HIAS: Iraqi Refugee Advocates for Disability Rights in Texas

Qusay wears dark glasses and carries a white walking stick. He’s the sort of person who wins you over almost immediately. He speaks openly, and from the heart. He gets animated when it comes to the topic of helping others, as if he might jump out of his seat and go solve all the world’s problems that instant.

The day I meet him, the 28-year-old is running from meeting to meeting in Washington, D.C. like any other advocate making the most of a quick fly in.

America wasn’t always home for Qusay. Born and raised in Iraq, he worked for a time with the American army—an occupation made even less safe following the arrival of ISIS.

“They know who worked with the Americans, and who was police. They have lists,” Qusay said.

In 2006, a suicide bomber detonated nearby, injuring three of his brothers. But Qusay was the most severely injured. Shrapnel destroyed most of his face, and it seemed unlikely he would survive.

Miraculously, Qusay pulled through. But the damage was extreme. “I lost my vision. I lost my nose. So far, I have had 58 surgeries.”

“After I lost my vision, there was nothing for me to do in Iraq. There, they don’t believe that a person with a disability is capable of doing anything,” Qusay said. “I can’t tolerate that. I can’t envision myself just sitting at home. My dreams are bigger than that.”

“Thank God, I applied for Doctors Without Borders and they accepted me.” He went to Jordan to for surgery. They reconstructed his face over a period of several months, eventually restoring his nose. During that time, Qusay said, “thank God, they recognized that I have some ability and they nominated me to be a counselor for the patients. So then I started working with them, as a volunteer.”

He started counseling other patients, offering them support and encouragement, even while he was still continuing to undergo surgeries of his own.

The Doctors Without Borders staff was deeply impressed with him. They encouraged him to apply for refugee status, so that he could hopefully be resettled somewhere and continue his education.

His parents were opposed to the plan. “You are blind. You don’t speak English. What will you do?” his father asked. But eventually, he realized it was what he needed to do.

“When I arrived in New York, I came by myself. There was no one with me, just God,” he recalls. A woman helped him find his connecting flight, and he was on his way to Austin.

In Austin, Qusay started taking ESL. In addition to English, he learned how to read braille. He got mobility training, which allowed him to move about unaided. “After I got the training, I felt like I am a king,” he recalled, excitedly. The simple act of going to the store by himself was thrilling.

Qusay never got to finish high school in Iraq—he was in his last year when the accident happened—so he got his GED in Texas. Today, he is working towards a degree in psychology, and he hopes to earn a PhD in the future.

He also somehow finds the time to volunteer, serving as a translator for newly arrived refugees. It wasn’t that long ago that he was in their shoes, after all. He takes special care with other visually impaired refugees, teaching them how to navigate their new world and ensuring they have the skills they’ll need to become self sufficient, for instance, by teaching them how to use a computer.

He also gives motivational speeches, although he often refuses to accept a speaking fee for his services. “This country helped me—I need to give back,” he said, by way of explanation. He recalls a recent encounter with a woman who heard him speak and was inspired to go back to school that he found especially touching. “When you help someone, and they thank you, that stays with you and it lives inside you. That’s enough for me,” he says.

He does have one wish, though. Some of Qusay’s family is still trapped in Iraq. He fears for their safety, and wishes that they could come join him here. But given the recent executive order banning arrivals, including refugees from Iraq, it is unlikely that they will be reunited any time soon.

Still, he carries on, relentlessly trying to make the world a better place.

When I met Qusay, he was in Washington, D.C. with the National Federation of the Blind (he serves as chair of the Austin chapter) to speak to his representatives in Congress about making schools more accessible to people with disabilities. He also advocates for better services and support for people with disabilities in Iraq.

“A person who has a disability should dream equally,” he says. “We are regular people. We have a brain, we have a heart.”

“My priority is not to let anyone with a disability need anything.”