Vol. 20,  No. 1

Jan. 11 - 24,  2007


Nowhere Left to Turn
An Iraqi Immigrant’s Struggle with Adversity


Not so long ago, when times were good for Alham Mastafa, the Baghdad-turned-Bronx housewife would travel from her apartment in Bedford Park to Jersey City to buy jewelry from an Indian dealer she came to know well. A Sunni Muslim growing up in a wealthy section of Baghdad, she was accustomed to the finer things in life – world travel, fine dining and, of course, jewelry.

Nowadays, when Mastafa, 51, needs food or electricity, she returns to the Indian jeweler in Jersey City. He remembers her and takes pity, giving her as much as he can, and more than he has to, for the rings and bracelets she’s been forced to sell.

Since her husband died from stomach cancer three years ago and left her penniless, Mastafa’s situation has grown increasingly desperate.

With four children (three of them adults, one a minor) living at home, Mastafa’s tragic tale took a wicked turn when she ran smack into the unforgiving social services system. Earlier this year, the checks from her late-husband’s Social Security fund increased by $4, putting her $2.50 over the income limit for welfare recipients. For the income excess of a Big Mac, Mastafa’s welfare, which she used to pay rent and put food on the table, was immediately cut off.

Her attempts to gain employment and recoup welfare blocked, debt piling up and her kids struggling, Mastafa’s hope for a better future is fading.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Mastafa says softly in her dimly-lit apartment.
She is running out of jewelry and options.

From Baghdad to the Bronx
Mastafa never wanted to leave Baghdad in the first place. She enjoyed a good life under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime. Her family was well-off and she had just married Mahamed, a successful entrepreneur, twice her age, who would care and provide for her. They lived together in a big house with a lush garden.

Mahamed owned several successful enterprises, including a restaurant, an auto repair garage and a clothing store. Restless and outgoing, Mahamed often traveled to the United States. On one of those trips, in 1981, he called Mastafa and told her to pack up their two young sons, Arkan and Ahmed, and join him in America. Just try it out, he said, we can always return to Baghdad. A month later, the young family headed to the northwest Bronx, New York City, USA. She packed for a month.

Now an American citizen, Mastafa’s children have Bronx accents.

What Mastafa saw in the Bronx was “unbelievable,” she says now. Youth hanging out on the streets at all times. Black teenagers carrying blaring boom boxes on their shoulders. Everyone spoke Spanish. Everyone fought and yelled constantly. This wasn’t the United States she saw in Baghdad movie houses.

At first scared to venture out of her Mosholu Parkway apartment, Mastafa slowly adapted. She watched a lot of television. As her four children (Mastafa had two more daughters, Rema in 1984, and Tara in 1993) moved through the public education system, Mastafa learned English along with them.

A protective man, Mahamed refused to allow his wife to work. But in the 1990s, she volunteered for the Iraqi United Nations contingent, the head of which was a friend of Mahamed’s. The walls of her apartment are adorned with Arabic stained glass and mementos from her UN work.

Mahamed’s Baghdad business sense didn’t translate into New York success. Accustomed to sealing deals with a handshake, a business acquaintance took him for $45,000, the Mastafas’ entire savings. In between failed ventures, Mahamed worked as a gas station attendant for a Palestinian man.

Until the end, when he was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer three years ago, the gregarious Mahamed always managed to provide for his family.

A Series of Unfortunate Events
Alham took news of Mahamed’s imminent death with denial. Doctors gave him a month, but Alham stretched that month to 10 through sheer determination. She destroyed her back and shoulders lifting and shifting her husband, taking him for walks, feeding him and administering medication. She tapped out the last of their savings trying to prolong his life.

Since Mahamed’s death, the Mastafas have encountered what can only be described as an epic string of misfortune.

Her oldest son, Arkan, endured a disastrous breakup with his wife in Queens and moved home. He remains unemployed. Rema dropped out of Manhattan College because she couldn’t afford tuition; she works at a Brookstone store in Manhattan. Alham, who became a certified phlebotomist before Mahamed’s death, couldn’t find employment at any hospital, she said, reeling off the names of a dozen institutions in the New York area.

Mastafa’s age, 51, lack of experience and Iraqi heritage make her a less than desirable candidate, she said.

The family survived on the Social Security checks and welfare assistance. When welfare stopped, the bottom dropped out. Her attempts to have it reinstated were met with swift rejection. “Tough luck,” one welfare official told her.

“It’s all math,” said Esperanza Colon, a lawyer from Legal Aid Services who represented Mastafa in March.

Susan Bahn, a public assistance expert from Legal Aid Services, says the system is stacked against Mastafa and that rent assistance in New York is inadequate. Much of the city subsidies go to those already on welfare and being sued for eviction. Section 8, a federal program that provides rent subsidies, currently has a waiting list of more than 100,000, Bahn says.

“It’s a horrible case,” Bahn said of Mastafa’s situation. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of people being left out in the cold.”

It gets worse. In July, Ahmed, the younger brother, tried to join the U.S. Army. That plan hit a snag when Ahmed’s whole body shut down just days after receiving a meningitis vaccine. After being bounced from hospital to hospital, doctors told him he suffered from a rare disorder called Guillain Barre Syndrome, which attacks the nervous system, causing severe muscle pain and numbness.

“I took it as a sign,” Ahmed says.

Ahmed still struggles to sleep at night. And Social Security won’t give him disability unemployment benefits for reasons that remain unclear. Doctors told him not to work for another six months, but because of the situation at home, he feels obligated to help his mother.

“She’s at that age where we should be taking care of her,” Ahmed says after returning home from a job interview in Manhattan. “She spent her entire life taking care of us kids.”

Earlier this year, Mastafa finally found a job working as an interpreter for a private U.S. company, called SOS, which helps U.S. military forces with security and logistic work in Iraq. She says the dangerous job would have paid her $175,000 a year.

“I don’t care about myself,” she says, adding that she’s certain insurgents would have killed her as a traitor. “It’s for my children that I would do it.”

The job fell through because she couldn’t find a way to care for her youngest, Tara. Her sons have their own problems and Rema is too busy with work to help out, Mastafa said. She tried to get her sister in Baghdad to help out, but she couldn’t secure a U.S. Visa.

Now, Mastafa is back to square one. She hasn’t paid rent in three months. She’s putting all expenses – food, pain medication, school supplies – on a handful of credit cards, some of which require $200 minimum payments. She’s exhausted and her back hurts. She has no where else to turn. She’s sold everything of value, all the jewelry, all the trinkets.

The only thing left is a broken family and a fading glimmer of hope.

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