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Iraqi immigrant tests the waters in Jonesboro

By Ed Brock

In the early days of America's invasion of Iraq Melavan Pasha's father was surprised to find an American soldier enjoying the shade of a palm tree in the front yard of his Baghdad home.

The father, Fareed Pasha, who spoke a little English, went out to the soldier, offered him some water and began chatting with him. In the course of the conversation the soldier told Pasha that he was stationed in Georgia.

"My father said wow, that's so funny, my son is in Georgia, too," said Melavan Pasha, now a resident of Jonesboro who hasn't seen his homeland for nearly a decade.

Soft-spoken, 35-year-old Pasha spends his days now among the test tubes and beakers of Analytech, the small laboratory in Jonesboro where he works. He lives in an apartment just a few minutes away in the town where he ended up quite by accident after escaping certain death at the hands of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

His friends know him as "Mel."

In the early 1990s Pasha was a university student in his hometown of Baghdad, studying physics and chemistry. He finished school in 1994.

"When I finished, if I stayed I would have had to join the army, and I didn't want to do that," Pasha said.

So Pasha returned to Kurdistan in northern Iraq, the birthplace of his parents and where he still had family. Once there he began working with groups that opposed Hussein's rule.

"We were going around trying to educate people," Pasha said.

Then in 1996, during a civil war, Hussein's troops attacked and Pasha and some 7,000 other people, many of them families with women and children, had to flee the country.

"We were in danger of being captured. We could have been executed," Pasha said. "Thank God for the Americans, otherwise we couldn't have gone anywhere."

American forces, who at the time were supporting some rebel groups, airlifted the refugees to Guam. In Guam, American officials asked Pasha where in America he wanted to go.

"I said it doesn't matter, anywhere is fine," Pasha said.

So they sent him to Atlanta.

For a while he lived in Smyrna but in 1998 he moved to Jonesboro and was working as an attendant at a gas station next door to Analytech when the lab's owner, Bill Gardiner, discovered him.

"I talked to him on occasion. I noticed his accent and I asked him where he was from," Gardiner said.

It wasn't really surprising for Gardiner to discover that this gas station attendant was a trained scientist. Since the 1980s Gardiner has made it a habit of hiring refugee scientists, including eight scientists from the former Soviet Union and a Palestinian scientist.

"Scientists who come here as refugees, like any other refugee they get a menial job first," Gardiner said.

Gardiner brought Pasha on board and put him to work doing what he was trained to do.

"He's really been our mainstay. He does most of the work in the wet lab," Gardiner said.

Pasha and Gardiner also talk a lot about one of Gardiner's favorite subjects, Middle Eastern history.

As for the current situation in Iraq, Pasha said things are getting better day by day, but many Iraqis are frustrated by the slowness of their country's reconstruction.

"But a majority I'd say aren't anti-American," Pasha said. "A majority just want the situation to improve."

And with the 60 percent unemployment in the country, many Iraqis want to be more engaged in the reconstruction process.

"All these young guys are just sitting there. The key is to get them engaged," Pasha said.

Also, Pasha said most of the violence shown in television reports from Iraq is perpetrated by foreign terrorists who have entered the country and not the indigenous Iraqi people.

The violence also isn't as widespread as some people might think. Pasha said his parents' neighborhood in Baghdad is usually quiet.

"I talk to friends on the phone and they say why don't you come home for a visit," Pasha said.

And next year he plans to do just that, Pasha said, returning to the country he hasn't seen for eight years. But he'll probably return to his adopted country, and here is where he'll stay.

"I think I've adapted to life in this country," Pasha said. "It would be hard for me to go back to live."