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War zone to Albuquerque: Seeking a normal life

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There is an unforgettable scene in the movie “The Hurt Locker,” the 2010 “Best Picture” Oscar winner, in which the U.S. Army bomb squad confronts and attempts to disarm a repentant Iraqi suicide bomber.

The bomber, known as “Black Suit Man” in the movie’s credits, begs for his life in frantic Arabic, while the U.S. soldiers call for bolt cutters and try to remove the vest of explosives locked onto his chest. He raises his eyes to the sky and prays to Allah as the seconds tick down, time runs out and he’s engulfed in smoke and fire.

The six-minute scene, more than anything else in the movie, is nerve wracking and indelible.

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So when I pulled up to a public housing complex north of Downtown Albuquerque the other day and found Iraqi refugee Suhail Dabbach standing outside waiting to meet me, there was a moment of shock as I came face to face with “Black Suit Man.”

Dabbach had a day off from work and his two youngest children were riding their bikes outside as we sat in his living room and talked about his surprising path from being featured in an Academy Award-winning picture to working as a cook in a senior living home in Albuquerque.

Suhail Dabbach, an actor and director from Iraq, settled in Albuquerque with his family, from left, daughter Ghasak, 19, wife Hanaa, son Essa, 5, and son Yahya, 7. (GREG SORBER/JOURNAL)

Hanaa, Dabbach’s wife, plied us with dark coffee and plates of hummus, tabbouleh and sweets made of pistachios and honey.

If either of them had a shred of regret about leaving their homeland and giving up their careers to rebuild a life from scratch here, it didn’t show.

Dabbach, who trained in classical theater in college in Baghdad and worked as an actor and director there, told me he had fled Iraq with his family to Jordan by the time United States tanks rolled in and the sky lit up with the “shock and awe” air campaign that signaled the U.S. invasion. He was doing odd jobs and looking for work as an actor when he got a part in “Redacted,” a Brian De Palma-directed film about the Iraq War. Then director Kathryn Bigelow brought “The Hurt Locker” production to Jordan and sent out the casting call for the suicide bomber.

Dabbach got the part and worked without a script because his part was in Arabic. He told me he ad-libbed his pleas for help and recited the prayer that any Muslim would when faced with death.

After the filming wrapped, Dabbach decided to seek refugee status, hoping for better educational opportunities for his children.

“I didn’t choose Albuquerque. They choose it for me,” Dabbach said. When the United Nations approved his resettlement application, he said, “They give me the name Albuquerque and I go to the map.”

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He and Hanaa, a personal trainer whom he met in college and married in 1990, gathered up their four children – now ages 21 to 5 – and informed them the family would be embarking on a new adventure.

“We told them we’re going to go there and change our life,” he said.

Suhail Dabbach started as a dishwasher at Brookdale, a retirement home, and now works there as a cook. He has had time to continue acting; he plays a detainee at Guantanamo with information about Osama bin Laden in “SEAL Team Six,” premiering tonight on the National Geographic channel. (GREG SORBER/JOURNAL)

Like many of the refugees who arrive in Albuquerque, they were given green cards and a rent-free apartment in the Southeast part of the city for six months. The first night Hanaa stood on the bed and cried and begged to go back to Jordan. “The roaches!” Dabbach said.

He began working as a dishwasher at Brookdale Place, a retirement home in Albuquerque, in the spring of 2008. He told his new boss he had been an actor and director in Iraq and Jordan and went to work among the pots and pans.

The movie was released in U.S. theaters in June 2009 and won six Oscars the following March.

When John DeAbreu,the Brookdale food services manager, saw the movie he realized he had a special talent in his kitchen.

“Amazing,” he told me. “He doesn’t talk about himself. I found I have this super-intelligent dishwasher.”

DeAbreu promoted Dabbach to cook and, while Dabbach has some film projects in the works, his life now is more about seasoning pork tenderloin than reading scripts.

“Right here is hard, the work is hard,” Dabbach told me, but he has no regrets. He and Hanaa will be able to take the citizenship test next year and he hopes to become a citizen and see his two oldest children graduate from the University of New Mexico and his youngest boys go to college.

“I like the safe life,” he said, “the normal life.”

Dabbach has an agent in Albuquerque, and he told me he would love to be able to make his living as an actor again, although he knows his shaky English and strong accent are an impediment.

Dabbach’s latest film role, is in “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden.” The movie, initially called “Code Name Geronimo” and filmed mostly at the Old Main prison in Santa Fe, tells the story of the raid that killed bin Laden in a compound in Pakistan.

The film debuts on the National Geographic channel this evening – at 6 p.m. and again at 9 p.m. – and Dabbach plays an imprisoned Al Qaeda courier who gives up information about Bin Laden’s location to interrogators.

Dabbach doesn’t have cable television at his home, so he won’t be able to catch the premier. But his boss has promised to record it so Dabbach can get a look at his debut as an American actor.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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