A teacher's lesson plan in retirement guides an immigrant Iraqi family to a better life


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"So, here's a snapshot of our life," said Marcy Luek, a smile creeping across her face.

"We're in the car, Israa and I, taking Maryam, the baby, to Children's Hospital for her checkup. Danna, 4, is in the back, singing, 'The wheels on the bus go round and round ... more! more! ... The wipers on the bus go swish, swish, swish!' Israa whips out her cell phone and calls her mother in Iraq. She wanted her mom to hear Danna singing in English! They are so proud of her."

So it goes with this blended family, Mohammed Mahmod and his wife, Israa Younus, from Iraq, their two children, ages 4 and 6 months, born in this country, and Ms. Luek, a retired teacher from Richland, whose lives have become intertwined.

When Mr. Mahmod considered immigrating to the United States from war-ravaged Iraq his friends discouraged him. "You'll end up under the bridge," they warned him. Quite the opposite. Mr. Mahmod and his family are, if not on top of the world, close to it.

The Iraqi family resides in a cozy home in Richland, which is connected to a new addition where Ms. Luek, 65, now lives. Mr. Mahmod is working for U.S. Bank's Pittsburgh office at Station Square as an accounting service representative.

There have been many twists and turns on this family's journey.

Mr. Mahmod had a small business in Baghdad in March 2003. "When the invasion came, I went to the roof of my house and said, 'Wow! It's freedom!' But the situation was not as we expected. We thought we would live better, but the reality is that the 90 percent who cheered the invasion now say things are worse and they wish [former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein] were back. That doesn't mean he is a good guy. In Iraq, we have a saying: 'If you face death, you'll accept the fever.' "

During the conflict Mr. Mahmod, fluent in English, worked for the U.S. Army as a translator and did distribution work for an American corporation. The decision to immigrate was easy for him. His father had been a pilot for Iraqi Airways, and the family had traveled a lot. But for his wife, seven months pregnant and not speaking English, the decision to leave her parents was difficult.

They came to Pittsburgh in 2009, supported by the Jewish Family & Children's Service of Pittsburgh, and settled in an apartment in the North Hills. Ms. Younus knew that she must learn English.

"That was the thread that connected us," said Ms. Luek, who was asked through her church, Pittsburgh Friends Meeting in Shadyside, to tutor the young mother in English.

The tutoring evolved into a close friendship and a lifeline to the likable young couple, who also became an important part of Ms. Luek's life.

The couple returned to Iraq to visit Ms. Younus' parents and were uncertain if they would return to the U.S. Mr. Mahmod had been unable to find work here, and they were still feeling isolated, but they decided to come back.

Things improved when he got jobs as a parking lot attendant and a security guard. Also, his sister and brother-in-law moved here, as well as his mother, providing family support. The relatives live in Crafton.

But with his education and language fluency, he wanted a better job. Through an intensive mentoring program, specifically tailored to a group of Iraqi refugees, Mr. Mahmod learned how to create a polished resume and prepare for interviews.

"My mentor, Allison Evans, who works for Wesco, met with me every week and taught me lots of things, like how to make eye contact. We don't do that back home," he said. "Here it means, if you don't make eye contact, that you have no interest. And she taught me about 'elevator speech,' like when you say, 'Hey, nice weather.' ... You know, small talk."

Ms. Evans got him the interview that resulted in his job at U.S. Bank two years ago.

Throughout this time, Ms. Luek was becoming more involved with the family, helping them navigate the hurdles, getting driver's licenses, finding doctors, signing up for English classes. The family, expecting a second child, was living in an apartment in Crafton, small but within their budget.

Ms. Luek remembers driving back from a visit with them right before Christmas 2012.

"I went home, feeling discouraged for them and thinking that here I am, in my house, maybe we should all move in together. I wasn't sure that we all could be in one house, but I have always been interested in small house design, and it came to me that I could build a little space for me, and they could have the house. The next day I called an architect and told him my plan and my budget and asked him to work on it. Then I went back to Mohammed and Israa, told them of my idea, and said, 'Don't answer me tonight, you two talk it over, and we'll talk again.' Mohammed said something in Arabic to Israa, and then he said, 'We don't need to talk about it.'

"So it's been a year of anticipation and talking about how we would do things. On Thanksgiving day, we moved in, and we all slept here that night."

For 10 years Ms. Luek had lived in her two-story, three-bedroom farmhouse, which was built in 1941. She had the 500-square-foot, one-story addition built that includes a large room containing a combined kitchen, dining area and living room with large French doors overlooking the woods, and a small bedroom and bath. The 150-square-foot entrance hall to the two houses serves as the passage between them. She paid $100,000 for the addition, including architect's fees.

To share costs, the Iraqi family pays Ms. Luek enough to cover mortgage insurance and taxes, an amount that is much less than the rent they paid in the former location. Ms. Luek will continue to pay the mortgage, and they will share the utilities.

"The first thing Israa did when they moved in was to decorate and furnish Danna's bedroom, and that was so wise," said Ms. Luek. Danna had slept close to her parents before, and now she would be on the second floor by herself. Without a backward glance, Danna took ownership of her pink room and keeps it in perfect order. She loves to give a guided tour, opening each drawer and pointing out every detail, even a live and beloved ladybug.

The family has some of its own things, some of Ms. Luek's things, and a large handsome china cupboard that Mr. Mahmod found in a thrift shop. It is waiting to be filled with items that will become family treasures as they build their new life here.


Bette McDevitt is a writer who lives on the North Side: bettemcd@verizon.net.

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