x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The true price of finding refuge

The prospect of starting a new life in the US is more nightmare than American dream for many who fled the turbulence in their homeland.

When the 4am flight to Budapest left Damascus on April 8, a seat on board was reserved for a 50-year-old Iraqi widow, one from hundreds of thousands of waiting refugees given the chance for a new life in the United States.

Salwar Alwan was to land in Hungary, sit out a few hours at the airport and then make the early afternoon Delta Air Lines flight to New York, arriving in her new country just before 5pm. From there, she would go down to Arizona, where a house was waiting for her new beginning. She had spent weeks preparing for the trip; her bags were packed, her paperwork was in order. She had put aside enough money for the taxi to the airport. But at 1.30am that Wednesday she had not left the house. An hour and a half later there was a phone call from the refugee workers handling her case, telling her to come quickly, explaining that she could not afford to miss the flight. She did not move.

"Right up until the last minute I was planning to go to," she said. "They called at 3am and told me to hurry, they told me to hurry, that I must hurry. I told them no, I wouldn't go. I made the decision." When Ms Alwan fled Iraq in 2003, just after her husband was kidnapped - she saw him for the last time, she said, blindfolded, handcuffed and led away by masked gunmen - it was her first trip outside the country. She had lived her entire life in Nasariyah, in southern Iraq, and had never learnt to read or write. She knew little of the outside world.

The day before her flight to the United States Ms Alwan talked to some other Iraqi refugees, better educated than she, and what they had said terrified her. "They told me that if I went to America there would be black people in Arizona and they'd kidnap me or kill me or rape me. They said there would be medical students who would trick me and give me money and then use me for experiments. They said I'd be taken to the zoo and fed to the animals.

"There are such rumours here and I thought they were real. I saw with my eyes what the American soldiers did in Iraq, so the stories sounded real." She had already been concerned about the mundane details of survival in the US as a single woman who speaks no English. She had heard that refugees are expected to earn a living and that after six months of aid, benefit payments are stopped. Society would leave her to sink or swim alone.

Ms Alwan was destitute and homeless before being chosen for resettlement and she remains that way now, moving from place to place in Sayda Zynab, on the outskirts of Damascus. She has friends, other refugees, with whom she lives for a week or two at a time until she feels she is outstaying her welcome. The monthly handout from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is 5,000 Syrian pounds (Dh400) and is not enough to pay for a habitable home and utility bills, meaning she has no place of her own to live. She begs from a local cleric, who sometimes gives her an extra 1,000 pounds which helps pay some small but significant medical costs.

"Two days after missing the flight I went back to the UN refugee offices. They told me they'd closed my file because I was in America," she said. "I told them I couldn't go and most of them laughed at me. They said there was no chance for another resettlement, but they give me food every month. I get some money. It's not enough. "I realise that I made a mistake, not getting on the plane was a mistake. The people who told me not to go were wrong. Maybe they were jealous because I was leaving and they weren't, but I was afraid.

"I was told by the refugee agency that I would get some special treatment in America; they'd arranged a house for me, that someone would help me, there would be care. I found that out afterwards. I wish I had gone. I made the wrong decision. I lost my chance." Few Iraqis waiting for resettlement - the golden ticket out of misery they all dream of - have a real idea of what waits for them if they are lucky enough to be taken in by the United States, Europe or Australia. The majority fall into one of two groups: those who think all of their problems will immediately evaporate or, increasingly, those who fear they will not cope with the hard-edged cut and thrust of life in modern, recession-hit America if they are sent there.

"I don't know what the refugees are told in Syria, but they are always confused when they get here," said Bahar Sadr, the programme manager at the International Institute of Rhode Island, a refugee transition centre in Providence, Rhode Island, on the east coast. "They generally think they'll be handed a large sum of money when they land, whereas in fact they arrive immediately in debt because they have to pay back the airfare for their flight here.

"They get the idea that by coming to America all of their problems are going to be solved but, if nothing else, financial problems are going to hit them." Providence, a mainly working class city racked with unemployment and the third highest child poverty rate in the United States, takes in hundreds of immigrants and refugees annually, many from Latin America and Africa. Since last year Iraqis have been added to the mix, with the institute handling 50 Iraqi cases.

All of them get the same basic help package when they arrive: a one-off "welcome" payment of US$450 (Dh1,650) per person that is supposed to go towards rent, a deposit on a home, food and transportation. In addition to that money, each refugee can then qualify either for a grant of $900 spread over four months if they find work or, if unemployed, they can get three welfare payments of $530 each. "After that they are on their own really," said Mr Sadr, a refugee himself who came to the United States from Iran. "The US government doesn't give them anything beyond this. The money doesn't cover the rent, so they usually need extra help from us. They are supposed to get food stamps, but sometimes they don't; there are bureaucratic delays or they are denied them.

"Another problem is that in Rhode Island the refugees don't get dedicated [social service] caseworkers, so some fall through the cracks. We try to help." Money is a severe problem for most new arrivals, Mr Sadr said. "The average rental price of a two-bedroom flat in Rhode Island is $650 a month and you've been given $530. How are you going to pay?" Although some Iraqis arrive with savings, most have to take any work they can find, often minimum wage jobs that US citizens are reluctant to take - stacking shelves in supermarkets, washing dishes in restaurants, working in laundries.

For some it is too much for their pride to take, especially those who, in their former lives in Iraq, earned university degrees and held professional jobs. Two refugees who arrived in Rhode Island decided not to stay and face the humiliations of starting again at the bottom of society. They instead returned to the Middle East, the place they had spent years trying to escape. "You are going to have former Iraqi college professors who have to pack bags in a supermarket, at least in the beginning, or work as labourers in manufacturing plants," said John Sweet, a skills development instructor and language tutor at IIRI. "We have some issues with people not wanting to take what they see as lower-class jobs.

"The work is physically hard, it's difficult and the money is going to be less than a living wage, so you are going to struggle. We try to help them. We give them tough love and we try to awaken them to the facts. This is reality in America." The shock of moving to a new culture was heightened because of the particular aura surrounding American life as seen from outside, Mr Sweet said. "People watch American TV and they believe in the cultural mythology, in becoming a millionaire from nothing, living the American dream," he said. "It's a beautiful idea even if it's not always real. So people come here and see the truth, not every American lives that dream and they are at the bottom of the ladder. Those who do live the dream have to start out at the beginning. They have to wash dishes in the kitchen before they can be the restaurant owner."

Word of the unexpectedly difficult lives newly arrived Iraqis find in the United States has started to spread back to the refugee population of more than one million in Syria, Jordan and Turkey. Families and friends remain in close touch and there is a growing consensus among the waiting refugee population - pray that you get resettlement in Europe, where state assistance is more generous. "I don't know about Europe, but America is all about competition. If you don't compete, you get trampled on," Mr Sadr said.

Even Iraqis who worked as translators with the US military in Iraq, many risking their lives for years going into danger zones with US soldiers, get no special treatment. Once they have been accepted for resettlement - the US government takes 50 interpreters per year combined from Iraq and Afghanistan - they are dealt with as ordinary refugees. "The Iraqis who worked with the US military say they had a better connection with the American government when they were with the army or marines in Iraq than they do here because they are so isolated," Mr Sadr said. "The government here is far removed from them. It would be nice if there was more help. They should get an internship or something with the military, some help that recognises the work they did with America in Iraq."

Another significant hurdle for arriving Iraqis is affording medical care under the expensive private insurance system in the US. After an initial eight-month period of free medical coverage, adult refugees are dropped into the pool of the uninsured. "It doesn't mean you'll be left to die in the street. There are free emergency services and they'll patch you together", Mr Sweet said. "You just won't get check-ups or treatment from a primary care physician, but we're all dealing with that problem in America at the moment."

Despite the hardships there are signs that the new population of Iraqis in Providence is beginning to settle in and cope with their American lives. And although conditions are more difficult than many expected, most are still happy to seize the opportunity to create a new future away from the Middle East's relentless turbulence. In September 2007, Atheer Jajou, together with his wife and two children, became the first Iraqi refugees to be resettled in Rhode Island since the 1990s. The initial elation quickly wore off and within months thieves had broken into their home and stripped it of everything with any value, including the $1,800 in cash Mr Jajou had scraped together from working a series of part-time jobs. He moved into a new house and that too was ransacked by thieves.

"It was hard, we had problems with money and housing," Mr Jajou, 34, said. "I found work after four months, two jobs. I worked in the morning at a cleaning company, at night in a liquor store." Sometimes customers would make racist remarks, realising from his then-rudimentary English language skills that he was not a local. "There were people who talked badly of me because I was an Iraqi and the war was still on," he said. "They think Arab people are terrorists. I didn't care, I ignored it."

Even during the darkest moments, Mr Jajou said there had never been any question of giving up and returning to the Middle East. "When the houses were broken into, the police came and were helpful, but they couldn't do much," he recalled. "I said to them, 'I'm OK. This is nothing compared to what happened to me in Iraq'. Saddam Hussein put me in jail for seven months for no reason; I was beaten. There was no chance at life there.

"And the American people have also been generous to us. The local newspaper wrote about the houses getting robbed and we got donations. Complete strangers sent us money." Since then, the Jajous' 10-year-old son, Andi, and their daughter, Alesen, 12, have enrolled in a local school and the parents have watched with pride and relief their children quickly adapt to American life. "Iraq was unbearable and then we were refugees in Turkey for five years before the United Nations sent us here," Mr Jajou said. "During that time the children couldn't go to school, they weren't allowed. So this is the dream for us. I have work, we have food and a place to live. Maybe I will be able to start up a small business one day. Most importantly the children are happy. That is the dream we wanted."

In Syria there are 206,000 Iraqis registered as refugees with the United Nations and tens of thousands more in Jordan and Turkey waiting for their own opportunity at restarting life in the west. Since 2007 the UNHCR in Syria submitted 28,321 Iraqis whose cases it believes merit resettlement to third countries. Of those, 10,600 have been accepted and have departed for their new countries. "We want to go to Europe, not America," said Abdul Salam Shakir, a father of three sons, the youngest two of whom, 15-year-old Harath and seven-year old Mohammad, have Down syndrome and require constant care. The family fled Iraq in the winter of 2006, when the sectarian war was at its peak. They now live on the outskirts of Damascus, surviving on UN handouts, money sent from siblings overseas and the rent from their house in Baghdad.

Financially, they are just about treading water, but have little hope for building a future in Syria. Mr Shakir and his wife, Ameer, refuse to return to Iraq while bombings and assassinations remain a regular occurrence. They are also concerned about getting the right medical treatment for their sons and for that reason are both reluctant to go home - or to go to the United States. "The Americans won't give us treatment for the children," Mr Shakir, 51, said. "Other refugees who went told me they don't have the treatment, the Americans don't look after the children. We don't have a choice, but I hear that in Europe the treatment is better, the situation in Europe is better. They support you there and they support people with disabilities."

His eldest son, Ahmed, 17, has finished high school but will not be able to attend university if the family stays in Syria. He hopes to be a doctor, if they can be relocated to a third country, something there is no guarantee of. "I'd go to any country, any country that gives us a chance," he said. "But I dream of Europe." @Email:psands@thenational.ae