Fishing skills

A San Antonio resident uses his skills as a former interpreter in Iraq to help immigrants find their new home

It felt like an international summit in a boardroom at the Auburn Creek apartments.

Burmese, Congolese, Iraqi, Somali and Sudanese parents packed up at the North Side clubhouse for details of Head Start classes for their children.

The clash of tongues overwhelmed Pamela Allen, a parents’ attorney with the Family Services Association. There was no plan for the script in its program for refugee families. Then an Iraqi man recording his one-year-old son, Bahaulldin, showed up.

“Let me help you, ma’am,” Abdul Abdallah said in English.

A former interpreter for the US Army in Iraq, he spoke Arabic, understood by most of the 40 parents. He translated Allen’s instructions and a calm settled in the room.

Iraqi immigrant Abdul Abdallah, 45, center in a white T-shirt, smiles as longtime friend Pam Allen, right, jokes with her son, Dheyaa, 13, at his home on Friday March 18. Abdallah served as an interpreter for the United States Army for five years. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 2010. Since then, he has acted as a calming force in the North Side refugee community, helping resettlement workers meet the needs of immigrants around the world. Joining them were their children on the left, Ola, 11, Bahaulldin, 16 and Dheyaa, 13.

Jerry Lara / Team Photographer

“He saved me in more ways than one that day,” Allen, 58, said. “He helped me navigate different cultures with honor and respect for their beliefs.”

Thirteen years ago, Abdallah’s gesture of goodwill was the start of a lasting friendship with Allen, and it landed him a role as a performer for San Antonio. Recently, Allen and her husband, Tim, dined with the Abdullah family at their Northwest Side home as he reflected on his family’s journey from Iraq to America.

It started in 2003. Abdallah wanted to use the English he had studied at the University of Baghdad to help protect his people. His chance came at a gas station as he listened to an Iraqi translate a conversation with an American soldier. Abdallah told the soldier that the man was not translating very well and delivered the full message.

“It was so good that I was able to help sort out the situation,” Abdallah said.

He went to the mosque and asked the imam for permission to apply for a job as an interpreter. The cleric gave his approval, but warned Abdallah that he had to accept the consequences of his choice.

Iraqi immigrant Abdul Abdallah, 45, right, and his family entertain longtime friend Pam Allen, left, and her husband, Tim, for lunch at their home on Friday March 18.  Abdallah served as an interpreter for the US military for five years.  He and his family immigrated to the United States in 2010. Since then, he has acted as a calming force in the North Side refugee community, helping resettlement workers meet the needs of immigrants around the world.

Iraqi immigrant Abdul Abdallah, 45, right, and his family entertain longtime friend Pam Allen, left, and her husband, Tim, for lunch at their home on Friday March 18. Abdallah served as an interpreter for the US military for five years. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 2010. Since then, he has acted as a calming force in the North Side refugee community, helping resettlement workers meet the needs of immigrants around the world.

Jerry Lara / Team Photographer

From 2003 to 2009, he worked with the US military, one of approximately 50,000 performers who faced reprisals from militant groups for their actions. According to the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, more than 1,000 Iraqi interpreters were killed during the campaign due to their affiliation with US forces.

Abdallah worked as a liaison officer at the National Iraqi Assistance Center in the Green Zone, a heavily barricaded base in central Baghdad. The Iraqis, who waited in the scorching sun for hours, asked Abdullah for help in finding their missing family members in detention centers and prisons.

“Just pray for me,” he replied when people asked how they could pay him back.

Two people knew Abdallah was an interpreter – one of his older brothers and Athraa, his future wife, whom he had known all his life and married in 2005.

Athraa kept her secret, still worried about her husband’s safety. Abdallah lived in a militia-controlled neighborhood where he survived several close calls with militants thanks to luck, intelligence and mercy from above.

By 2007, Iraq had become dangerous and unstable, and he feared for his family’s safety. Athraa was pregnant with their second son when Abdallah enlisted the help of Army Colonel Richard Welch, a supervisor and friend with whom he worked in the Green Zone. The colonel helped Abdullah process paperwork for a special interview for an immigrant visa with the US Embassy in Baghdad.

“I will never forget what he did for me,” Abdallah said.

Iraqi immigrant Abdul Abdallah, 45, center in a white T-shirt, smiles as longtime friend Pam Allen, right, jokes with her son, Dheyaa, 13, at his home on Friday March 18.  Abdallah served as an interpreter for the United States Army for five years.  He and his family immigrated to the United States in 2010. Since then, he has acted as a calming force in the North Side refugee community, helping resettlement workers meet the needs of immigrants around the world.  With them are her eldest son Bahaulldin, 16, left, and Allen's husband Tim.

Iraqi immigrant Abdul Abdallah, 45, center in a white T-shirt, smiles as longtime friend Pam Allen, right, jokes with her son, Dheyaa, 13, at his home on Friday March 18. Abdallah served as an interpreter for the United States Army for five years. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 2010. Since then, he has acted as a calming force in the North Side refugee community, helping resettlement workers meet the needs of immigrants around the world. With them are her eldest son Bahaulldin, 16, left, and Allen’s husband Tim.

Jerry Lara / Team Photographer

After two months of waiting, he received an email from the embassy — he had an interview in seven days. It was the longest week of his life. After the family received passports, they began their long journey from Iraq. There were stops in Jordan, Germany, Chicago, Houston and, finally, San Antonio. It took two years to reimburse the government for the plane tickets.

A social worker from Catholic Charities met them when they arrived on August 6, 2009. Soon after, he met Allen. After weeks of volunteering to help him, Family Services hired him as one of their social workers.

“When Allah loves you so much, He always puts great people before you,” Abdallah said.

A 22-year Air Force veteran, Vincent T. Davis embarked on a second career as a journalist and found his calling. By observing and listening to San Antonio, he finds intriguing stories to tell about ordinary people. He shares his stories with Express-News subscribers every Monday morning.


The duo offered help in the resettlement community, where immigrants from 16 countries spoke 11 languages. They became fixtures in four apartment complexes near Wurzbach Road, where their students lived. Their bond grew stronger as their workload spilled over into nights and weekends.

Abdallah was Allen’s ally, informing and educating as he once did in Iraq. Allen was the educator, quick to watch over young people and the rights of their parents.

“She worked through their hearts before entering their homes,” Abdallah said.

They received calls at all times of the day for a variety of issues. They have helped girls wear hair coverings to school, residents pay utility bills, and families dealing with untimely deaths.

For the past 10 years, Abdallah has worked at the University Hospital. He’s a surgical technician in the pediatric unit. He said working with his colleagues and seeing the children’s smiles made his day better. Athraa also works in the hospital in the field of catering.

In 2014 he became a US citizen and Athraa was sworn in a year later. Their teenage sons, Bahaulldin (Boo-Boo), 16, and Dheyaa (Za-Za), 13, now look Abdullah in the eye, bridging Iraqi and American cultures. Their daughter, Ola, born in San Antonio, follows the customs of her ancestors while being comfortable with Western culture. His children, who hug him after work and affectionately call him “dude”, are his heart.

For Abdallah, living in America offers his children freedom and countless opportunities he didn’t have growing up. The third child of five, Abdallah grew up in a simple family. He remembers spending nine hours fishing in a rowboat on Lake Annah until he lost feeling in his legs. Then he walked for miles to town to sell his catch, each step feeling like pin needles piercing his leg.

It’s a familiar story to Pam and Tim Allen, who the Abdallahs call family. If anything were to happen to the couple, they named the Allens as godparents to their children. Their daughter once asked, “If she’s our godmother, why isn’t she a Muslim?”

“It’s not a matter of belief,” Abdallah said. “It’s about being human.”

He reminds his children of the sacrifices others have made for their families and to always be hopeful. And whatever role they take on, do it in honor of Abdallah’s name.

“Becoming American citizens was the first step in moving my family forward,” Abdallah said. “Now they have the opportunity to continue what I started. I tell my children to be grateful for what they have and never forget what we have in this country. It will be a legacy even after your death.

vtdavis@express-news.net