War on Iraq

Double Jeopardy: The Harsh Reality for Iraqi Immigrants Trying to Live in America

Recently arrived refugees wonder how they're supposed to become self-sufficient in the worst economy since the Great Depression.
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.

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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.

"The money we give is intended only as seed money. They have to raise money on their own. In no way is the U.S. government contribution supposed to be the entire provision for the refugee," said Thomas Pierce, a spokesman at the Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Refugee advocates want $1,100 per refugee in the near term, but say ideally the grant should be doubled to $1,800, which would be in line with cost-of-living increases.

"There has been a huge historic underfunding, " said Jen Smyers, an associate for immigration and refugee policy at Church World Service in Washington.

Beyond that, refugees can get food stamps and Medicaid for eight months, which is a decline from 36 months when the Refugee Act was passed in 1980.

They are also eligible for cash and services through a public/private Matching Grant Program designed to encourage self-sufficiency. But the program, run through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, served less than a third of all refugees in 2008.

More slots should be made available, and the program should be reformed so refugees have more time to find jobs in line with their skills, said Smyers. As it is now, refugees must take whatever job offered them, or they're dismissed from the program.

This is what happened to Arshad. He was offered a job, but to get there he needed to take a bus downtown and switch to another. He asked his resettlement agency, Refugee Services of Texas to help him the first day, because he didn't know English and was confused by the landscape.

"I was afraid of getting lost, that I wouldn't find my way back and have no money for a taxi," he said. They told him they couldn't help him, and so he lost that job offer.

The agency presented him with another job, but the start time conflicted with his wife’s schedule. She had just begun working a 5 a.m. shift at a makeup factory. If he took the job, no one would be there to wake the children and get them to school. He had to say no. He was deemed incompliant, lost the job and the $480 a month from the matching grant.

Carol Roxbugh, CEO of RST, would not comment on individual cases but said, "We can only be compliant and try to do the best for them. It's hard for them to understand all the ins and outs of the programs." She acknowledges that the economy is making it particularly tough and "the funding has not kept up with the cost of living." But she said she thought the refugees, "came over with unrealistic expectations. Not everyone lives like the Ewings in Dallas," she said

Not one of the 10 families interviewed in Dallas thought life here would be paved with gold, but they didn't expect the insecurity and bureaucratic failings.

One refugee said his landlord was charging him for rent owed by previous tenants. Another said he was charged for a water bill dated before he even arrived in the U.S. Many families spoke of delays in food stamps and being forced to sign leases for apartments they cannot afford.

"We must sign documents without understanding what they say, and they tell us if you don't sign, you will get nothing. They don't give us any copies, " said Ibrahim. But their biggest shock has been the brutality of the American health care system.

Yaseen Ibrahim, 43, a father of five, was a taxi driver in Baghdad. An explosion on the street ripped through his home, and he fell from the second floor, crushing his leg.

He received no medical attention in Iraq and left for Syria with his family. There he lived on rent subsidies from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in a small, third-floor apartment. He couldn't go up or down the stairs. He couldn't work.

The doctor screening him during his refugee interview in Damascus assured him he would be treated in the United States. "Don't worry, you will be OK. They will the will fix your leg," he said he was told.

He arrived Oct. 1, 2008. He received six month's paid rent, one month of free utilities, food stamps and cash assistance through Catholic Charities, his assigned refugee agency.

Last month, the cash assistance stopped. Fortunately, he was able to get Supplemental Security Income, but that only pays $670 a month, and his rent is $650, not to mention, bills for electricity, water, diapers for two kids, phone, and his $200-a-month payment to the International Office of Migration for the airplane tickets from Damascus.

His dream to get his leg fixed is finished. He's been bounced back and forth between two hospitals in Dallas, each telling him he's ineligible for care. He's sought the help of the listproject.org, a U.S. nonprofit group dedicated to helping Iraq refugees.

"My illness is getting worse. All the time, I'm concerned, thinking about my future. I even stopped going to ESL classes because I keep thinking about all the problems. I have five kids. I can't buy clothes. I imagined a good future for them. In Baghdad, I can find some friends or relatives to help me, but here I have no one. All the things they told me, I don't see it." He feels lost and betrayed.

"Because of what happened in Iraq, we're looking for responsibility from the American people. We left everything behind us. We just came with our clothes."

Margaret arrived in mid-February, a widow with six children. Her husband was killed in Iraq for owning a liquor store. Her family has been scattered, one son escaped to Greece then to New Zealand, one daughter remains in Turkey. They had hoped for a placement to New Zealand to be reunited with the son, but no delegation came through.

She arrived in mid-February with four daughters, two of them diabetic -- her oldest, 21, is blind. While in Iraq, the daughter developed headaches and started bleeding from her eyes. The war made it impossible to seek medical care.

Since coming to Dallas, she has had one doctor's consultation and no follow-up treatment. Her Medicaid hasn't come through. Her food stamps are late. Meanwhile, her second daughter, 20, is going blind.

"I can't focus. I can't concentrate. I can't read at all," her daughter says. Time is running out. "What's the solution? What should I do?" she cries. "It's the biggest mistake I made, to come over here. What is my fate?"

For the refugees already here, the only solution they can see, like so many of their poor American counterparts, lies in the well-endowed arms of the U.S. military.

Nasreen* was a translator at the U.S Embassy in Baghdad. She recently resettled with her family in the Detroit area. Unable to find work there, she moved to Dallas for a part-time caseworker job. It's not enough to sustain her, and so she dreams of finding her way back to a government job, ideally on a military base. "The benefits are good," she said.

Hasim* worked as a military translator for 36 months, risking his life on missions and helping with military intelligence. He arrived in Dallas in September and was jobless for months. He finally found employment through friends at Tyson foods, where he acts as an interpreter and packer, making $9 an hour.

But he's frustrated and unsettled. His only way out, he says, is to go back to Iraq to the danger he left, but this time as a U.S. hire working for a military contractor. He's willing to take the risk because U.S. hires make up to five times more than what he made as an Iraqi national.

Meanwhile, his roommates have left, unable to find work in Dallas. They've packed up and moved off to Amarillo to work at a meat processor. Another family is leaving this week for the same destination, and several families have left for cheaper rents in Arlington and Fort Worth.

Mohammed arrived in Texas in January with folders full of glowing recommendations from U.S. companies and an Army officer attesting to his dedication and work ethic in Iraq. He expected golden treatment, considering his excellent language skills and the sacrifices he made working for the U.S.

"I did a great job. I worked five years in Iraq. I put my life in danger. My brother got kidnapped because of it. I couldn't see my family," he said. He imagined coming to America, quickly landing a job at a big telecom company, like the one he worked for in Iraq, and then traveling the world, climbing towers in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or wherever they needed him.

Instead, he's in the same predicament as every other refugee, facing a low-wage job at best, with only a temporary work permit. If he had a green card, he's sure his old telecom company would hire him, but to get the card automatically, he needed to have come in on the Special Immigrant Visa program specifically for U.S. military hires, and have a recommendation from a general.

"I have a colonel," he said. He hadn't even known about the SIV program when he applied for a refugee visa.

So begins another long wait in the endless circle of waiting for Mohammed and other Iraq refugees who realize that a work permit can only go so far and maybe the answer to their years of paperless, homeless dislocation lies in the American green card. The challenge is whether they can survive the reality of the unemployed and underemployed until that card arrives, at which point, many said they're out of here.

Bilal was trained as a pharmacist but works at Wal-Mart. He considers himself fortunate to have a job, but as soon as he receives his green card, he's moving to Jordan. It's bitterly ironic for Bilal that as an Iraqi he needs to come to the United States before he can be legally welcomed in Jordan, Syria and most nations in the world: It's nearly impossible to get a visa holding an Iraqi passport.

Arshad doesn't think he can hold out for a year. At a recent conference on Iraqi refugees in Washington, Arshad cornered the Syrian ambassador who was in attendance.

"I told him "Help me. Help me. I'm an Iraq artist, I'm well known, and I need to get out of here. I need a Syrian visa." He makes a motion of someone stamping a passport. " I want this stamp," he says. The ambassador gave Arshad his business card and said to write to him.

Eman, his wife, doesn't want to give up. She's dreaming of driving lessons and Mel Gibson, her favorite American actor. She says she's less depressed when she works, but the hours at her minimum-wage factory job are intermittent.

"I don't want to be a loser. I want my American experience to mean something." Of her friends, she is the first woman to be working here.

Their children seem oblivious to the problems. They both like school, have many friends among the refugee community, play in each others’ apartments and ride bicycles in the parking lot of the housing complex. Homework is a challenge but their English is improving.

Mustafa, 6, is practicing for a musical at school. And just the other day, Ranya 9, who likes to wear Hannah Montana T-shirts, came home from school eager to impress her father with a new word.

"Perro," she said, struggling with the pronunciation. "What is that?" asked Arshad. Dog in Spanish. He laughed. It was preferable to the "I love Jesus" cards she had brought home.

Names with * were changed to protect the refugees.

Nina Berman is a photographer and the author of Purple Hearts: Back From Iraq.