BOSTON — In the six weeks since he helped rescue American prisoner of war Jessica Lynch, life has changed quite a bit for Iraqi lawyer Mohammed Odeh Rehaief, his wife and their five-year-old daughter.
They moved to the US on April 10 from a refugee camp and were quickly granted asylum. He got a job working for a former Congressman and discovered he likes McDonald's chicken sandwiches. (His daughter prefers Happy Meals.)
Just a typical suburban existence, thanks in large measure to Tom Kalil, a Lebanese-American attorney with the US Department of Agriculture, who has opened his Virginia home to Mr. Rehaief and his family.
Mr. Kalil says he decided to help Rehaief after reading a Washington Post article about him in April. He was struck by the parallel between their lives - and ones between Kalil's mother and Jessica Lynch. "I started tearing up," Kalil told the Monitor in a phone interview Friday about his houseguest's new life in America. "There were just too many things in common."
Both Kalil and Rehaief are attorneys with wives who work as nurses. Each man has a five-year-old daughter. Kalil's father helped rescue Kalil's mother from a life of servitude. Kalil's father's church paid to free her from forced labor in Lebanon, where she had toiled from the age of four to nineteen. - the same age as Pfc. Lynch was at the time Rehaief helped rescue her.
And Kalil says he, too, has experience exposing hidden wrongs, having spoken out publicly on behalf of African American farmers in their lawsuit against his employer, the Agriculture Department's Farm Loan program.
So after reading the newspaper article and checking with his wife, Kalil called the Washington Post. The paper's foreign desk connected him with former Congressman Robert Livingston and a Washington non-profit organization, who were also trying to help. A string of calls between government agencies and charities made it possible to arrange Rehaief's stay in Kalil's home.
After completing the last leg of his journey to America with a stop in Boston, Rehaief arrived at Kalil's home two weeks ago. They hugged each other and kissed on the cheeks before sharing their first meal together: grilled salmon, rice, strawberry shortcake, and Kalil's homemade hummus.
Kalil's mother struggled to hold back tears as she served as translator to supplement Rehaief's broken English. "They are like old family," Kalil says.
Kalil says Rehaief can't give too many details of the rescue operation until he finishes negotiating a book contract. Publishers are calling with seven-figure offers, Kalil says, in-between calls from the likes of Barbara Walters and Dan Rather. But according to Kalil, neither money nor fame motivated Rehaief to help the young private. Rather, the sight of Lynch lying in a hospital bed "cut his heart." "He is someone who sees us all as children of God," Kalil says.
Rehaief underwent surgery Monday to remove iron shrapnel that struck him in one eye during the rescue, leaving him partially blind. It will be several weeks before it's clear whether Rehaief will be able to see OUT OF THAT EYE again, says Dr. Barrett Katz, chairman of the Opthamology Department at George Washington University.
Katz and other doctors involved worked for free. "He made a significant effort to aid somebody in need, and we wanted to reciprocate," Dr. Katz says.
Only three days after the surgery, Rehaief made his first public appearance in the US Thursday to receive an award from the Delaware Bar Association. The Bar Association presented Rehaief with a $1,000 prize, saying his actions reflect lawyers' best qualities.
Mostly though, Rehaief is just adjusting to life in America: waking up in the morning in the three-story house to which he has his own set of keys, and watching the deer who peek out of the woods adjoining the backyard.
Rehaief's family was awed by the size of a local department store and the nearby Wal-Mart. They enjoy eating at McDonalds where his daughter, Abir, which means flower in Arabic, quickly discovered Happy Meal toys. She's also already picking up English phrases such as "I love you," "thank you," and "I'm hungry."
Rehaief is also adjusting to another American tradition: the morning commute. A neighbor has volunteered to drive him to his new job at the Washington office of a lobbying firm run by former Congressman Robert Livingston.
One day, Rehaief hopes to practice law again. He studied international law but was limited to representing families after he refused to join Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Eventually, he might like to be a judge but also hopes to help rebuild Iraq. Having been granted asylum in the US, Rehaief can apply for residency within a year and citizenship in five and may also apply to bring over relatives.
He worries about family members - including seven brothers and sisters - who remain behind in Iraq. "It's been a struggle," Kalil says. Rehaief is heartened when people react so warmly when Kalil mentions the Iraqi's role in Lynch's rescue.
There are still a couple Americans Rehaief hopes to meet. Lynch, for one, who is recovering at an Army medical center only a few miles from his new home. He'd also like to meet President Bush and thank him for both granting him asylum and rescuing Iraq from Hussein's rule.
But his wife and daughter are most excited about Mickey Mouse. "I would love to get [them] to Disney World," Kalil says.