Struggling in the U.S., some Iraqi refugees now want to go back

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airaqis_p11.jpgWith few good job prospects in depressed Lansing, Mich., many yearn for their old life in Baghdad.
By Tom A. Peter | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Lansing, Mich.
In Iraq, Nada earned a good income writing grants for an American organization. She lived in a two-story home with a private garden in a nice section of Baghdad. 

But when insurgents made threats because of her ties to a US employer, she and her family fled to Egypt, applied to the United Nations for resettlement and, in November, arrived safe and sound in Lansing, Mich.

Is she ecstatic? Not quite. Although glad to have her son in the US, she herself has few good job prospects and is eager to return to Iraq where she says she can make more money.

“My focus was to bring my son [to America] to give him a better life,” says Nada, who asked that her real name be withheld to protect family members still in Iraq. But in Iraq, “I will earn a good salary there and I could establish a house for my son [in the US] and let him get a good education.”

For Iraqi refugees who make it to the US, the American dream is often not what they hoped. While it’s meant safety and often better pay for low-income refugees, it has proven to be a disappointment for many well-paid Iraqis, at least so far. Language barriers and a job market seemingly limited to menial jobs are major frustrations.

“As they move to this country, sometimes expectations may not exactly match the reality here,” says Joseph Roberson, director of Church World Service’s (CWS) Immigration and Refugee Program.

Facing a bleak outlook, many hope to return to the Middle East.

After a Sunni group placed a bomb in his Shiite family home in 2006, Ala al-Tamimi fled Iraq and went to Lebanon where his brother lived. He found work as a florist. He applied to the UN for refugee status, wanting to relocate to Australia where he had friends and relatives. When he found out he’d be relocated in Lansing, Mich., instead, he almost didn’t go. But his brother finally persuaded him.

“My brother told me, ‘There’s no security here. If you have the chance to go to the US, go to the US,’ ” he says. If he had the money, he would buy a plane ticket and return to Lebanon, he says. “I’m lost. I don’t know what to do.”

Getting to the US isn’t easy for Iraqis. Most of the refugees left after receiving threats from insurgents and many lost members of their immediate family. The majority spent at least a year, usually closer to two or three, living in Syria or Jordan where they were not permitted to work. Many used the bulk of their savings while living there.

Of the 2 million Iraqi refugees outside their country – another 2 million are displaced within Iraq – only about 10 percent register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to apply for resettlement. Of that group, only about 10 percent qualify for relocation. (Worldwide, the norm is less than 1 percent.)

The US receives more refugees than any other nation. Despite an initial promise to resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees in the US, only 1,608 had been admitted as of Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.

The refugee-processing system wasn’t able to handle all the requests, explains an official of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), who requested anonymity because of bureau policy. Also, Syria denied visas to officials of the Department of Homeland Security, who must interview all refugees before they can enter the US, he says.

Now that those issues have been resolved, the State Department has pledged to admit 12,000 Iraqi refugees during the 2008 fiscal year. But as of Jan. 2, three months into the fiscal year, only 1,057 Iraqi refugees had been processed into the country. Despite the slow start, US officials remain optimistic that they can meet the goal, though the PRM official says they may reduce the goal midway through the year if other challenges persist.

In the US, many new arrivals say life hasn’t improved much. Most subsist on food stamps, housing supplied by refugee services, and get whatever medical care they need from Medicaid.

While PRM helps with initial arrangements, refugee-service groups like CWS contract with the government and provide social services, such as employment counseling, for new arrivals. Mr. Roberson says the goal is to make refugees self-sufficient within 180 days of their arrival.

Unlike immigrants, refugees are not people who choose to come to the US. During the relocation process, refugees can list their top preferences, but ultimately the UNHCR decides where they will be relocated. The organization tries to place refugees in countries where they have family, but ultimately a variety of “practicalities on the ground” will dictate where a refugee goes, says UNHCR spokesperson Tim Irwin.

With the third-largest Arab population in the US, Michigan is a popular resettlement location for Iraqi refugees. Still, many refugees who arrive here say they’re unable to navigate the system.

Once in the US, for example, refugees must over time reimburse the government for the cost of their plane ticket, usually well in excess of $1,000. Though some are given small stipends, they lament that they start life in the US already in debt.

Duriid, who asked not to use his last name, complains that the economic prospects in Lansing, in particular, offer little hope. “We face some difficulty in the US,” he says. “They brought us to a cold state, and this state has the highest unemployment rate in the US,” 7.4 percent as of November.

In Lansing, Iraqis say the only work available pays $7 an hour and requires manual labor. Those wages are not enough to support refugees with families, they say.

To make the transition, many depend on locals like Gabi Jahshan, a Lansing grocer and a Palestinian refugee who’s been in the US for over 30 years. Now, he steps in to help new arrivals find their lost luggage or look for jobs.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Jahshan says he watched many Iraqi refugees from the first Gulf War encounter a number of the same problems.

“Some are still living on food stamps … [and] some of them got ahead,” he says. “Life is not easy, but there are opportunities.”

After almost two months in the US, Hydar Ali says he’s not considering returning to Iraq. He says he’ll do just about any job in Lansing. He recently applied to work as an Iraqi villager at a military training center in California that prepares US troops before they deploy to Iraq, by running them through mock Iraqi villages complete with authentic locals.