An aging immigrant rebuilds life, career in U.S.

Editor’s note: CNN’s Azadeh Ansari wrote this article as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.

By Azadeh Ansari, CNN

West Bloomfield, Michigan (CNN) – At 3 a.m., the ring of the phone jolts Sabri Shuker out of bed.

It’s not a typical wake-up call for most, but he’s come to expect them. His gut tells him the news he’s about to receive will keep him up for days. Shuker’s heart beats faster. Short of breath, he answers anxiously.

The voice on the other end is familiar, calling from overseas, but the message is disheartening: Yet another member of his family is “missing.” This time, it’s his cousin.

Back in Iraq, he slept through artillery and bombs. But since he came to the United States in 2002, a ring of the phone can feel like an explosion.

Whenever a call comes late at night, Shuker’s mind races back to the people he knew back home and the people who disappeared or died. Many were professors or doctors, educated people who made good homes for their families.

He paces his house in suburban Detroit, runs his hands through his thinning white hair, overwhelmed by memories and emotion, the helpless feeling that comes from being far away.

During the past couple decades, Iraqis escaped conflicts in their homeland and settled in America to start over. They joined a burgeoning Arab community that has grown to 500,000 strong in the Detroit area, according to ACCESS, the most prominent help center for Arabs in Dearborn, Michigan.

As many as 3.5 million people of Arab descent live in the United States, according to the Arab American Institute, a nonprofit organization that encourages Arab-American participation in political and civic life. Some have lived in the United States for generations, some arrived as refugees, and some, like the Shuker family, emigrated here.

Older Iraqis like Shuker, 76, come to this country with a life’s worth of memories. The number of older refugees living in the United States is uncertain, but their struggles are clear. Often, they find themselves living in two worlds, community activists say.

For them, the transition and culture shock are difficult to bear. Shuker represents thousands of well-educated Iraqi immigrants who not only left their belongings behind but lost their identities in the process.

“The sense of loss and grieving runs deep, the more traumatic the resettlement process is,” said Sylvia Nassar-McMillan, a professor at North Carolina State University who focuses on the psychological impacts of immigration.

In Iraq, Shuker was a doctor who made a living saving lives. Now, he can’t practice the trade he had spent his life perfecting. To work as a doctor in the United States, he would have to start medical school all over again.

It would be a daunting task, especially at his age.

So Shuker, like others, had to find ways to reinvent himself so he can preserve his identity and move forward.

It can be a degrading experience. Aside from the trauma and pain experienced in Iraq, some of the major challenges for older immigrants include making friends, navigating an unfamiliar social space and overcoming a language barrier, community activists say.

So Shuker struggles to find a new purpose in what he thinks of as the “land of opportunity.”

Life on the front lines

In another life, Shuker built his medical career suturing fine lines between life and death. He was a surgeon who practiced his craft in the worst of circumstances: on the battlefield. He wasn’t in the military, but the shortage of doctors during the onset of the war forced him to the front lines.

During the brutal Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, rockets rained on villages, chemical weapons disfigured civilians, and families were torn apart. Shuker witnessed it all.

Shuker, an oral-maxillofacial reconstructive surgeon, treated one facial blast injury after another. The injuries were so severe that blood and flesh often masked the identities of his patients.

“There were hundreds, at times thousands, of wounded bodies everywhere,” he said.

That little-discussed conflict took the lives of nearly 1 million Iranians and 500,000 Iraqis while leaving countless others wounded, displaced and in despair.

“People were dying left and right. I couldn’t leave. I had to help them. Sometimes, I used to work until I fainted because the second I sat down, I knew someone would die,” Shuker said.

In 2002, another war was looming as U.S. leaders suspected that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Life was already becoming unbearable for Shuker and his family, who are Chaldean. At that time, minority communities like the Chaldeans and other Christian Iraqis became targets of religious and ethnic persecution.

It was then that Shuker made the painful decision to flee his homeland.

Iraq was the last country Shuker thought would betray him. For decades, Shuker recalls, people of all colors and creeds lived peacefully with each other. Now, the winds were changing. He started to sense that the future would be bleak for religious minorities like himself.

In their last hours in Baghdad, he and his wife, Najiba, took their final steps down the marble staircase in their house, stood in the grand room and gazed from one room to the next, from one item to another.

“To see the house you built, in each corner, each item of the house carried with it a memory,” Shuker said. “You don’t know what to take and what to leave behind.

“It was one of the most difficult hours of my life. We didn’t even have time to say goodbye to our neighbors.”

He remembers slamming the iron door shut, but he didn’t bother to lock it. He was sure he would return one day.

They pulled out of their three-car garage, glanced back one more time and left.

They arrived in the United States in 2002 with just two small bags. And memories.

A new calling

“When I first came to America, I was lost,” Shuker said. “I didn’t know what to do, and every time I would turn on the TV and see scores of people injured, I just wanted to fly back to my country to help them.”

Shuker and his wife, who is also a doctor, were the last members of their immediate family to leave Iraq. Upon arriving to America, they were reunited with their children, who had arrived a few years earlier.

The doctor didn’t want to leave Iraq, but the situation was growing ever more hostile.

He was part of a wave of Iraqis who were forced to leave home due to the unrest. That group was far different from those that left voluntarily for economic growth opportunities before 1980 or the group that left in response to conflict and political tensions because of the Iran-Iraq War, Nassar-McMillan says.

“The wave of Iraqis who fled recently left against their will, for fear of their safety due to increasing social, religious and political persecutions,” Nassar-McMillan said.

Far from Iraq in time and distance, Shuker feels guilt. He feels helpless.

“When you lose everything – your roots, your friends, your old life – sometimes I can’t find the right words to describe the feeling,” he said.

“There is so much that I still want to do and contribute to this world. But my problem is that I’m getting old.”

Shuker feels guilt that he is no longer able to practice medicine. His family even hid his passport, lest he try to fly back to Iraq.

“When I see people dying on TV now or read about war casualty figures from conflicts around the world, I feel like I’m not doing my job,” Shuker said.

“It is very hard to see people dying and I then ask myself, ‘Why am I not there?’ Someone with my experience should be out there helping them, but at this age and time in my life, I feel as if there is nothing I can do.”

Many elderly Iraqi immigrants have a difficult time recreating their life experiences in their new host country.

“Their native identities both professional and personal are often not transferable,” Nassar-McMillan said.

Like many Iraqi elders, the Shukers live off of what’s left from their years of hard work and in the close company of their immediate family, including four children and 11 grandchildren.

“Without my children and grandchildren, I would be a mess,” Shuker said.

The front lines for his new battle lie in the local public library, a mile up the street from his house. The surgeon once renowned by his colleagues has found a new purpose in life: He has begun to write about surgery techniques he used, an attempt to document his decades of service. He says he draws from the past to protect the future.

Each afternoon, Shuker prepares for his walk to the library as though he is still a young doctor going to the clinic: He puts on a neatly pressed suit, shines his shoes and grabs his leather briefcase before heading to his new refuge. His afternoons are spent lost in books.

Since coming to America in 2003, Shuker has written more than 16 medical studies in the area of reconstructive surgery and emergency medicine, works that have been published in medical journals.

“I see my life’s work through my articles. This is my legacy,” he said.

It wasn’t easy for a man who had to learn how to click a mouse and navigate the Internet.

Even if he can’t meet the patients, knowing that he made a contribution to their care brings him joy.

He relishes life now through the laughter of his grandchildren. And when that stops echoing in his ear and the moon’s light casts a shadow on his bedroom window, Shuker puts his head on his pillow and closes his eyes.

On some nights, he is awakened by the phone calls from Iraq. Other nights, he dreams of the day when Iraq will find peace. Then, he believes, he will walk up his driveway to the iron front door, turn the doorknob and enter the place he still calls home.