Saturday, July 25, 2009

Iraqi Refugees: Catch 22?

As a result of the invasion of Iraq, more than five million Iraqis had to flee their homes. A million of the five, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees refer to them, is internally displaced while about four million had to flee the country looking for safety and a better and more promising future. Because of Iraq's instability and its political disarrays, most Iraqis were rejected visas to most countries except for Syria, Jordan, and in special cases, Egypt and Lebanon, "More than 2.7 million people are now displaced inside Iraq, and over 2 million have fled to neighboring countries since the war begin in 2003," says Senior Advocate Kristele Younes (Refugees Intl.). Those countries took about 80 percent of the four million as the rest found their way to immigrate to Europe, Australia, and a few could make it to the United States.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees established a few programs under which many of Iraqis can immigrate to the United States and "Start a new life, a better life." Congress has approved to take 21 thousand refugees. Crowds rushed to the United Nations offices in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon, as they opened the doors for applications for the refugee program. Based on how much a family had been persecuted and whether it is safe for the family to return home to Iraq, the UNHCR prioritized the cases that were filed.

It has been twenety months since I stood at the Tucson International Airport welcome area to receive the first Iraqi refugee family that came to Tucson. I remember standing beside their caseworker, four members of a church and the Imam of the local mosque.I watched the father step off the escalator with his backpack and a briefcase in hand. He dropped his briefcase as soon as he knew who we were and ran to shake our hands, saying "Thank you" with a heavy accent.He, like every refugee, had a look of relief and a big smile radiating hope.After he learned I was an Iraqi student, he whispered in my ear, "We are the lucky ones."

A few months after, I realized why he had said that.He wasn't prepared only to be safe, but also had some inaccurate expectations about living in the U.S.

After having lost many loved ones and gone through many crises, Iraqi refugees come prepared to have an easy life here but Gabrielle Fimbres, in her Tucson Citizen article about Iraqi refugees, disagrees, "Adjusting to a new language, culture and community is challenging for these displaced and often traumatized people." (Tucson Citizen). They sign up to qualify for food stamps, health insurance for eight months, and rental payments and salaries for three months. But not often do they realize how long these privileges will last. Nor do they know what they should do in return, since most of them can't read the contracts they sign.

With limited educational programs and orientations, the refugees end up spending their money not carelessly, but rather extravagantly. After three months of being picky about jobs and chasing the same lifestyle they had back home, they find that their salaries and rent payments end. The problem is, the number of refugees is a lot bigger than the agencies can handle. The agencies are overwhelmed, so their performance is not as expected. This leads to misunderstandings and trust issues between the refugees and their sponsoring agencies.

Many Americans believe that it is the responsibility of the United States to bring Iraqi refugees but that is not the purpose that needs to be satisfied. The purpose is to have the Iraqis, who have suffered and continue to suffer, have a better life where their kids are able to receive proper education and they can find jobs to support their families. Sadly, they end up over here, with no money, no housing, no jobs, and no promises of getting jobs soon enough. I have heard many of them complain, "I would rather die in dignity rather than live with hopelessness," says Shaimaa, an Iraqi refugee who currently lives in Arizona

In order to have the Iraqi community become a productive, independent part of society, some steps should be taken. Cultural orientations should take place in the refugees' first stop - such as Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon. The Iraqis should be taught about the difficulties they will face while resettling in the U.S. Once here, the refugees should be offered educational programs about how to handle work, school, housing and finances. There should also be consideration of allowing a reasonable number of Iraqi refugees. It is better to have 10 Iraqi refugees who are satisfied with their lives than having 100 angry ones with no life at all.


  1. In Tucson the situation is turning into almost a crisis level as the economic downturn affects the refugees disproportionally- they are the first to lose their jobs, and minimum wage jobs are drying up... or going to college graduates.

  2. thanks Ali for your article, I went to San Diego which I believe the most populous city in the states with Iraqi refugees, and really those refugees are brought in there and nothing is being done for them, they start looking for jobs of course for a minimum wage but actually because of the recession they can not find much to do so most of them end up not doing anything just staying home and living on what the U.S Government gives them monthly which is defiantly not enough for living especially in an expansive city like San Diego.