By Lindsay Esparrago
The day Darwood Suleiman met Nidia Morales was the day optimism met practicality.
It was the day a soldier met a baker. A Muslim met a Mormon. The day opposite ends of the world came together.
Suleiman, who is from Iraq, and Morales, from Guatemala, found themselves — and each other — in Lincoln.
Lincoln was also the place where they encountered the trial and error of starting their own businesses, financial stress and recovery from physical and mental injuries.
But mostly, Lincoln was where they found love.
The day they met — 17 years ago — was the day cultures collided. Because they had lost part of their own cultures when they came to America, the couple tries to find ways to hold onto what they cherish most about their homelands.
For Suleiman and Morales, it’s their 9-year-old daughter, Aminah, who strengthens the bond between their relationship and their cultures. She’s their balance.
But long before Aminah came into their lives and long before their love story began, the couple’s earlier life chapters were tumultuous, often filled with fear and strife. But both were risk-takers. And although they left their homelands suddenly amid many fearful moments, their determination was consistent.
Suleiman was an Iraqi soldier — not by choice — forced into serving in the Ba’ath Regime Army under Saddam Hussein. Out of disapproval of the war, he escaped in the middle of the night and hid in his home for six to seven months from the government to avoid the punishment of death penalty. He ran from Iraq’s border for seven hours until being approached by a group of Saudi Arabian men. They took him to a camp where he stayed for five years. He came to America in 1994.
“When I came here, I saw a calendar and started crying,” he said. “I was 20 when I went with the army. Every day since then had been the same thing. I had forgot about life. I found out I was 30.”
Morales had more time to adapt to America; she came at age 17. Like Suleiman, Morales didn’t ask for permission to leave — her mother disapproved.
“My father left home when I was very young and we struggled a lot,” Morales said. “I liked the idea of a better future. One day my uncle called and said, ‘If you want to come to America, you have two hours to pack up your stuff.’ I was shaking.”
Nerves were not enough to keep her from going. Swimming across a freezing cold river was not enough either — even in the instance when she started to lose her endurance. She escaped without her family’s or the government’s permission. Even so, something kept her going.
Love grows in Lincoln
For the couple, America wasn’t much easier at first.
Suleiman worked his way through numerous companies in Boston and Chicago, just to send money back to his family in Iraq. Morales went through two different low-paying babysitting jobs in in Houston, learning a little English in the process.
They found jobs in these cities, but they had not found a true sense of home.
That was until Lincoln. Both had friends living here who had promised it would be better.
And it was. Suleiman hadn’t felt comfortable for as long as he could remember before Lincoln.
“It’s more safe and quiet here,” he said. “In big cities you can’t go out at night. There are accidents and killings. It’s scary.”
The comfortable feeling only grew for Suleiman when he met Morales at their first job making cell phone antenna at Centurion Wireless Technologies — now Laird Technologies.
Working side by side every day, the friendship developed over a year and a half. About five years later, they were married.
Their love is simple, according to Suleiman.
“I like her. She likes me,” he said, laughing.
Morales calls it destiny. She bumped into him almost everywhere she went. Initially she was confused, but as she learned about Suleiman’s big heart and similar passions, she knew it was no coincidence.
But Morales said the idea of them being in love wasn’t so simple for others to grasp.
“He’s a Muslim and I’m Mormon,” she said. “My family at first had a huge problem with him. They told me, ‘Don’t do that, you’re going to regret it.’ But not everyone is the same — he has a different way of thinking. There’s so much you can learn when finding people from different cultures.”
Her family eventually realized that and fell in love with him, too.
Overcoming obstacles together
Religion is just a bump in the road for them. The rest of their cultural differences serve as lessons, according to Morales. She has learned to value family as much as Muslims often do — before, the only thing she knew was a broken family.
“Our cultures have different ideas of respect and different way of seeing things,” she said.
Besides their love for each other, Morales’ love for baking and Suleiman’s love for his home country’s food provided the motivation for starting their own business — Jerusalem Bakery. It offered both Central American pastries and Middle Eastern entrees.
But they endured losing the bakery — not once, but twice because of leasing problems and high rent prices.
Morales’ baking career has been put on hold and Suleiman had to stop working with a company who makes car tires because of a knee injury and other health problems.
“I’m just getting old,” he said.
Morales feels this way, too. Which is why her 21-year-old son, Hector, is learning about baking in hopes of getting the bakery running again. She plans to help a little and offer her knowledge, but as she grows older her back has started to give out on her — making it a lot harder for her to get around while baking. Her quick and efficient process has started to diminish.
Now the two spend most of their days at the Center for People in Need taking English as Second Language classes. Language is still the hardest thing about being in America, according to Suleiman.
Language comes easier
But Matt Cook, a AmeriCorps Vista Outreach worker who sits in on ESL classes, said language seems to come easier for the two compared to many other students.
“Nidia was one of the more vocal and articulate students in the classroom,” Cook said.
Morales is in a higher-level ESL class than Suleiman, but it doesn’t affect their communication.
“At home I have time to make it simple in a way he can understand,” she said.
It’s their willingness to speak up and their ability to laugh among all the changes they’ve experienced that makes them stand out, according to Cook.
Suleiman considers himself a quiet man, but he loves that Morales is the one who does the talking. He said it might be because of where she’s from and their cultural differences.
“If she starts talking, she doesn’t stop,” he said. “She talks a lot especially in Spanish. I’m used to it.”
Suleiman has tried to pick up some Spanish since marrying Morales. While he can’t speak fluently, he can say a few words and works on it at home with self-teaching books.
He’s also learned through visits with Morales to appreciate and love Guatemala as much — if not more — than his own country.
“It’s a magical, nice and beautiful place,” Suleiman said. “I tell her if she wants to back there, I’d go.”
But they plan to stay in Lincoln because of their daughter — the best thing that’s happened to them since coming to America, according to Suleiman.
Their daughter is their happiness. She’s the inspiration behind the bakery and a reason to work toward being debt-free.
Regardless of what happens to Morales and Suleiman at the end of the day, their daughter and her future is what pushes them forward.
“Anything we think about, we think about her first,” Suleiman said. “Anything we do, we do it for her.”
The couple teaches her Spanish, and she takes an Arabic class every Sunday for four hours — getting a sense of both of her parent’s roots. Morales said being fluent in different languages is a step in gaining experience.
“Knowing the culture means she can be anywhere she wants to be in life,” Morales said. “Not everyone has this chance. She can deal with Americans because she knows them. She can deal with Middle Eastern people because she knows them. She can deal with Mexicans because she knows them.”
Morales wants to give Aminah the opportunities she and Suleiman never really had — the possibility to be wherever she wants while doing whatever she wants.
Even though those opportunities were far out of reach for the couple, that didn’t stop the two from trying.
“All of us struggle to get something,” Morales said. “It’s not going to be easy, but if you work hard you can get it. I’m a proud of any young people who are going out and doing something.”
Just like their time of fear was temporary in their homelands, Suleiman says the rough, jobless times in America are also temporary. He considers himself fortunate with the little he has.
“My life is always, you go down, down, down, then you go up, up, up,” he said. “I’m OK with it. It’s not going to be forever.”