Iraqi refugees start arriving in NJ

By SAMANTHA HENRY | Associated Press Writer
August 18, 2008
NEWARK, N.J. – Iraqi refugees have begun arriving in New Jersey as part of a nationwide resettlement program to bring 12,000 Iraqis to the United States by the end of next month.

A refugee resettlement program run by the Diocese of Camden has received five Iraqi families in recent months _ a total of 19 people _ and more are expected, according to executive director Kevin Hickey.

“It’s picking up,” he said.

Mai Lieu, the director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Family and Community Services in Paterson, says her agency has received one Iraqi family in recent weeks and been notified that they should start preparing to help resettle others.

“We’ll have Muslim and Christian refugees too, so we hope the community will welcome everyone,” she said.

Nearly 9,000 Iraqi refugees have arrived in the United States so far, about a quarter of them over the past month, according to a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR.

They are among the 12,000 Iraqi refugees that the U.S. government has agreed to accept by the end of its fiscal year on Sept. 30. An additional 5,000 are being sent here under a special visa program for Iraqis who have worked with the U.S. military, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Department of State.

Larry Yungk, a senior resettlement officer in the United Nations’ refugee organization’s Washington office, said most of the Iraqi refugees are coming to the U.S. from secondary countries including Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.

Those nations have absorbed the majority of the estimated 2 million Iraqis who have fled their homeland since the conflict began. The organization estimates more than 2 million people are also displaced within Iraq.

Most Iraqi refugees don’t want to resettle as far away as the U.S., according to Yungk. He said those that come to New Jersey and elsewhere are among the most vulnerable and the least likely to return to Iraq after the war ends.

“Most anybody, when they leave their country, their first choice would be to go back home if they could,” Yungk said. “If you look at these groups coming here, they’re among the most unlikely to go back, and those having the most trouble.”

Yungk said most of the Iraqi refugees that are sent to the U.S. either have family ties here, have been victims of violence, are in women-headed households in families where the men have been killed or kidnapped, are among those that fear reprisal for assisting U.S. forces, or are afraid to return to Iraq because of religious or political persecution.

New Jersey _ and the New York metropolitan area _ are not usually major destinations for refugee resettlement.

Officials say the high cost of living and social service systems that are already overburdened in large urban areas are among the reasons why most refugees are often sent to smaller towns and cities across the U.S.

An official from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration says New Jersey has received 65 Iraqi refugees since Oct. 1, 2007. He did not know how many Iraqis would be sent to here in the coming weeks.

Lieu said her agency helped resettle about 30 Iraqis in North Jersey in 1991 following the Gulf War, and expects to help several families again this time around.

“Because we have the Arabic-speaking community, and New Jersey has a lot of diversity, we do get them here,” she said.

The most recent Iraqis to arrive in New Jersey are a woman and her two teenage sons, were sent to the Paterson area because they have a relative living nearby, Lieu said.

Lieu _ herself a refugee from Vietnam who was resettled in the U.S. by the kind of program she now runs _ does everything from picking up the new arrivals at Newark Airport to helping them find apartments, furniture, jobs and English classes. She enlists volunteers to help welcome the newcomers, ease their adjustment to life in New Jersey, and deal with culture shock.

“In New Jersey, the rent is very high and the jobs pay minimum wage,” Lieu said. “Mostly, we try to get them a job because we don’t want to put them on public assistance.”

To be eligible for resettlement in the U.S., Iraqis _ like all refugees _ must first be granted refugee status by UNHCR. Those designated for resettlement in the U.S. are then screened, interviewed and approved by the Department of State. The State Department then refers each case individually to different resettlement agencies across the country. They come here as legal immigrants eligible to work and receive government benefits.

Catholic Charities is just one of the agencies in New Jersey that handles refugee resettlement. Other religious-based groups of various denominations have refugee programs, as do some private social service agencies and non-governmental organizations.

Hickey said the Camden Diocese runs the largest Catholic Charities refugee resettlement program in the state. He said the program has been helping the recent Iraqi arrivals settle throughout Atlantic County.

“It’s a wonderful program,” Hickey said. “This is possibly our most biblical program _ in the sense of welcoming the stranger.”–iraqirefugees0818aug18,0,6395124.story