Iraqui Refugee Turns to Tango

By Elizabeth Conley , Houston Chronicle

Image by Nikos Z. Photography

When Ahmed Abdulmajeed takes to the dance floor for a fundraiser Thursday at the Nouveau Antique Art Bar in Houston, the joyous music he will hear will be a far cry from the ominous sounds he experienced growing up in his native Iraq. “You’d hear a loud noise and you wonder is it a bomb?” said the 34-year-old Abdulmajeed. “Is it a bullet? You just get used to the noise, and I never thought twice about it.” While a chief resident in cardiology in Baghdad, Abdulmajeed started getting death threats. At one point he was almost kidnapped.

Abdulmajeed has come a long way, from those days in a war-torn Iraq to being among a group of tango dancers hosting the fundraiser on Thursday benefiting the Partnership for the Advancement & Immersion of Refugees.

The nonprofit offers services for refugee children in the U.S. For Abdulmajeed, the event is decidedly personal. For his family’s safety, he left Iraq and took refuge in Jordan in December 2010. There he worked part time as a doctor and also served as a hiking guide. One night he went to a salsa class on a dare from a friend.

“She said to give it a try, if I didn’t like it, she’d buy me dinner, if I did like, I’d buy her dinner.” He looked up salsa dancing on YouTube and thought there’s no way he could move like that. Still, he agreed to go. After the class, Abdulmajeed told his friend he didn’t like it, got his free dinner, then signed up for lessons the next day.

After living in Jordan for two years, he was accepted into the U.S. on a refugee resettlement visa. Tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees have resettled in the U.S. since 2006, with many in the Houston area. Tears welled up in his eyes as Abdulmajeed recalls getting off the plane in Chicago on June 20, 2012, his first stop on U.S. soil before settling in Detroit.

“The border agent looked at me, looked at my paperwork, then back at me and said, ‘Welcome home son.’ It was at that moment he felt relief. “As a refugee, without even knowing it, you feel like you are always carrying your home on your back,” he said. “At that moment I realized what a weight I had been carrying.”

Living in Michigan with family, Abdulmajeed started salsa dancing again, taking lessons at Argentine Tango Detroit in suburban Utica.

“I became friends with the other dancers, and they asked me to stay for the tango lessons,” he said. He stayed, and he was hooked.

“When you dance salsa, you’re always happy,” he said. “When you dance tango, you bring every emotion to the dance floor. There are wider emotions that you can express.”

Abdulmajeed came to Houston in June 2014 after accepting a full-time position as an interpreter at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Two years later his love of dancing inspired him to start taking tango lessons. Although the challenge of the dance itself keeps him engaged, he says it’s also the community of dancers that keeps him coming back, even when he was just starting out.

“You could sit at a table with 10 dancers, and five would be from other countries. I love the diversity.”

It will be a big weekend for Abdulmajeed. Along with the dance, he will be graduating with a master’s degree in health administration from University of Houston Clear Lake. He plans to use the degree and his work as as an advocate and refugee to create healthcare-oriented initiatives to better serve immigrant populations.

His parents, whom still live in Iraq, were planning on visiting him for his graduation but were denied their visas.

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