By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The program works only if refugees get a job within the first few months of their arrival. The majority of Iraqi refugees resettling in the United States were skilled professionals back home: doctors, nurses, teachers or engineers. Their initial frustration is often that they have to secure a job immediately and do not have the time to become licensed in their field. In the past, when the economy was strong, they would reluctantly take low-paying jobs.
“It’s a pretty horrible shock if you are a well-educated, middle-class person,” Templeton says, “suddenly in a situation where you are scrubbing toilets in a motel.”
But now the competition for even those menial jobs is so fierce that the Iraqis face great difficulty finding any job. Fewer positions are available, and the Iraqis must compete with laid-off Americans, who speak the language and have experience working in this country. In the past, 80 percent of refugees found employment within six to eight months of their arrival, says Nathaniel Hurd, a government-relations and advocacy officer for the International Rescue Committee. That figure rose to between 90 and 95 for refugees within the IRC network. Now, Hurd says, only 50 percent of refugees secure work.
“It’s really a tragic situation. I believe we made a commitment to help people establish their lives here, and we’re not doing that.”
Silewa received food stamps and $359 a month from Catholic Charities for the first eight months he was here, but that did not cover his half of his $800 monthly rent. He worked in an oil field in Iraq; now he must borrow money to pay his rent, utilities, phone bill, bus fare and other life expenses.
“These people have gone through extreme hardships and are suffering, physically, mentally, emotionally,” says Zina Salem, president and CEO of Chaldean Middle Eastern Social Services in El Cajon. “No homes, no jobs, no food; they’re becoming homeless. They have been forced out of their homes, they have been threatened, and it’s just not fair. I mean, we are America!”
“And some of these families,” adds Salem’s colleague Besma Coda, “they’ve been wealthy all their life. And educated! We have doctors, engineers, lawyers. It’s not fair to lose everything and just leave with their own clothes. It is a humanitarian issue. We need [the Obama administration] to pay attention to all these issues.”
A Chaldean church group called Legion of Mary visits Iraqi refugees who have recently come to El Cajon. We load up in their van, and they take me to meet some of the new arrivals.
“Everyone we visit, they have financial problems,” says Mona Bazzi, the vice president of the group, as we drive to an apartment complex where many of the Iraqi refugees live.
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.
Wally Jamil, an Iraqi who is president of the church group, turns to me and says, “All of them ask, ‘After eight months, what are we going to do?’” He points out the window and says, “If he doesn’t find a job, they will be on the street.”