Cover story In the last two years, America has belatedly opened its doors to Iraqis seeking refuge. The lucky few who make it to the United States find economic catastrophe, few job opportunities and little to no help from the nation that brought them there. Neela Banerjee reports
Since the invasion of Iraq gave way to a bloody sectarian war, some five million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes by escalating violence. More than two million have fled the country, most of them to Syria and Jordan, while nearly three million are internal refugees. The US, which instigated the war and mismanaged the occupation, accepted almost no refugees until 2007. In the last two years, America has belatedly opened its doors to Iraqis seeking refuge and made efforts to resettle them across the country. But the lucky few who make it to the United States find economic catastrophe, few job opportunities and little to no help from the nation that brought them there. Neela Banerjee reports from Phoenix, Arizona. When Iraqi refugees come to the United States from Jordan, Syria or the constellation of homes they shuttle between to escape death squads, their first stop is usually a place like the Woodbridge Apartments. The complex of dingy, tan two-story buildings sits pushed back from a four-lane road in north Phoenix, Arizona, a sprawl of low-end American commerce, with its sandwich shops, check-cashing outfits, convenience stores, hobby emporiums and the occasional strip club. The 35 or so Iraqis in the complex live with working-class whites, Latinos and a changing swirl of other refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan or any other country whose citizens the State Department decides to accept in a given year. Umm Ahmed, a 40-year-old widow, moved here three months ago with her 10-year-old son. She agreed to see me because on most days, after her son goes to school, she has little to do. On the morning we met, her flat smelled of fresh cigarette smoke. In the dim living room, Divorce Court played on the television in the corner, and the walls were hung with gold and black tapestries of verses from the Quran. Her neighbour, an Iraqi refugee known as Martin, arrived 15 minutes late to translate, still rubbing the last sleep from his eyes at 10:30am. Umm Ahmed, Martin and their Iraqi friends often seem tired because most nights, they stay up arguing, singing and smoking, trying to avoid sleep and the nightmares they've left behind. "When you go to sleep, everything moves in front of us, like a cinema, and we see everything we have lived through," Martin said. "In your bed, you are alone, and you feel trapped by all this." Umm Ahmed is Shia. Her husband, a midlevel civil servant under Saddam, was Sunni. They had three boys and lived in Karrada, a middle-class Baghdad neighbourhood. In 2003, members of a Shiite militia drove them from their comfortable home and threatened her husband. They came to her new house and beat her, injuring her back. Then they murdered her husband's brother. One morning, her husband left for his job fixing copier machines, and "he didn't come back", Umm Ahmed said. An elegant woman in a black hijab, sweater and pants, Umm Ahmed put her pinky in the corner of her left eye from time to time, and it became clear she was trying not to cry. Her hands trembled very slightly when she reached for a fresh cigarette. "It is like a madness in Iraq," she said. "Before, there was one Saddam. Now there are many Saddams." But it is life in America, not the past in Iraq, that troubles Umm Ahmed's sleep now. She gets government assistance for food and rent. But in a few weeks, her food and rent subsidies as a refugee will end - less than six months after they started. She has not found any work, despite filling out applications all over the city. At one restaurant, she said, the manager joked that she looked like Osama bin Laden's mother. Umm Ahmed goes to English classes and writes down new words in a small notebook she always carries, but her English is still rudimentary. None of the Iraqis she knows have found work, she said, and she worries that she and her son will be homeless.
Umm Ahmed talked and smoked for three hours, and by the end, only panic tumbled out. "The reason they are bringing a lot of refugees from Iraq to the US is that they are asking our forgiveness," she said. "But they make it worse by having us here. There is no support, and people here think everyone from the Middle East is Osama bin Laden. If they can't offer us help, why did they bring us here?" The next day at dusk, I returned to the Woodbridge Apartments to sit in on an English class Umm Ahmed attends in a community centre there. Thirty metres from the path to the building, a few men stood talking to two police officers in the gathering darkness. A man ran over to us. It was Martin. "I was robbed," he told his friends. "Just now, there, in the parking lot." "They came up and put a gun to my head," Martin said. He patted his chest and pants. "They got everything: my green card, my driver's license, my social security card, my food stamp card, my cell phone, everything." Umm Ahmed listened for a long time. Then she said quietly, looking around the yard, "What do I do? I'm scared to go out now. I'm afraid to be in my own house."
Since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, more than two million Iraqis have fled the country, the vast majority going to Syria and Jordan. Another 2.8 million have been displaced within Iraq. The violence in Iraq has created the worst refugee crisis in the region since the vast migrations that followed the founding of Israel in 1948. Umm Ahmed and her son are the lucky ones: they got out, and have a chance at a new life. She might be able to get her older sons out of Iraq. Yet just as many Iraqis began arriving late last summer in the United States, the economy crumbled. Now, Iraqi refugees face the threat of protracted unemployment, spotty health care and homelessness. Some Iraqis have grown embittered. Others have few regrets. Yet even those who have found work now fear they may lose it, or that they will not earn enough to support their families. Many translators who escaped death threats in Iraq are unemployed in America - and are now considering working for military contractors back in Iraq. "I've never seen anything like this," said Robin Dunn Marcos, the regional resettlement director in Phoenix for the International Rescue Committee. "I've had Iraqis here who told me that they have told people back in Syria or Jordan not to come to the US. I'm worried, too." The United States already resettles more refugees than any other country, but does it owe a special debt to Iraqis? After stalling for years and taking only a few hundred Iraqi refugees annually, the Bush administration admitted about 13,800 refugees during fiscal year 2008. During the 2009 fiscal year, which ends on September 30, the US is expected to bring in at least 17,000 Iraqis. In a written statement issued just before President Barack Obama's inauguration, Susan Rice, the new American ambassador to the United Nations said, "The President-elect believes that the United States has a moral obligation and a responsibility for security that demands that we address Iraq's humanitarian challenge... The President-elect has committed the US to expand its support to Iraqi refugees and displaced persons." So far, that moral obligation has largely entailed bringing more Iraqi refugees to the United States. But the economic hardship many refugees face raises questions about what, if anything, the United States owes Iraqis beyond a visa. The resettlement programme essentially gives refugees the kinds of state assistance many low-income Americans get. The problem is that the United States has the most paltry assistance programs of any industrialised country. Refugees, including those created by American foreign policy, do not get a worse deal than other poor people in the United States - they get the same, threadbare deal. After surviving death threats, kidnappings and the murders of their loved ones and after landing in a place whose language and ways they often don't know, Iraqi refugees are scrambling to survive, like all vulnerable Americans. But unlike their struggling neighbours, most Iraqi refugees can't move in with friends and family they don't have or sleep in cars they don't own, should they lose what little they have. "Anxiety is a polite word for what's happening. Refugees are getting evicted," said Lavinia Limon, chief executive of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a non-profit resettlement agency. "The truth is, the safety net for poor people in this country doesn't exist. Refugees are the canary in the mine. They are so vulnerable, so they are the first to show up as hard-hit when there are economic problems."
But there are no special provisions in the recent stimulus package to augment aid to refugees, and American policy does not distinguish between Iraqis and other refugees. It has not always been so: the United States felt a sufficient sense of obligation toward South Vietnamese who fought alongside American troops to reshape its resettlement policies to assist them. In 1975, immediately after the fall of Saigon, the US Navy evacuated 130,000 South Vietnamese who worked with the Americans. Since the 1980s, another 900,000 Vietnamese refugees were resettled in the United States. The Vietnamese who came in the late 1970s got very little. But in the 1980s, laws were passed to establish a resettlement office to deal solely with refugees, and refugees themselves were able to get government benefits for three years, which meant they had time to master English, recertify themselves in their old professions or get degrees in new ones, according to Nyugen Dinh Thang, the executive director of Boat People SOS, an advocacy group. Successive Congresses and presidential administrations spent the next 15 years whittling away refugee benefits and subsidies for the poor more broadly, convinced that open-ended state assistance had led to the creation of a permanent idle underclass. In 1996, as part of the Clinton administration's welfare reform effort, refugees were given eight months eligibility for government assistance. But the size of those subsidies varies markedly from state to state. For a time, the resettlement system seemed to work, as long as refugees found jobs fairly rapidly. But the current downturn has thrown the problems of the American approach to resettlement into sharp relief. "The current model for refugee resettlement took shape in the boom-time of the 1990s," said Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute. "It's not equipped to help people in a downturn. The premise is that jobs are available, and that premise needs revisiting."
Less than one per cent of all refugees worldwide are ever resettled to a third country like the United States. After the attacks of September 11, the United States sharply curtailed the number of refugees it accepted, and though the numbers have risen since, Iraqis still lagged behind; during the 2007 fiscal year, eight times as many Burmese and more than three times as many Iranians were admitted. The Bush administration maintained that it bore no special responsibility for the massive dislocations that occurred after 2003 because the fighting in Iraq was among Iraqis. Refugee advocates contend that the administration resisted bringing thousands of Iraqis to the United States because it would have amounted to an admission of American failure in Iraq. Under international pressure, the administration eventually relented in 2007 and raised the ceiling for refugees from the Middle East, most of them from Iraq. Moreover, it began to issue a Special Immigrant Visa to Iraqis who worked with or for the United States. While the SIV programme proposed at the outset to help 25,000 people, only 600 got such expedited visas the first year, according to the List Project, a non-profit working to resettle "Iraqi allies". Iraqi refugees, like all others, must undergo a battery of interviews with United Nations and American diplomatic officials to prove that they face a credible threat of persecution back home. If they are awarded refugee status, their case is then picked up in the United States by one of ten non-profit voluntary agencies that contract with the American government to resettle refugees. With affiliates in cities around the country, the voluntary agencies try to resettle Iraqis in places where there might already be an Arab or even Iraqi community, where the cost of living is reasonable and entry-level jobs are plentiful. The latter two considerations seem most important, and Iraqis, as well as other refugees, have found themselves recently in places as diverse and far-flung as Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Boise and San Diego. Like many cities in the American South and West, Phoenix generated jobs over the last decade largely on the strength of the housing market. So when the housing bubble in the United States burst, Phoenix's economy faded, too. Abu Mohammed, 36, and his family arrived in Phoenix about a year ago. Recently, they moved out of the apartment complex where they first lived to an airy, sparsely furnished home in a new subdivision on Phoenix's western edge. Abu Mohammed's neighbourhood recalls Baghdad: the houses the same sand colour as those in Mansour, the palm trees lining adobe walls and standing sentry over empty lots. Small shrubs and stunted trees grow in the pebbly soil. The sky is a cloudless blue. And on cool winter mornings, the air feels gentle and clean. The rent for the house is steep, but Abu Mohammed and his wife, W, moved here for their 10-year-old daughter. Their entire history, W said, has revolved around the girl since she was born with a terrible birth defect. At their dining table, W opens a file folder to show pictures of the girl when she was about five. Her narrow hips are splayed and the lower part of her abdomen - her colon and reproductive organs - entirely exposed. Iraqi doctors told the family to leave her in the hospital to die. During the occupation, Abu Mohammed sold computer equipment to the Americans, in part because he thought they might help him find care for his daughter abroad. The American military couldn't help him leave Iraq, but they provided assessments of the girl's condition that Iraqi doctors had refused to provide. Then in 2006, Abu Mohammed's best friend betrayed him to the Mahdi Army in order to wrest the business from him. Militiamen followed Abu Mohammed from work one day and shot at him as he drove. He came across an American military checkpoint, and the assassins drove away. He then took his family to Egypt, but his old friend tracked him there, too. For Abu Mohammed, the difficulties of life in the United States pale against what he lived through, and they are outweighed by what his family has got. As he talked, his daughter came in to hug her mother or grab an orange. In her purple velveteen track suit and Hannah Montana T-shirt, the girl ran around the hallway with her brother and settled in a bedroom to watch TV. The United States is one of the few countries to take refugees with serious health problems. Last year, six surgeons at Phoenix Children's Hospital performed a 14-hour operation on the girl to repair her body; the government gives the family aid for her care. "I've found myself in America," said W. "In Iraq, because of caring for my daughter all the time, I was useless. Here I can study, I can work. I can sleep." If Iraq became stable and peaceful, would they go back? I asked. "Maybe to visit," W said. "No," Abu Mohammed said. He looked at his hands on the table and kept balling up tiny scraps of paper. Outside on their back patio, the breeze stirred a wind chime with Chinese characters that read, "Happy", "Love", "Wealth", "Good luck". "I hate everyone there, especially my old friend." Recently Abu Mohammed left his job at the security company where he'd worked since last summer. His new job is less lucrative - but he was afraid that his old firm was on the verge of closing. Abu Mohammed used to work seven days a week, from 6pm to 6am, for $9 per hour; now his workweek is only 36 hours long, and his pay only $8.30. His wife is looking for work as well. "It's very difficult," he said, "and I'm trying to find another job, but so far, nothing."
Canada, Sweden and Australia have so far resettled large numbers of Iraqi refugees. But in Canada, refugees receive state assistance for a year, and they can live in subsidised housing. Australia places no time limits on government help, while Sweden offers refugees the same cradle-to-grave welfare benefits as citizens. All three countries have some form of national health care, which the United States does not. In the United States, non-profit agencies contract with the federal government for a year to resettle refugees. In reality, the agencies focus their efforts on the first few months and can provide only the most basic support, which often clashes with refugees' needs and expectations. Case workers help refugees find housing and basic furnishings, get them important documents and immunisations, help enrol their children in school and find free English classes. The government gives them a one-time payment of $900 per refugee. The agencies raise private money and in-kind donations to give refugees. They also try to help refugees find employment but have traditionally not assisted with job training because work was easy to come by and benefits ended quickly. Nearly all refugees find adjusting to a new life difficult, but several factors frequently make Iraqis' adjustment harder. In general, they are better educated. More of them come from urban areas. They haven't spent years languishing in camps with primitive conditions, so an apartment in a rundown part of town does not feel like a an improvement. "They tend to come from a class with property and lots of higher education, and that brings with it a lot of expectations about a standard of living they once had," said Ellen Beattie, regional director for the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta. "They are folding in here with a working class environment, with certain types of housing. "A lot of them perceive it as an insult to their dignity, and it isn't. It is very decent, but decency isn't enough. They seek a respectability beyond that. There is a sense of entitlement and it comes directly from the US involvement in the war. In general, they feel the US owes them better." Agencies sometimes offer free used clothes to refugees, but Iraqis are usually the only ones who decline. Case workers say they point refugees to menial jobs because that's what's usually available to new immigrants, but some Iraqis refuse, asking instead for work commensurate with their education back home.
In Phoenix, the Iraqis I met were willing to take any job offered, perhaps because the chances of finding work were dwindling fast. AJ, 41, and her husband, MA, 38, once worked for American military contractors in Iraq. AJ speaks excellent English, and MA had also worked as a manager of an engineering and construction company in Baghdad. The family now lives in a two-bedroom flat in Phoenix with their three energetic, teenaged children. AJ has so far only found intermittent work translating for the International Rescue Committee, which brings in anywhere from $50 to $200 a month. A few weeks ago, MA took a job as a dishwasher in a hotel for $7.50 an hour. "When we were in Jordan, we were told, 'You will work lower than your degree. It won't be valued there,'" AJ said. "We sat and discussed that and said that, if this is starting our life again, we have to accept it. What has shocked us is that we don't have jobs." It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and the couple sat with their oldest daughter, 15, in their living room in overstuffed chairs that a local church had donated. One flight of stairs below in the yard, a group of young Burmese men were playing volleyball and shouting happily. "I'm scared of surprises, of the things no one has told me about," MA said. "From the time we got to the airport, we have been like babies who open their eyes for the first time. The main thing we are told is, 'Go, work.' You can't study. You can't go outside from here to rent a house." "Then why did you come?" his daughter asked. He looked at her and shook something off. "No," he said, "I'm very happy here. I have no regrets." The only job Umm Ahmed's friend Martin found through his resettlement agency was one day of picking up trash at the local sports stadium. He made $25 that day, after subtracting for transportation and the $5 fee for cashing the check. Before leaving Iraq, Martin had worked for a military contractor, after a stint as a policeman. He told his family he had moved to Canada and moved onto an American base; he hasn't seen them in 4 years. In Nov 2005, the Stryker armoured vehicle he was riding in was rammed by a car bomber, blasting it off a bridge and sending it on its back into the drainage ditch below. The attack shattered his femur, which is now held together with plates and pins. He received no compensation for his injuries, he said, but he went back to work nonetheless. He applied for a Special Immigrant Visa when he realised that his country was so unstable he could never leave the base. Despite having a sheaf of glowing recommendations, experience and strong command of English, Martin has been unable to find work among the 20 or so restaurants, stores and gas stations where he has applied. A neighbour at the Woodbridge complex suggested he pimp or deal drugs. He applied for a job to return to Iraq as a translator, but the firm told him it takes only US citizens. "Here is the safety, and we are grateful for that," Martin said in Umm Ahmed's living room a day before he was robbed, his documents spread all over her coffee table. "But we have no money, no job, and that can push it to be unsafe." A typical day for the refugees involves rising in the afternoon, partly because of the late night before and partly out of a desire to eat only two meals a day in order to stretch their food allowance. The rest of the their day is spent finding out where they can go to apply for jobs and getting there. At night, people take turns cooking for one another, so that everyone has a bit more to eat. In the Woodbridge apartments, some of the old Iraq has been reconstituted, the one in which people didn't kill each other over sectarian and political affiliations. The refugees who gather in each other's flats, drive each other to doctors' appointments and share work information are Christians, Shia and Sunni, from Baghdad and Mosul, from Diyala and Hilla. But they also complain angrily about their benefits, about what they see as the indifference of the resettlement agencies, and they feed each other's desperation. "If things calmed down in Iraq," Martin said, "I would go back." The morning after Martin was mugged, two case workers from Lutheran Social Services came to check on him. They told him that the act was probably random and not to be "so downhearted". The visit lasted less than five minutes. Later the same day, an Arizona probation officer called Martin to tell him that one of his men had found his wallet in a housing project about three miles from the Woodbridge complex. The officer returned the wallet that night, and only the cash was missing. Martin and five friends celebrated by pooling their money and cooking a big dinner of pilaf, fish and lamb stew. After dinner, they crowded around a laptop in the living room and spent 45 minutes locating Umm Ahmed's old house in Baghdad on Google Earth. When they found it Umm Ahmed fell back on the couch with a broad smile and said, "Now I am happy." They played music on the computer, and Martin and a friend danced to a song about the southern Iraqi city of Amara, which came with a video of a shimmying skeleton. As the night wore on, people got phone calls from Iraq. Martin left the room for 20 minutes to talk to his sister. Another friend took his phone and went out into the cool night. He walked in looking glum. "Asking 'what's the news' when people call from home is like asking, 'How is hell?'" Martin said. "The news is always bad. Someone was hurt. Someone was killed. Money is running out. It is that way for each of us. So when people get a call from Iraq, the others try to cheer him up, take his mind off it." Three weeks later, I called Martin and Umm Ahmed at one of their late night get-togethers. It was a good time for Martin: he had just found work in the kitchen of a restaurant at the airport. His roommate was moving to Michigan to live with an uncle. His homeless friend would live with him and get food stamps, and with his own income of $7.25 an hour, they would somehow scrape by, he figured. But he said they were all worried about Umm Ahmed. She was told she cannot bring her older sons to the US because she doesn't have their birth certificates here. She still had not found a job. In a month, her refugee benefits will end. She could then apply for welfare, which would give her about $250 a month. Her rent alone is $570. "I'm nervous because no job," Umm Ahmed said in halting English over the phone. "I have one month. Maybe in this month I have a job." She brightened at the mention of Martin finding work. "Any job is good for a refugee," she said. "Maybe he will ask for me and others."
Neela Banerjee, a former reporter at the New York Times, has covered the war in Iraq and religion in the United States. She lives in Washington.