Support for Iraqi immigrants ‘maxed out’

By Anne Krueger

An influx of thousands of Iraqi immigrants is straining East County schools and social services already struggling with budget cuts and a poor economy, participants in a symposium at Cuyamaca College said yesterday. 

“Our support systems are maxed out,” said Cindy Miles, chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, which sponsored the conference along with the Grossmont Union High School District.

About 5,000 Iraqi refugees have arrived in San Diego County in the past three years since the federal government began allowing more Iraqis to come to the United States. About three-fourths of the recent arrivals are settling in East County, which has an Iraqi community of more than 35,000.

The conference yesterday was attended by about 200 people from schools, county government, nonprofit agencies, businesses and churches to discuss ways to better assist the refugees in obtaining jobs and education. They agreed that teaching English to the new immigrants is a top priority.

“No one can get employed without proper (English as a second language) or language skills,” said Zina Salem, president of Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social Services in El Cajon. “No one will hire them, not even McDonald’s, because they need to read the screen.”

Immigrants are required to take English-language classes as a condition of receiving government aid, overwhelming area programs that offer the classes. Mike Lewis, assistant superintendent of the Grossmont Union High School District, said 2,000 adults are enrolled in English-language classes, with 40 to 60 students per class. Cuyamaca College had to deny admission to 200 students because no English-language classes were available for them, a college counselor said.

Other solutions included holding resource fairs, creating a Web site with information about jobs and educational opportunities, and seeking tax benefits for businesses that hire refugees.

There are more recent Iraqi immigrants here than anywhere else in the country, and it is especially affecting East County. East County libraries now offer computer training, books and DVDs in Arabic as well as English and Spanish, and information at El Cajon Valley High School is offered in English, Spanish and Arabic.

Up to half of the kindergartners entering the Cajon Valley School District are refugees, but funding to educate them is lagging. Ray Arias, a member of the Cuyamaca College financial aid office, said appointments to discuss financial aid grow from half an hour to an hour because of language barriers.

Government aid to immigrants is based on the premise that they will find work within eight months, but that isn’t realistic in the current economy, said Surita Cooke, president of Grossmont College. She said Iraqi refugees need more financial assistance and aid in acclimating to their new homes.

“We have to change the way we greet and welcome refugees,” she said.

Sarhad Y. Jammo, bishop of the Chaldean Diocese at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rancho San Diego, told participants that many of the new refugees have talents and skills they can use in America.

“They are not coming empty-handed. They are the descendants of a great people,” he said. “Please squeeze them to their best potentials because they have a lot.”