The burly father held his 2-year-old son tightly, whispered softly and kissed him gently, finally reunited in the Twin Cities after the two were torn apart by violence in Iraq.
"I can't describe my feeling. I am very happy," said Mishaal Alkadi, whose eyes rarely left his son's face after 2-year-old Amer Mishaal Alkadi landed in the Twin Cities late Wednesday night after nine months of agony and despair.
Alkadi last held his son in July, when he was forced to flee Baghdad and join his brother in the Twin Cities. Alkadi had been targeted to be killed, likely because his brother had served as a translator for the U.S. Marines.
He counted on his wife and his son following him as soon the clearance came. Until then, he figured they would be safe because "they wouldn't target an innocent woman and child," Alkadi said as his brother translated. "I was wrong."
The men looking for him stopped his wife as she walked to a nearby market on an early November morning. They assumed Alkadi was still in Iraq and demanded to know where. But 19-year-old Fatima Abdalriza told them she knew nothing.
The men demanded she think harder. She swore she didn't know.
They shot her dead.
The store owner ran to her and called an ambulance. But Alkadi's wife died, and neighbors took his son until an aunt arrived.
Alkadi was racked by grief, then terror, fearing the men who killed his wife would come for his son. Desperate, he decided to return to Iraq.
"He came into my office, his hair was disheveled, his eyes bloodshot," said Amanda Smith, director of refugee services for the International Institute of Minnesota. "It looked like he had given up hope."
Returning to Iraq was not a good option, she told him. His life would be in danger, and he likely couldn't return to the United States. "If you're a refugee, you're saying it's unsafe to be there. So if you return and try to get back into the U.S., it would raise red flags."
Alkadi's cousin hid the anxious father's passport to guarantee he couldn't leave the country, and Smith assured him that they would get his son out of Iraq as quickly as possible. "It wasn't going to be easy, and it wasn't going to happen fast," she told him. "Expedited in government agency terms doesn't mean one week," Smith said. "I was thinking about a year."
A reminder of danger
Even before his wife's death, Alkadi's efforts to reunite his family had been mired in refugee bureaucracy.
His own request to come to the United States had taken four years to be granted.
In the meantime he had married and had a son. Getting them to the United States would likely take an additional two years.
"He begged us to get his family here as soon as possible," Smith said. "That's a question that we get asked daily. Anyone who is a refugee is a refugee because their life is in danger."
Fatima's death was a poignant reminder to Smith and others who work with refugees "how true that is."
Weeks slowly turned into months as Alkadi waited for word about his son.
His heart was heavy. His spirit low. "I didn't feel like I was living," he said.
And then word came this week that his son would arrive within three days. "I couldn't sleep for those three days," Alkadi said as he waited for his son to be escorted through the airport doors.
And then the moment came. Alkadi, his cousin, brother and sister swarmed the toddler, who grew wide-eyed at the sight of the balloons the family held.
"Life is beginning again," Alkadi said.