Double Jeopardy: The Harsh Reality for Iraqi Immigrants Trying to Live in America
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Waleed Arshad remembers the big sign slapped on the door of his home in Baghdad telling him if he didn't leave immediately he would be killed. Al-Qaida was sending him a death threat.
Before that, he was arrested by the Mahdi militia, handcuffed and interrogated at a mosque for having beer in his car. Threatened by both sides, he knew he had to leave, and so with his wife and two kids, he fled to Syria and then to America.
Not long ago, another sign not quite as large as the first appeared on the gray door of his rental unit in east Dallas, this time courtesy of New World Apartments. It read: "If you don't pay your rent in 3 days, you will be evicted."
"Why do you put me here America so I can't pay the rent?" he asked. Despair over his living conditions as a refugee landed him in the emergency room. The bill was $952. "Maybe I die here, not from the militia, but from getting sick."
The United States took in a mere 735 Iraqi refugees between 2003 and 2006. Criticized for not doing enough, 17,000 are slated to arrive between September 2008 and September 2009. But the high-minded policy change seems more like another American broken promise.
Recently arrived refugees interviewed in Dallas wonder how they're supposed to become self-sufficient on minimal assistance in the worst economy since the Great Depression. Rather than making new lives, they are facing unemployment, eviction and isolation.
"The life here is closed," said Lara Yakob, whose husband, an architect in Mosul, has been out of work since he arrived five months ago. His best prospect to date: a tryout in a laundry room.
"I think the American government feels that they made bad things for Iraq, so they bring us here. I don't know why they do that if they don't find us a job. This life they start for us, is a very bad life, " said Omar Ibrahim, who arrived in Dallas in 2008 and still is jobless.
He lives in a housing complex on the edge of the city, on a tree-lined street off the freeway, near Garland. Around 100 refugee families from Iraq, Myanmar and central Africa share this neighborhood of two-story apartments around the corner from a gas station -- the site of a recent police killing -- a Cash America outlet, aging strip malls and shuttered superstores.
His rent assistance stopped after four months, and to pay the bills he had to do the unthinkable. "I called my family in Iraq to send me money," he said. And they asked him, "You are in America, and you are asking us for money?"
"They know that America is a dream, but it is a bad dream," he said.
While all refugees face a jobless economy, Iraqis have unique challenges. A culture of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim discrimination permeates their surroundings. As a group, they are more sophisticated, highly trained, educated and older, and their expectations, having been stoked by images in the Arab media of America as an all-powerful country, are higher than most, making the reality of their situation all the more shocking.
"The economy is the first thing, and the second thing is they are not given enough money," said Kathum Almoumen, president of the Iraqi American Association of North Texas. Almoumen said when he arrived in 1994, "everything was nice. I found a job in 15 days."
Each refugee receives $900 from the State Department's Reception and Placement program for initial resettlement to cover housing, clothing, food and necessities for 30 to 90 days. The money is administered by 10 resettlement agencies that typically use half of it to cover administration and logistics.