Web forums help Iraqi refugees adapt to America

namnlos.JPGBy Hannah Allam | McClatchy Newspapers
BAGHDAD — “Mozart” is the screen name of a 44-year-old guitar-playing Iraqi refugee who was resettled in the United States recently.
In a posting this month to a popular online forum for Iraqis emigrating to the West, Mozart rattled off his many accomplishments: an economics degree from a prestigious Iraqi university, a diploma from an arts institute, experience in tourism and restaurant management, and 25 years as a musician with an Iraqi band.

“All this to tell you: I’m now working in a warehouse, doing manual labor for $8 an hour. My brothers and sisters, work is never shameful,” Mozart wrote in Arabic. “In time, you will find your opportunity in the land of opportunity.”

There’s a growing online audience for Mozart’s encouraging words. After years of backlog, the United States is admitting Iraqis in record numbers — 17,000 were resettled this year, up from just 202 in 2006 — but the refugees are arriving in the midst of a dire economic crisis with few job prospects and only a few months of federal assistance before they’re left to fend for themselves.

Iraqis who are approved for resettlement often flee death threats and torture only to find a new set of fears in their U.S. sanctuaries: lack of employment, alienation, language barriers and concern over loved ones who are still in Iraq. The U.S. government teaches Iraqi refugees the basics of life in the United States, such as applying for a driver’s license or paying utility bills.

Resettlement manuals don’t explain the nuances of American society, however, and the “overly positive” literature was published before the financial crisis wiped out the entry-level jobs that refugees typically fill, said Bob Carey, the nonprofit International Rescue Committee’s vice president for resettlement and migration issues.

The online forums “are a good thing because they’re not filtered. It’s an accurate depiction of life in the States,” Carey said. “However, they’re hearing about one person’s experience in one state, in one economic situation, at one given time.”

One of the best-known Iraqi forums is Ankawa.com, which draws about 30,000 visitors a day, or nearly a million a month. Ankawa, named after a small town in northern Iraq, began 10 years ago as an online meeting place for Iraq’s Christian minority, said the site’s Sweden-based manager, Amir al Malih.

Malih, responding by e-mail to questions from McClatchy, said the site’s popularity had soared with the exodus of Iraqis displaced by the U.S.-led war and sectarian violence. In the early days, Malih said, a volunteer legal adviser monitored refugee-related forums to ensure accuracy. Now, he said, so many resettled Iraqis of all backgrounds visit the site that the community is self-policing.

“They have enough information and experience to denounce any false or incorrect information,” Malih said.

In this dismal employment market, displaced Iraqis can’t offer one another much but encouragement and prayers, small consolations for a remarkably educated refugee population that has trouble finding even fast-food work these days. Instead, Ankawa users do their best to smooth other parts of the transition, helping to decipher the mysteries of American life.

Forum regulars offer do’s and don’ts for airport screenings and remind new arrivals to report any changes of address “so you don’t become a national security concern.” They get into the nitty-gritty of an Iraqi household in America: Long skirts for Muslim women? Bring them, because U.S. shops are filled with miniskirts and shorts. Electrical appliances? Leave them in Baghdad because of the voltage difference. Hookah pipes? Don’t worry, the tobacco and coals are available. Need cheap furniture and household goods? Try a site called Craigslist, “where you can buy and sell anything!”

An Iraqi refugee whose online handle is “Arizona” is a particularly astute observer of his new world. One of his most recent posts describes how he walked into a Wal-Mart and was shocked to be welcomed by “a person who’s over 85 years old and works as a tracker of shopping carts.” Apparently unfamiliar with Wal-Mart greeters, who are often senior citizens, Arizona made a phone call to make sure that the chain wasn’t exploiting the elderly, and later he published relevant labor laws for other Iraqis to see.

Another time, Arizona wrote of a stroll through a park and his first encounter with homeless street performers. He struck up a conversation and learned about their tenuous lives. He wrote with admiration that the U.S. government provides them with food assistance and medical care.

“God bless you, my brother,” an Iraqi named Basel commented on Arizona’s post about the street musicians. “I always see you trying to shed light on American society and to show us the corners we’ve never heard of.”

(McClatchy special correspondents Mohammad al Dulaimy and Sahar Issa contributed to this article.)