SALEM — As Zaid Ghandi sits in a coffeehouse in Salem, he describes a sense of calmness he hasn’t felt in more than a decade. He finally feels at home. 

Ghandi, 32, is a refugee who fled from his city of Mosul, Iraq, and arrived in Salem on Dec. 8, 2016. “Salem gives me a life again because I lost my life,” he said. "My city is completely destroyed...you would be killed it's so dangerous.”

Ghandi arrived to the U.S. through the Refugee and Immigration Services provided by Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Boston. Volunteers from the organization set Ghandi up with an apartment in Lynn, which he shared with five other refugees. 

Charity volunteers helped Ghandi adjust to American culture, as well as create a resume and apply for jobs. He now works mornings for a telecommunications company and evenings at a medical device company. 

They also provided him with English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes — although Ghandi understood English from the electrical engineering courses he had taken at the University of Mosul, he had difficulty comprehending certain accents. 

“The volunteers changed our lives for the better and gave us a different idea of American people,” he said, speaking in particular of their generosity, support and time they provided. 

And later this month, after a three-year process, Ghandi will be reunited with his wife. They've only seen each other twice over the last eight months. 

Fleeing Iraq

Ghandi's journey to America began with his father, whom Ghandi said tried to warn others of the dangers of ISIS through his work as a journalist. 

“When ISIS read about that, they tried to kill him many times,” said Ghandi, adding how his father escaped to Sweden in 2008. “In my country if you say something, it will cost you your life."

ISIS retaliated by making an attempt on Ghandi's life and going after his brother, who was left severely burned and barely alive. In 2009, Ghandi and his family left for Sweden.

“They accepted all my family except me,” he said. Because he was over 18, Ghandi could not apply under the same application as his family. He was rejected six times, with reasoning still unclear today.

“I lost everything,” said Ghandi, who’s been on his own for the last 10 years. After his family fled, he went to Syria four months before returning to Iraq. For a year, he stayed hidden in his family home, only leaving the house late at night for fear of being caught. 

Then he moved to another part of northern Iraq, where he spent the next four years working for an international company that provided him with a place to stay. 

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) first opened his case in 2010. But when Ghandi returned to Iraq, his case was closed. A few years passed and IOM checked in with Ghandi, indicating that he didn't finish his application process and asking if his situation had improved within that time. He told them how dangerous it still was in Iraq, a country nearly taken over completely by ISIS.

He didn't see any sort of future there.

“There’s no home, no respect, no dreams there,” he said.

His case was reopened, beginning a two-year process of obtaining an American visa. Eventually, Ghandi made the dangerous trip to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which he says was filled with checkpoints. He was granted access to live in America in 2016.

“In the United States, I found a new freedom,” says Ghandi. “It’s a new start, a new life.”

Now, he's waiting for July 24 — the day he reunites with his wife, Ghufran Yousif. 

The two knew each other in Iraq — their mothers were friends. The couple were separated during their engagement and marriage as Yousif fled to Sweden to join both Ghandi's family and her own. Once she was safe, the couple looked for any country to give them a visa. Iran was the only option.

"We had to, we didn't have a choice," Ghandi said. The two were married in Iran on Oct. 6, 2016.

Yousif, who turns 30 this month, teaches art to children and comes from a family of goldsmiths.

Catholic Charities connected Ghandi to Congressman Seth Moulton’s office in Salem, where they worked on his wife's case for the last three years.

“I’m very excited for her to come,” says Ghandi, who moved into his own apartment two years ago for them to share. “I’ve been waiting, I feel now I can start my life.”

'I call him my third son'

Marjean Perhot, director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Boston, said their number of expected refugee arrivals set by the president's administration is 100 people each fiscal year. Only 25 refugees arrived from October 2017 to September 2018, she says, and from October 2018 to September 2019, that number steadily increased to 33. 

Marblehead resident Elisabeth Horowitz, a volunteer for Catholic Charities, first met Ghandi when he arrived in Salem.

“She always makes sure I am OK,” says Ghandi, adding how she took him to get his driver’s license. “She gave me the love like a mother would.”

Horowitz, an English professor at Salem State University, surprised Ghandi with a trip to New York City for his 30th birthday. Before leaving, she took him to an Islamic exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“His mouth dropped open,” she recalled, as he looked through the ancient maps and artifacts from his home of Mosul. A museum guard later came up to them, where Horowitz said she embraced Ghandi warmly and said, “‘Don’t worry, we’re keeping your things safe for you.’” 

It was there Horowitz said he realized the importance of history and art.

“He’s hardworking, honest and committed to his responsibilities,” said Horowitz, who's planning a welcoming celebration at her home for Yousif. “I call him my third son.”

“It’s important we serve as each other's touchstone,” she said. “Without that we’d lose our humanity.”

When first arriving to America, Horowitz said Ghandi was always concerned for his roommates, where she said he pushed them to reach higher, obtain their GEDs and even go to college.

With his wife’s long-awaited arrival, Ghandi is finally able to plan for the future, one where he plans to set down roots in Marblehead and pursue his master’s degree. “I studied all my life to be something,” he said. The most difficult transition for him has been working in jobs that don't utilize his college degree.

For refugees like himself who come to the U.S. escaping from war or hardship, Ghandi said all they need is help. “The people who come here just need peace,” he said. “Once you see all that support, you will like this country and you will do anything for it.”

Staff writer Alyse Diamantides can be reached at 978-338-2660 or adiamantides@salemnews.com.