East Bay refugees have a new safe haven but with different challenges
By Huda Ahmed/Oakland North
When I knocked on the door of an apartment building in East Oakland, a woman’s voice nervously asked who I was. The voice belonged to a 45-year-old woman who wishes to be identified only as S. Mohamad because she fears prosecution in her native Iraq; she is a former radiologist who came here as a refugee three months ago along with her husband and their three children. She hid behind the door because she was without a headscarf; Muslim women usually wear one to cover their hair when they are around anyone but family or other women.
When we met, she had just arrived home. Her brown hair, which had been under a scarf, was tousled. She immediately went to the kitchen and put food on the stove, then came into the living room and collapsed into a chair. She wiped the sweat off her warm face with both hands as though to erase the tiredness of the day and refresh herself. Then she put her hands in her lap as if to surrender to rest. “Forgive me for being messy,” she said. “I have just arrived from a job workshop in San Francisco. I had to take two buses to get home because we can not afford the BART.”
Mohamad, her husband, and their three children left their home in Baghdad shortly after her brother-in-law was assassinated by insurgents. He was a well-known academic figure in Baghdad, and insurgents also targeted and killed funeral-goers. Mohammed’s extended family scattered and sought safety in other places.
Mohamad, her husband and children left everything behind and at first found refuge in Jordan. They lived in Amman for two and half years before applying to the United Nations refugee program to obtain legal papers and avoid deportation. They were accepted into the program and granted refuge in the United States. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nonprofit group that works with the U.S. State Department to help refugees resettle in the United States, relocated Mohammad’s family to East Oakland because of its affordable rental houses.
The IRC, which is linked with the State Department, was founded in 1933 and is headquartered in New York. The main task of the agency is to create a viable living situation for refugees. It is required to provide airport pick-up, locate furnished accommodations, help refugees apply for Social Security cards, enroll in schools and find health care, and advise them about immigration services.
There were 13,000 Iraqi refugees admitted to the United States in 2008, according to the State Department’s resettlement program, and the IRC says it expects that number to increase to 17,000 this year. The records do not break down the number of refugees in each state because the State Department stopped tracking them more than a decade ago. “I think they stopped tracking the refugees in the States because it costs a lot of money to do the job,” said Don Climent, the regional director of the IRC’s office in San Francisco.
Iraqi refugees face huge challenges adjusting to life and work in the United States. The most obvious of these is language: Refugees vary in their language ability, but all must quickly learn to speak well, so they can search for work and begin to be part of society. Complicating matters for families like the Mohamads, many refugees are resettled to neighborhoods where they are surrounded by others for whom English is a second language.
There is the also the problem of security. Many Iraqi refugees feel shocked and frustrated when they realize that they have to deal with security-part of the reason they had run away from home-again. Mohamad’s 21-year-old son made his own security, buying pepper spray and a knife to protect his life. “I only felt safe in Jordan and all I did is to focus on my study,” he said. “But here, I found the United States similar to Baghdad. I changed my old nice clothes into saggy ones to blend in. I avoided passing any young men group standing in a corner of the street. I tried to put my wallet, phone and my ID in different places in my clothes. I have to struggle to stay safe in Oakland.”
In addition to fears about their security, refugees have to deal with the American healthcare system, which is totally different from back home. In Iraq, the health system is free and patients have easy access to medicine from any pharmacy, except for few restricted prescriptions.
On top of these concerns, refugees also have to find jobs quickly. It’s not easy, particularly with the U.S. economy in recession. Some Iraqis try to look beyond Oakland and go as far as San Jose. Some may get lucky, and some have to keep looking and wait for the phone to ring. “The economy is not so good in regards to employment,” said Climent at the IRC. “It is a reality that refugees have to compete with the Americans for work. Of course there is an impact. In such time you do not have to be picky, you should take any job is offered to you.”
Climent acknowledges that refugees face a difficult situation in the United States, trying to blend in with the society in a short period of time, even when they have the help of the IRC. “There are a lot of things going into this and it is certainly less than perfect,” he said. “It is not easy to be a refugee, even under the best circumstances. Overall it is incredibly positive program but when you get into details, you can see how hard it is for some people to make it through the process and to start over and to learn all the stuff they have to learn to operate in the society in short time. It is a lot, it needs time but it really works.”
It hasn’t worked yet, though, for the Mohamads. The family struggles against the loss of their money, jobs, security, and education. They use a temporary monthly stipend from the social services to pay for rent, and rely on social services for food stamps. Mrs. Mohammad said she has submitted roughly seven resumés since she came to U.S. three months ago, with no luck. She said does not want her children to work because they are still in school, and they do not have any job experience.
Her eldest son, now 21, takes advanced courses in English language and CSEE courses (environment and green jobs training) at the community college so he may find a temporary job. He was once an engineering undergraduate student who had to drop out of school in Baghdad to go with his family to Jordan. He managed to resume college in Amman, but again had to leave in the middle of his studies to come to Oakland with his family. Now he wants to apply for school again, but must first wait for a year or two to be a California resident so the family can afford the college tuition.
“My eyes are dry of tears,” his mother said as she considered her family’s situation. “I cannot see well because I cried so hard. I just wish I could go back home but I could not. I have no family left there, my house is rented and I can not just ask the residents to leave because I will have to go through the court and that means many papers and time and money. It is not safe yet for us to go back and I’m torn between longing to go back and my children’s safety and future. ”
The family’s apartment has three bedrooms, and as Mrs. Mohamad talked, her husband came out of the bedroom, interrupting his wife to fact-check their story. He is a tall man who used to have his own business as a heavy machines contractor. Now he is unemployed, and spends half of the day searching Web sites to fill out online applications. It’s frustrating, he said, and pointless, because almost employers ask for a license and references.
“Wherever we find a job application, they ask for a license and a reference, and I just came from Iraq,” he said. “How am I supposed to have a reference or a license, which [requires] us to get back to study for few months or years to match our degree from Iraq? I cannot even work as a bus driver unless I get a reference and a license.”
Mrs. Mohammad said she and her husband go to the social services program “job club” daily, and attend every workshop and lecture on job-hunting that they can. She wiped her face with her hands. “I do not want my son lose another year,” she said. “Education is very precious to me.”
At that moment, her son entered the house holding heavy books to his chest like a child clutching a precious toy. He called for his younger brother and sister to come out from their rooms. He was happy that he had bought the books for $1 each at a private sales event at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Jack London Square. The books included a history book about the U.S. Marines and their battle in Iraq. “I bought this book because I wanted to learn their history and what they say about us,” he said while flipping the pages showing images of soldiers posing in different positions in Iraq and Kuwait.
Iraqis of all education levels are known for their passion for reading; it was one of their only ways, other than TV, to access to the outside world for knowledge during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Mrs. Mohammad watched her children and sighed as they read the new books. “I do not know what to do,” she said. “We are an intellectual family and all our siblings are doctors and engineers. We do not know any other profession.”
Mrs. Mohammed’s troubles are complicated by health issues; she has a bad back, an ulcer, and high blood pressure. She wants to work, but doesn’t want to give up her 20 years experience as a radiologist in Iraq. “I cannot just trash 20 years of experience behind my back,” she said. “I want to work, but in what I know-as a radiologist or even a nurse, but for both I need to match my degree and study again for few years. I can not do that because I do not have time. I need a job quickly to support the family and save for my son’s education. This is my problem.”
“We did not leave our country for fun-all my concern was my children’s safety and their future,” she continued. “We struggle to learn the American system here by ourselves and it is very hard. How am I supposed to learn all this and get a job in a month? Why [did the] U.S. bring big numbers [of refugees here] if they are not ready to host them? I do not have any relatives in the United States like some have to rely on. I cannot go home now. I sold everything I have in Jordan, and I can not go back to Baghdad because we will be targeted.”
She broke into tears.
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