Seeking Refuge in Austin

By Melinda Billingsley, Jonathan Cramer, Claire Edwards, Helen Fernandez, and Madison Hamilton

Aug. 3, 2006

It was a warm evening in Mosul, Iraq – nothing out of the ordinary of the average 100 degree summer days. The sun was setting while Qusay Hussein and his older brothers warmed up for their volleyball game. Held on an outdoor court, boys cheered and yelled as they spiked the ball over the 7ft net.

Hussein was confused as a car drove onto their court.

He made eye contact with the driver who formed a smile on his face and laughed before pushing his hand on the horn.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

The game stopped.


Qusay Hussein stands by the window in his Austin apartment, his favorite place to talk on the phone to his family in Iraq. Photo by Helen Fernandez.

“In a half hour he will be dead. Go help your other kids,” the doctor told his father after looking at Hussein’s head injuries in the local clinic.

He was put in a room with the dead patients – until his father demanded to have his body brought back to the house to clean before the burial.

“Father, I’m not dead. Please take me to the hospital” was the only thing Hussein could manage to say with shrapnel lodged into his head.


Aug. 15 2006

“If we give him water, he will die,” Hussein heard the nurse say shortly after he awoke from a 12-day coma.

With tubes coming out of his stomach, the only option was to dab his lips with a wet cotton ball to quench his thirst.

Twelve days ago 17-year-old Hussein watched a suicide bomber smile before he pressed down on the horn. Twelve days ago shrapnel was lodged into his head – millimeters from his brain. Twelve days ago sixteen people were killed on a volleyball court.

Although Hussein and his three older brothers were lucky to be alive, they did not escape unscathed.

His vision was gone. His nose was gone. He was unrecognizable.


Dec. 18, 2012

After more than 50 facial surgeries, Hussein sought refuge in Austin, Texas.

Hussein traveled over 7,184 miles from Mosul, Iraq to his new home in Austin, Texas.

Hussein traveled over 7,184 miles from Mosul, Iraq to his new home in Austin, Texas.


“I came here because I have a dream. The blind people in Iraq can’t do anything, but I feel like I am the opposite. I can do everything,” he said.


With schools, public transportation and different technology services for the visually impaired, Austin is a much more accessible place for Hussein to live.

But it still wasn’t easy when he first arrived.

“When I came here it was hard for me. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t speak English,” he explained. “It’s hard.”

He compares his first few weeks in America to being in jail.

“I had a case worker who just brought food for me and closed the door,” said Hussein.

Dec 2, 2014

As he became more accustomed to the city and his case worker, he began to like Austin much more. Agencies like the Refugee Services of Texas (RTS) have helped Hussein and many other refugees adjust to life in America. For 4 months the non-profit social service program paid for Hussein’s rent, while also helping with his documents and social security paperwork.

“They are really nice,” Hussein remembered.

Inspired by RTS, a group of students at The University of Texas at Austin founded the Liberal Arts Refugee Alliance (LARA), which helps refugees feel comfortable in Austin, while also educating students about global conflicts.

“The goal of the organization is to facilitate the relationship between student volunteers and the Refugee Services of Texas,” said LARA founding member Sam Karnes.

Both RTS and the student-run group LARA strive to help refugees find a place in Austin after escaping the crisis going on in their home country.





  1. a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.


Growing up Hussein dreamed of being a surgeon. Although his visual impairment prevents him from operating, he hasn’t given up on being a doctor. Working toward a degree in psychology, he hopes to one day help other people overcome difficult situations.

“My family and friends are proud,” said Hussein. “They are proud of me.”

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