Richland man still standing despite tragedy in Iraq, cancer battle

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 18, 2014 

— Mushtaq Jihad has endured so many blows.

He was kidnapped and beaten in his native country of Iraq, then targeted for years as he sought justice.

He lost his leg in a blast that also killed his infant son.

Then he was shot and left for dead.

Now, in his new home in America, Mushtaq faces yet another trial: leukemia. He was diagnosed about five months ago.

The 41-year-old, who shares an apartment in Richland with his wife and four young daughters, said it does him no good to feel angry.

Friends he's made since he and his family resettled in the Tri-Cities in 2008 praise his resilience. He's thoughtful, big-hearted -- a man who has taken more than his fair share of hits but found a way to keep standing.

"Mushtaq is very strong and very brave. He wants to get better, be healthy, so he can work and support his family," said Wanda Davis of Pasco, a close family friend.

Marie Benton, a neighbor and fellow member of Mushtaq's adopted extended family in America, said this latest hardship seems so unfair.

"They've fought so hard," she said. "Why did this happen to them? We don't know. It's something I don't think they deserve.

"They're quite a special family."

The worst moment

Mushtaq sat on a sofa at home on a recent evening, telling his story with help from an interpreter.

His wife, Adela Hamza, was there too. Occasionally, one of their girls would pop into the room, earning smiles and kisses from Dad.

In Baghdad, Mushtaq said, he was a wealthy man who owned a string of electronics stores. Adela was a bank manager.

In spring 2005, when their troubles began, they had two daughters -- Fatima, then a toddler, and baby Zahraa.

One evening in early April, Mushtaq said, he was leaving one of his stores when he was kidnapped by members of the Mahdi Army, a militia group loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The group used the money they extorted from victims for weapons, Mushtaq said.

The young father, who is Sunni, said he was beaten and tortured.

"He was thinking about his new baby, and he doesn't want to die and leave her," the interpreter said, as Mushtaq spoke in Arabic.

Eventually, Mushtaq said, he was able to escape through a small window. He found his way to a police station, where American service members had gathered.

They helped him with his injuries, he said, and went to the place he'd been held, finding weapons and bodies.

Mushtaq said he wanted to stand up to those who'd kidnapped him, and he pursued them in court.

That led to retaliation, with numerous attempts to kill him in the following months, he said.

In 2007 came what he called the worst day of his life.

Mushtaq and Adela had just welcomed a new child -- a baby boy named Mohammed. On the morning of April 10, 2007, a few days after he was born, the baby needed to go to the doctor to be treated for jaundice.

Mushtaq paused then in his story. For a long time.

When he finally spoke again, he described stepping out of his house to get his car, and then going back inside for the baby.

He stepped out again, with the baby, and was rocked by an explosion.

The blast took his right leg. And his son.

"He started screaming, 'Why you kill the baby? You could kill me, but not the baby,' " the interpreter said, as Mushtaq spoke. "He's saying, that feeling -- nobody could feel the same feeling he felt at this time. If you felt bad for him, you can feel bad for 10 to 15 minutes. But he got the whole thing."

A blur and a new beginning

The blast left Mushtaq seriously hurt, but not dead.

Seeing he was still alive, the men who set the explosion starting shooting at him. He lifted his shirt in his Richland home to show his scars, including one very close to his heart.

Mushtaq said he was left in the street for hours and at some point was thrown in the trash.

Eventually, he said, U.S. soldiers found him and took him to a military hospital. He owes his life to them and is so grateful, he said.

The young father spent more than two months in the hospital, fighting to live and gain strength.

That time is a blur, his mind foggy. But the first thing he said he remembered was his son.

When Mushtaq was able, he got in touch with his family to let them know he was OK. His wife and daughters had escaped the violence with help from a neighbor, and were left in limbo for weeks wondering what had become of Mushtaq and Mohammed.

When husband and wife finally were reunited, Adela asked him, "Where is the baby?" Mushtaq said. She didn't know he was gone.

About four months later, Mushtaq, Adela and their daughters sought safety in Syria, leaving behind friends, relatives and the life they'd known.

It was a very difficult time, Mushtaq said. They had little.

But, eventually, there was a ray of light: Adela became pregnant again.

The couple named their third daughter Farah, which means joy and happiness in Arabic.

With the new baby, God gave them a little bit of happiness, after all they'd been through, Mushtaq said.

Life in the Tri-Cities

In fall 2008, the family came to the U.S. as refugees, a status given because of the persecution they faced in Iraq.

The nonprofit World Relief, which has an office in the Tri-Cities, helped them resettle -- meeting them at the airport, finding them a place to live, providing basics such as furniture and connecting them with other resources.

The Tri-City office resettles an average of one refugee family a week, said Scott Michael, field office director.

Refugees come from Iraq, Cuba, Burma, Somalia -- stepping off the plane with almost nothing, in a new place with a different culture, often not speaking the language.

"(When I think of Mushtaq and his family), the word that comes to mind for me is 'courage' -- their courage to face what all refugees face when they come to a new country and start over," Michael said. "And for them to (do that), with what they'd already been through and the physical challenges he faced even then -- that took incredible courage."

Mushtaq and Adela found their way in their new home, making friends who have become like kin.

Wanda Davis met Mushtaq through her work as a Ben Franklin Transit Dial-A-Ride driver.

Though he spoke little English and she no Arabic, a friendship blossomed.

Mushtaq invited her to meet his family. Davis came for dinner and that was that.

The little girls, Davis said, have become like her own granddaughters, calling her "MeMe" like her other grandkids.

Davis was at the hospital when Sarah, now 11/2, Mushtaq and Adela's youngest, was born. Davis even chose the girl's name.

Everett and Marie Benton, who live next door to Mushtaq and Adela, also are part of the young family's American support system.

The Bentons split their time between the Tri-Cities and Arkansas, and they arrived back in Richland after a stay in the South to find they had new neighbors.

Mushtaq and his family promptly came over to introduce themselves, Benton said. A few hours later, they returned with a full meal.

"It was like a five-course dinner," Benton said. "I said, 'Mushtaq, that's so much food.' He said 'No, you're family.' They have just been our family ever since.

"We've just fallen in love with them."

Fighting leukemia

For the past several years, Mushtaq has dealt with lingering medical issues related to his injuries in Iraq, undergoing multiple surgeries.

And he's struggled to afford a quality prosthetic leg that fits. He's been unable to work, and he and his family have gotten by with disability pay and other aid. Then a few months ago, came the leukemia diagnosis. He's undergoing treatment now.

Mushtaq, who is warm and friendly with guests and quick to invite them to stay for one of his famous home-cooked creations, said what happened to him in Iraq was the worst thing. Nothing after that, even cancer, is quite so shocking.

But he admits the leukemia diagnosis has been hard on his family.

He said he has hope the disease won't destroy him.

He has another hope too: for a new prosthetic leg that would make it easier for him to work again.

He wants to provide for his family, he said, like he did in Iraq before the blast, the shooting, the heartbreak.

That, he said, will prove that he is strong and still standing tall.

- To help Mushtaq raise money for a prosthetic leg, visit www.youcaring.com/Mushtaq.

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