Hassan Al-Nawar was studying physics in Baghdad when the United States invaded Iraq. In the following months, his city grew more dangerous. Al-Nawar said his professors were kidnapped and tortured, and some of his fellow students were killed in a car bomb attack. “At a certain point, I realized I had no control over these security issues. I wanted to live a normal life,” he said. Al-Nawar was one of the first Iraqis to be shepherded into the United States in 2007 under a Special Immigrant program. But his troubles didn’t end there.
First off, he wasn’t eligible for the eight months of assistance that Iraqis who are classified as refugees receive (although this policy later changed). But he soon found that finding employment was the most difficult part of coming to the United States. After arriving in Sacramento, Al-Nawar immediately began looking for work. “I went on job interviews the first day I arrived,” he said. He first applied to government jobs, but while he had relevant work experience, letters of recommendation, and had graduated at the top of his class, no one wanted to hire him because he wasn’t a US citizen, Al-Nawar said. He moved around the Bay Area, lived in Berkeley for a while, and interviewed for countless jobs. Target managers turned him down for a job, saying he was too qualified. After almost five years of looking for a full-time job, Al-Nawar, now 29, finally found work editing Arabic language education curriculum in Monterey, and is pursuing art. His oil paintings are infused with images of Iraq and the Middle East. Though he still has relatives there, he has no plans to return to his homeland anytime soon, he said. “Iraq is still not safe or secure.”
A decade after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the effects of the Iraq War continue to reverberate around the world. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly two million Iraqi refugees are scattered across the globe; this doesn’t include the estimated 1.3 million people displaced within Iraq. Although the Obama administration declared the Iraq War over in December of 2011, sectarian clashes and frequent bombings make Iraq too dangerous for many people to return home. Many refugees remain in limbo in countries like Egypt, unable to legally work. Some are resettled in countries like the United States. Since 2007, the US Refugee Admissions Program, which makes decisions based on interviews and an individual person’s circumstances, has resettled nearly 60,000 Iraqi refugees. About 1,000 Iraqis have been resettled in the Bay Area.
Once they get here, however, they face the challenge of finding work, overcoming language barriers, and dealing with the lingering emotional toll of losing one’s family, home, and friends. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) helps refugees adjust to their new country, providing housing, health services, and employment assistance for the first three months after they arrive. Refugees also receive county assistance for eight months, and can then apply for social service programs like food stamps. Other than that, “they’re pretty much on their own,” said Hans van de Weerd, the director of the IRC in Northern California, which is based in Oakland.
Samia Rafid has learned that the hard way. In 2006, Rafid fled Baghdad with her husband and three sons (whose names have all been changed at their request, for fear of drawing attention to themselves) to escape the wave of sectarian violence that killed three members of her family. “We left because of the danger, and because my son needed medicine. There was none left in Iraq,” said Rafid, whose son Mouayed, 20, suffers from developmental and physical disabilities, as well as galactosemia, a rare genetic disease. After fleeing Iraq, Rafid sold her gold jewelry so that her family could rent an apartment in Cairo. Refugees are not legally allowed to work in Egypt, so Rafid spent much of this time trying to find medical treatment for her son. After four years, the UNHCR told the family that they would be resettled in the United States, but there was one caveat: Rafid’s eldest son, Shahab, 27, was not allowed to come with them, and she still doesn’t know why. As she told her story, Rafid’s tone was matter-of-fact, as if she had told it many times before.
Now living in West Oakland, Rafid and her family face new and different challenges — a frustrating language barrier, economic woes, and persistent feelings of fear and isolation. Although she lives across town, Rafid travels to Fruitvale to do her shopping because that’s where they were first resettled, and it is familiar. It’s also where she can find rock-bottom prices; she receives government assistance for taking care of her disabled son, and her husband receives disability benefits due to a chronic stomach ailment, but they are still well below the federal poverty level for a family of four.
Language continues to be one of the hardest obstacles for Rafid to overcome. She recently took her youngest son to the emergency room at Highland Hospital by bus. “At the hospitals, there are never any translators, never,” she said. Safety is also a concern. Two people were recently shot and killed down the street from her house. Rafid is often too scared to leave her home. Nonetheless, after the chaos of conflict in Iraq, she said she likes the orderliness of American society. Her biggest challenge is dealing with the loneliness and isolation that come from living far away from everyone she knows. “People need community,” she said. “They need relatives and friends.”
A new support group and learning circle for Iraqi women in San Francisco may help. The aim of the program, which is run by the Arab Cultural and Community Center (ACCC) in San Francisco, is to provide a place where Iraqi women like Rafid can find some semblance of community and navigate the lingering trauma of war. At a meeting in February that Rafid attended, the topic of discussion was how to navigate the transportation system in the Bay Area.
Loubna Qatami, the executive director of the Arab Cultural and Community Center, said the nonprofit expanded its programs aimed at helping Iraqi refugees in 2006, when she came on board. Many of the women Qatami met in these classes were highly educated and quickly assumed positions of leadership, she said. “They were really the opposite of what you would imagine of new refugees coming to the US, fearful of this new society …. They were very proactive and engaged.”
However, she noticed that while many Iraqi refugees were adapting to their new lives — working hard, putting their kids through school, and generally succeeding — emotional difficulties would often emerge years later: loneliness, depression, and constant fear. For some, it is the memories of war: the threat or reality of sexual violence, guns, explosions. For others, it’s the inability to achieve the status they once held. Qatami remembers meeting two Iraqi men who were applying for jobs restocking vending machines. In Iraq, they had been doctors. “It makes you wonder, how does that impact get carried with them? How does it become a part of the healing or the estrangement process?” she said.
While refugees can apply for green cards after one year of living in the United States, and citizenship after five years, this involves passing a civics test, which is intimidating for many people with limited English skills. Andrew Bogrand, a spokesman for Refugee Transitions, a Bay Area nonprofit that provides tutoring and other help to new refugees, said that his organization’s clients encounter plenty of obstacles on the road to successful resettlement. Among them is the fact that refugees are often housed in low-income, disadvantaged neighborhoods, and that children are placed in a grade level according to their age, regardless of whether or not they have the language skills they need. “A lot of people have this vision of resettlement as just stepping off a plane into the US,” he said. “It isn’t that easy. It’s a very lengthy process of integration, community acceptance. It really can take a very long time.”
Numerous studies show high rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among refugees, Bogrand added. While there are established mental health services for refugee communities with deeper roots in the Bay Area, like those from Vietnam and Laos, there are still not many options for local Iraqis.
To this end, the IRC in Oakland is developing a new mental health program, which would screen Iraqis and other refugees for PTSD, and provide access to low-income clinics. The Arab Cultural and Community Center’s new Iraqi women’s support group and learning circle is another hopeful model. By the end of the February meeting, Rafid was talking animatedly with several of the other women in the circle while they snacked on sandwiches and fruit. When she stood up to leave, someone she had never met before that day kissed her on the cheek.
To Qatami, one factor that is exacerbating the problems Iraqi refugees face is that Iraq is no longer a topic of conversation for many in the United States, including those in the local Arab-American community. “Iraq is almost … not part of the consciousness of many Americans,” she said. “We created millions of refugees. People think, it’s done, we’re out of Iraq. It’s not done.”