourth of July as a US citizen.

Yadago’s naturalization comes amid a politically tumultuous time in US politics, against a backdrop of governors and federal lawmakers calling for a suspension of refugee resettlement last fall and continuing jeremiads by Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, raising fears about Muslims entering the country to commit acts of terrorism.

Yadago, a Christian who fled with her family from their village outside the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2009, said she sympathizes with the Syrian refugees trying to find safe haven from the violence in their native country.

“What if you’ve been living in a safe place and all of a sudden people come and tell you to leave your home or you will be killed?” she asked. “Nobody asks to be a refugee…. Wouldn’t you want countries to have mercy on you and relieve you? Even though you might cause some danger, you go through so much interviewing, background checks, medical checks. It’s very secure. They will watch your every move and ask you: ‘Why did you leave?’ They have everything about you in a file. If they suspect a small thing they would put you on hold. It would be very rare for a refugee family to be a terrorist.”

Yadago was 7 when the US military deposed Saddam Hussein, a dictator who kept a tight lid on the sectarian tensions in the country. Although Yadago acknowledges that Hussein’s rule was objectionable in many ways, at least Christians felt safe in the country, based on what her grandparents told her. She recalled traveling with her family to the capital city of Baghdad to worship in a church.

“It was okay; I wasn’t worried,” she said. “People didn’t think, ‘Hey, I’m a Christian. I need to leave.’ People lived with Muslims; nobody questioned it.”

After decades of living under a dictatorship, Yadago said she believes the people of Iraq were unprepared to suddenly take on the responsibilities of democracy in a pluralistic society. As sectarian tensions worsened in her village, Yadago’s family faced danger on two fronts.

Militant groups targeted the entire village with car bombs, including one that exploded outside a school. Anyone might be randomly killed in the violence, regardless of their religious background. Many of the houses in the village were old and constructed from stone, making them all the more susceptible to damage.

The Yadagos’ position was even more precarious as an evangelical Christian family — a tiny minority even within the larger Christian community of Iraq — who preached a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and held religious meetings in their home. Yadago said her father received anonymous notes warning, “Stop talking to people about Jesus, or you’ll be dead,” and “If you don’t stop, we’ll tell the jihadists about you.”

By fleeing their village in 2009, the Yadago family likely avoided a much greater danger. ISIS bombed the village and took over, issuing an ultimatum to the residents: Convert to Islam and pay taxes, or be killed. Yadago’s uncle and grandparents fled to northern Iraq. Kurdish fighters recaptured the village, but Yadago said two months ago ISIS bombed again. Yadago said that from her understanding the village is basically a ghost town now. Her family doesn’t know whether their house has been destroyed or not. In any case, they’ve given up any claim on it.

While many families like the Yadagos are threatened by ISIS in the Middle East, in the United States xenophobic sentiments have been whipped up by politicians raising fears that ISIS fighters might pose as refugees to gain entry into the United States in order to carry out violent attacks.

The Yadagos arrived in Lebanon as refugees. Their housing was a step up from the tents that provide shelter to many of their cohorts. Yadago, her parents and three siblings shared a one-bedroom basement apartment that was unsanitary and equipped with only a tiny small kitchen. Yadago was 16 at the time, and she was forced to suspend her education, working in a cafeteria at an English-language school to support her family. Even if she could have afforded to study in Lebanon, it wouldn’t have been practical, considering that she was a temporary resident with no way to know whether her certification would be recognized wherever she might find herself in the future.

The process of applying for asylum is rigorous, Yadago said, adding that families don’t get to choose the country where they will make new lives; they go to whichever country, if any, that accepts them. Applicants for asylum go through multiple videotaped interviews, where officials look for discrepancies, Yadago said. Mothers and fathers are interviewed in separate rooms to see if their accounts align. Then officials conduct a background check to see if their stories check out. Even a small misstep like misstating that you left your country in September when you had earlier stated that you left in August could cause suspicion, and derail or significantly delay the application process.

The Yadago family was fortunate: They only had to wait about a year before gaining approval for resettlement in the United States in October 2010.

“I know a lot of families who stay five years or longer,” Yadago said. “Emotionally, it’s very hard. You’re just waiting for a phone call to tell you you’re moving to the next step.”

While the fear that extremist fighters might pose as refugees to infiltrate the United States is understandable, Yadago said she believes it’s largely misplaced.

“These refugees who will come here go through so many interviews and background checks,” Yadago said. “Pretending to be a refugee would cause the process to be even longer than it would ordinarily be. Does that mean there won’t be one family that will cause terrorist stuff? There might be. Is it worth making 100,000 others suffer?”

She added that anyone, regardless of whether they’re a refugee, might choose to commit a mass shooting.

Celebrating her first Fourth of July in the United States, Yadago can look forward to graduating from Salem College next spring with a bachelor’s degree in teaching.

It hasn’t been easy. Learning a new language is only one challenge. Refugees like Yadago’s father, who was a teacher in Iraq, must settle for low-paid work outside of their fields. State Department benefits end after three months, and refugees often find themselves unable to afford medical care.

But Yadago is also grateful for the opportunities she has received in the United States. During her time in Lebanon she had given up on the idea of furthering her education, but when she arrived in Winston-Salem at the age of 17 she was surprised to discover that she could still attend high school, even though she would be set back two years.

When she enrolled at Salem College, Yadago found her professors in the education department to be supportive and helpful. Her studies education coincide with her volunteer work with World Relief to help orient newer arrivals.

“I took one class in education and loved it,” Yadago recounted. “I love working with kids. I love public speaking, and what gives you more opportunity for public speaking than standing in front of a class every day? I just want people to know about education. I’m also passionate about these refugees who come here and say, ‘It’s too late for me.’ I want to tell them they can still get their education.”

She cried when she took the oath of citizenship in Charlotte in April.

“I came a long, long way,” Yadago said. “My struggles are getting smaller and smaller.”