Iraqi refugees Yasser Hussein, wife Huda and their five children finally feel at home. Hussein has his own company, A1 Hood & Carpet Cleaning, which specializes in kitchen-exhaust cleaning. It’s a family business; sons Ahmad and Mustafa work with him. The family also owns their own home in Aurora, a house that Hussein purchased in 2017.
But they traveled a long way, both physically and emotionally, to get here.
Hussein comes from a family of printers. His father ran a printing press in Baghdad, and trained his four sons in the printing business. But when the family sold that company in 1994, the sons moved into different fields; Hussein and his brothers ran an ice cream company and also owned a clothing store. Those ventures vanished when the U.S. invaded Iraq, and the violence sparked by the invasion also claimed the lives of some of Hussein’s family members.
In April 2004, Hussein’s brother Bessam was working as a journalist, covering intense fighting in Karbala. Mistaking Bessam for an enemy combatant, American soldiers shot and killed him. In July 2004, Hussein’s brother Hayder was killed, one of Iraq’s many civilians to fall victim to a suicide bombing. Not long after that, Hussein’s last remaining brother disappeared. The family thought he had either been kidnapped or killed; they didn’t learn that he was alive until many years later.
Toward the end of 2004, Hussein received an envelope containing a bullet and a message: He was next.
Hussein thinks that militants assumed he was working with American soldiers simply because he had a friend who’d done so. But there was no way he could clear his name. He had a choice: Leave the country or face certain death.
“Go,” his father said. “You have to survive. You’re my only son.”
Heeding his father’s request, Hussein, Huda and their children fled Iraq, traveling by bus to Syria.
Before the war began, thirteen people lived in the family’s home in Baghdad. At the end of 2004, only two remained.
In Damascus, Hussein and his family joined tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees. Syria was much safer than their home country; the Syrian civil war was still years away.
After struggling to find work, Hussein sent his family back to Iraq, certain they’d be safe there and more comfortable. He eventually found work as a porter and a mover, but didn’t earn enough to support a family. Then, in the summer of 2006, war broke out between the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Israel, and Israeli bombs and missiles devastated southern Lebanon. But with destruction came opportunity: Southern Lebanon needed to rebuild. Hussein brought his family back to Damascus, and they all traveled together to Lebanon.
Since their visas were only good for three months, they had to sign up as refugees. International aid workers asked Hussein if he had any preferences for a final destination. “Any country, as long as my family and I are safe,” he told them.
Hussein found work as an electrician and also got a job with a printing company. Life in Lebanon was better than in Damascus, and certainly better than Baghdad. But in 2009, the family finally got word that they’d soon be on the move again: They were resettling in Colorado as refugees.
In April 2009, Hussein and his family flew from Beirut to London, from London to Chicago, and then from Chicago to Denver. By the time they arrived at Denver International Airport, Lutheran Family Services, one of Colorado’s three refugee resettlement agencies, had already secured an apartment for them in downtown Denver.
Despite having a home, Hussein felt unmoored. “I was scared...scared of everything,” he recalls. “The people, the life, how I can work, that I can’t speak the language, that I don’t have support.”
With only $500 to his name, Hussein felt obliged to take the first available job and started washing dishes at a hotel restaurant. He earned $7.50 an hour. Still, it was a start. “I wasn’t happy, but I had to work,” he says. “I needed money. It was just the beginning, so we had to do something until we learned English.”
Huda took a job as a hotel maid. The children, all under the age of twelve, enrolled in school after only a few weeks.
Although they had jobs and spots in school, the family faced one obstacle after another. After living in their apartment for only four months, they had to move out because the place was infested with bedbugs. Hussein broke the lease and lost a $1,000 deposit. They moved to an apartment a little farther east in the city. Hussein added a part-time job, working for a kitchen-exhaust cleaning company. Then he quit his dishwashing job and replaced that with a job driving a food delivery truck.
Hussein didn’t have time to study English, so he picked up what he could on the street. Huda, meanwhile, studied at Denver Community College with the goal of becoming a teacher.
In December 2010, Hussein decided to start his own kitchen-exhaust cleaning company, A1 Hood & Carpet Cleaning. “In the beginning, it was very hard,” he recalls. “I didn’t think I could make it. We had to talk a lot with customers and had to use the Internet. At that time, my English was 20 percent of what it is now. But my son Ahmad helped me. He spoke English even before we came to the U.S.”
Two years after he started the company, Hussein linked up with Aurora-based Community Enterprise Development Services (CEDS Finance), a nonprofit that helps refugees find the capital to run small businesses.
For its work with refugees, CEDS Finance was honored as Colorado’s 2018 Community Lender of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. “Starting a small business is a really great way for a refugee to have a higher profile and feel more accepted and appreciated,” says Alexandria Wise, executive director of CEDS Finance.
CEDS Finance provided Hussein with an initial $15,000 loan, which the organization refers to as “debt,” since there is no interest on the money borrowed. CEDS Finance arranges loans this way so that Muslim clients, who might think that paying interest goes against their religious beliefs, feel comfortable borrowing money. CEDS Finance consulted with imams to make sure the contracts they were offering had a religious seal of approval.
Since that first loan, Hussein has borrowed money four more times from CEDS Finance. With the added capital, he’s purchased a van and more equipment for his company; he has also hired more employees. He’s always been on time with his payments.
Although Hussein got his first loan after he’d been in the country less than two years, refugees typically come to the nonprofit after five and a half years, during which time they’ve learned English, worked a few other jobs and gained some stability. “It’s not a hard and fast rule,” says Alyson Anderson, loan manager at CEDS Finance. “Yasser’s English isn’t great, but he’s able to communicate. And he’s a smart guy. He was able to run the business.” If Hussein had wanted to open a restaurant or work in a job requiring more customer interface, his English skills might have been a factor. “But he’s going in and cleaning and then coming out,” she notes. “It’s less communication-heavy.”
As his business grew, Hussein started to feel more confident. In 2014, he quit his food-delivery job and focused on his cleaning company. His efforts paid off: In 2017, he bought his home in Aurora. Two of his older children are now married to other Iraqi refugees, and he and Huda have a new son. While working and raising a newborn, Huda managed to complete her studies; she’s now working as a preschool teacher.
They feel at home. “Every country we went to, we didn’t know anyone. We didn’t know what would happen. Whether someone will love us, hate us or even kill us,” Hussein remembers. “Colorado is now our home. We aren’t scared about the future anymore. Now we know this country is the last stop for us.”
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