Iraqis adjust to life in N.H.

  • Written by:

1201011384_82412.jpgRefugees face challenges, uncertainty in new home
By Maria Sacchetti, Globe Staff | January 22, 2008
MANCHESTER, N.H. – It has been two months since the new refugees from Iraq arrived in this former mill city – alone, relieved, and too dazed to even register the snow piled high on the streets.

Only their nightmares are familiar: the thunder of bombing outside their little yellow house in Baghdad, the shattering of windows, and the echo of their children’s screams. The family is grateful to be safely out of Iraq, but they are anxious in their new home, unsure whether to even call on their neighbors, anxious over how those neighbors might greet them.

“I am afraid that they will close the door in my face,” said Almas Zaya, 33, a warm woman with a wide smile, who arrived with her husband, Yousif Toma, 36, and their two children, Andy, 12, and Linda, 9.

As the US military continues to battle insurgents in Iraq, the Toma family finds itself in a most unusual spot. They are among little more than 1,000 Iraqi refugee families who have trickled into the country that is occupying their native land, and, as such, they are left to not only adapt to a new culture but to worry about the increasing unpopularity of the war in the United States.

So far, they’ve been cloistered, rarely venturing out into the city on their own, and no anger has been directed at them. But uncertainty accompanies them wherever they go – uncertainty over their new land, the reception they’ll get, whether they’ll ever be embraced given the war back home.

The young family arrived in Manchester more than a year after they fled Baghdad in 2006 with only two suitcases of clothes. They decided to leave after Zaya’s uncle, a government official, was killed in front of his home, and threats from extremists against their Catholic church intensified.

“I saw the fear in my kids’ eyes,” Toma said.

They landed in Turkey and asked for help from the United Nations, which works with countries to resettle refugees, hoping they would be accepted and sent to a peaceful country. They had hoped to land in Luxembourg, where relatives had fled.

They did not expect to go to New Hampshire, a state where skiing is more popular than soccer, their favorite sport. Manchester, a city of 100,000, is more diverse than the rest of the Granite State – almost 11 percent of the city’s residents are immigrants, compared with 5 percent statewide. Few Iraqis have ever settled here, but they remained hopeful. “The dream of every person is to be in the United States,” Toma said.

The family arrived at Manchester’s airport on Nov. 20, with their two children, and their knowledge of the United States limited to snippets of information gleaned from a crash course taught by US officials in Turkey. They knew a smattering of English words, that smoking is banned in government buildings, and how to dial 911.

On a recent day, sitting in the living room of their spotless two-bedroom apartment, which smells faintly of cigarette smoke and homemade meat pies, the couple said they were optimistic. So far they have made a few friends and found markets where they can buy special dough and chai tea.

They marvel at their newfound sense of freedom.

In America, they can wear blue jeans, something they shunned in Iraq because it was too Western. In Iraq, Zaya never learned to drive and rarely ventured outside alone, always covering her long, brown hair with a traditional Muslim scarf, even though she is Catholic. Now she hopes to get a driver’s license, and a job, and wears only a headband in her hair.

In Iraq, Andy and Linda missed school for two years because an insurgent lobbed a grenade at the schoolyard and shut the place down. Now, they go to regular public schools and are learning English so quickly they can translate for their parents.

But the biggest difference, they said, is practicing their faith. Back home, where some militants have branded Christians as modern-day “crusaders,” insurgents vandalized their Catholic church with threatening graffiti. Now a giant tapestry of the Nativity scene dominates one wall in their living room, and they go to Mass, Toma said, “whenever they want.”

“There is no comparison,” Toma said through an interpreter, of the differences between Iraq and New Hamsphire. “It’s bad there. It’s good here.”

But the refugees’ new lives can be bewildering, partly because there are few Iraqi refugees already here to help them along.

About 1,600 Iraqi refugees were admitted to the United States in the budget year that ended in September. By next fall, following outcry from lawmakers and refugee groups, the United States could accept as many as 12,000. Advocates say refugees have fled persecution in Iraq or in many cases aided the US government.

Over the past year and a half, Vermont resettled one refugee family of four, New Hampshire and Connecticut received 10 people each, and Massachusetts has received 39 in Worcester, Springfield, and the Boston area. Refugees are resettled with help from nonprofit groups such as the International Institute of Boston, their affiliate in New Hampshire, and Lutheran Social Services. They also receive monthly stipends in federal aid and other benefits.

US State Department spokesman Karl Duckworth said government officials are admitting more refugees but cautioned that applicants are carefully screened to ensure they do not present a security risk.

For the Toma family, their new life is full of challenges and uncertainty. Recently, it took Toma two hours to find a container of salt in the Stop & Shop. A clerk took him on a two-hour tour of “everything white” in the store while his wife, anxiously awaiting at home, almost dialed 911.

In Iraq, they were social butterflies in a working-class neighborhood where they were welcome in every home. Back home, when a new family moves in, everyone brings them sweetbreads or eggs to tide them over for a few days.

In New Hampshire, they haven’t met their neighbors yet, and can barely converse with their new friends, who include their teachers and classmates at the International Institute, a handful of other Iraqis, and Sister Irene Marie Pelland, who helped them furnish their home with such donated goods as a set of white dishes and serving trays.

In Baghdad, before the 2003 US invasion, Toma drove a taxi around his city. In Manchester, he doesn’t know enough English to pass the driver’s license test. So he and Zaya walk the children to school, then trudge 20 minutes each way to mandatory English classes at the institute. On a typical day, they go to class, pick up the kids, and maybe stop at a market for supplies.

During a recent English lesson, Zaya and Toma sat together in their class, which consists of three folding tables pushed together and covered with brightly colored workbooks. Refugees from Russia, Burundi, and Vietnam smiled good-naturedly as teacher Ellen Bishop taught them survival English, such as “Can you fix it?” “Thank you,” and that “fridge” is short for refrigerator.

Toma peered at a picture of a flooded sink. “It’s very water,” he said. The teacher smiled and corrected him, “The sink is stopped up.”

Still, the young family is hopeful for the opportunities America might bring. Both Zaya and Toma came from large, blue-collar families and had to drop out of school in the ninth grade.

Now, he dreams of owning a McDonald’s franchise, since he worked in a restaurant in Turkey. She would love to study computer science. Their daughter, Linda, who loves playing with Barbie dolls, wants to be a dentist.

Andy, a soccer fan who plays Atari after he finishes his homework, wants to be a fighter pilot, like the ones he saw flying planes over Iraq. His father is gently trying to change his mind.