Iraqi Refugees Struggling in the United States

For the past 10 months, Hanna Ingber Win has reported on the Iraqi refugee community in El Cajon, California, where a high concentration of Chaldean Christian Iraqis have settled.   The LA Weekly feature that resulted from her months-long reporting project offers an important window into the difficulties that Iraqi refugees face in the United States.   Here’s Ingber-Win:

We go to the home of Saad and Baan Shaya. It is a workday, but the Shayas have no jobs and are home watching Arabic television. We sit down in their living room, on furniture donated to the couple by another church group, and the Shayas tell us that they left Baghdad in 2003 because of the war. They moved to Mosul in northern Iraq, and Saad owned a liquor store. In 2006, Muslim extremists threatened him, telling him to leave his store. When he didn’t, the extremists shot Saad in the leg and then bombed the store. He walks to the couch, pulls up the leg of his jeans and reveals a scar from the gunshot. The store bombing killed Saad’s 43-year-old brother. Saad escaped Iraq and fled to Turkey.

Baan says she left Iraq because a militia came to her home with a flier, giving the family three options: Convert to Islam, pay the militia monthly taxes or leave the country. She says some of her friends never had the chance to escape because they were kidnapped.

Bazzi pauses from translating to say that a militia murdered her own cousin two years ago. “They took the money and killed him,” she says. “They skinned his face. They couldn’t recognize him if it wasn’t for his ring.”

The Shayas registered as refugees in Turkey, and the United States resettled them in El Cajon in February. They have both been looking for jobs since they arrived. They receive about $580 a month from the government, but that will only continue for eight months. They speak almost no English and don’t have transportation. Baan says she has been walking around, looking for a job every day. She says she would take anything — but she hasn’t had any offers.

“How will we live here if we don’t find a job?” Saad asks.

As opposed to other western countries that have received large numbers of Iraqi asylum seekers, the United States has a smaller social safety net.  The Shayas and other refugee families in the United States face the double hurdles of chronic poverty and adapting to life in a country in which they do not speak the language.  It is a pretty tragic situation.  

The United States government has a deep and enduring moral obligation to make the life of displaced Iraqis as comfortable as possible–in El Cajon and beyond. Check out Refugees International for more on the Iraqi Refugee crisis.