NOTE: There are some graphic descriptions included in this blog.
Its content may not be appropriate for all people of all ages.
As a case worker at Catholic Charities Refugee Services in Nashville, Sarwar Hawez is accustomed to the deer-in-a-headlight look of new immigrants. They are typically tired, confused, scared, and certain they have made a mistake. That is where Sarwar comes in: "Just be patient," he tells them. "This country is the future. This picture will be really clear, which is a good education for your children, a good opportunity for your family."
He knows, because he and his wife Begard were in the exact same position 21 years ago. They came to Nashville with nothing but their baby son. They had endured discrimination, war, displacement, and the agony of leaving their parents and siblings in Iraq.
They joined thousands of other Kurdish people in Nashville, which has the highest concentration of Kurds in the country - some 15,000. Moving to Nashville ended a long, arduous journey for Sarwar and his wife Begard; they know very well what other refugees are going through.
Growing up in the Kurdish region of Iraq, all Begard Hawez knew was war: the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, persecution of the Kurds in 1988, the Kurdish uprising against the regime in 1991, fighting between the two major Kurdish factions in 1994.
"We were living a very hard life - scared, all the time," she remembers.
In fifth grade, she and other students were ordered to flee their school as an Iranian plane began bombing the city. She was frantic that she had left her backpack, but she couldn't turn back - all of the children were running and screaming, and she didn't stop until she got home. Her mother was terrified. The next day classes resumed.
When she was a teenager, Saddam Hussein's forces came to her neighborhood and took seven teenaged boys, saying they wanted to question them. The soldiers led the boys away, drew their blood to treat Iraqi soldiers, shot them, and dumped their bodies in a hole. Parents were told the next day to claim the corpses.
The day before her mid-term exams in 12th grade, Begard studied in the family's dark basement as they sheltered from bombing in the city. The next day she took her exam and scored a 96 out of 100. She soon qualified to study in the university.
The university frequently had no power or water, and she shared a room with three other girls in stifling heat. But Begard persisted, earning a bachelor's degree in English and going to work as a teacher for middle and high school students. She had dreams of a long teaching career and eventually marrying and raising a family when she began seeing Sawar.
Sawar had missed the most brutal persecution of Kurdish people while he lived abroad. He knew when he finished high school that he wanted to flee Iraq. His grades were not high enough to get him into the university, so he was certain to face military service in the Iran-Iraq war, where thousands of young men were dying. He joined his brother in Bulgaria after his uncle cosigned a government document saying he would return.
Once in Bulgaria, Sarwar had to start his life over again. He learned Bulgarian, was accepted to dental school, and spent nine happy years in the country. "I didn't have a chance to see Saddam's brutality," Sarwar says, "but people were telling me what happened in Kurdistan."
Although he had plans to go to London, his mother and sister-in-law convinced him to go to Sweden, where they were refugees. Once again, he started over, learning Swedish and working in a hospital as a dental assistant. But after two years in Sweden, Sarwar was convinced the Kurdish uprising had freed Kurdistan, so he went back to Iraq, to Sulaimanya, where Begard lived.
He went to work for the Kurdistan Shelter Reconstruction Organization, which was building schools and hospitals. He and Begard met through their mothers, who were cousins, and soon realized they wanted to marry. It was a quiet civil ceremony; the civil war between two Kurdish factions made a traditional wedding out of the question. The couple were happily married, and their son was just a few months old, when everything changed. Saddam Hussein broadcast a speech on television saying that whoever was working with foreign agencies was a traitor and would be executed. Sarwar was in that category. He told Begard to say goodbye to her parents and to pack to leave the next day. The Clinton administration provided buses to transport refugees to Turkey. From there, they were flown to Guam. "It was December. I was wearing a big, heavy coat," Begard remembers. "My son was wearing all his clothes. A U.S. army surgeon came by and said, first, I want you to take off all your coats because it's very hot here."
They stayed in housing on the U.S. military base for three months, sharing quarters with several other families, while arrangements were made to immigrate to the United States. They learned about Nashville from a friend, who told them it was a friendly city with plenty of jobs.
They settled in Hermitage. Begard's English skills landed her a job at Target; Sarwar worked in a hospital. But after just three months they moved to Fairfax, Virginia, where Sarwar had a friend.
"We left a very comfortable, nice, two-bedroom apartment in Hermitage and ended up in a one-bedroom in a basement for more than $900 a month," says Begard. "I thought it wasn't a good decision. With our child, I had to pick him up and take him to a babysitter, walk back, and take two buses to get to Staples in Fairfax." Sawar worked in a warehouse for computer components. Sarwar liked the more relaxed, less-conservative Kurdish community in Virginia, but financially the move was tough, so they returned to Nashville. He was hired as a dental assistant; she worked at Office Depot. Then in 2007 she accepted a one-year contract to be a medical interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq. "Financially, it was an opportunity. We were in bad shape." Also, "I wanted to go back after all those years and see what it was like with Saddam not in power."
It was a shock. "All I saw everywhere was destroyed, people killing and bloodshed, Sunnis and Shia and everybody killing everyone." Her unit mostly treated women and children who were shot or injured by roadside bombs. "I was glad I helped, but it was another harsh life experience. Every day you see somebody die, and there's nothing you can do." She wasn't able to see her parents because traveling was restricted.
She was ready to return to Nashville after a year. By then they had two children that Sarwar had been caring for while he worked as a case manager for Catholic Charities. She was considering going back to college to be certified as a teacher in Tennessee when an opportunity opened up for her in support staff for refugee services at Catholic Charities.
The past year has been challenging. With immigration constricted under President Trump, Catholic Charities was forced to lay off employees, including Sarwar. He was subsequently re-hired for half-time work. The couple have a third child, a daughter who is now in kindergarten. Their oldest son is studying at the University of Tennessee, and their other daughter is a student at Cane Ridge High School
Despite the challenges, they feel lucky to have built a life in Nashville. "My family is there [in Iraq], and 24/7 I am thinking about them, but I did take this culture and I am able to be with my children step by step, says Begard. "If they need my advice, if I'm not involved in the culture, I can't do that."
"We established a foundation for them. My children, they will live a better life. This monster of fear will not haunt them like it haunted me growing up."