American realities for Iraqi refugees restarting life in New York

Escape from Baghdad promised so much for Omar and his young family, but their new life as refugees in the South Bronx is hardly the American Dream.

Omar is a Iraqi immigrant, receiving death threats, and residing in New York City. Photo courtesy of Michael Falco
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NEW YORK // About ten years ago in Baghdad, as American bombs thudded into the city around him for a second consecutive week, Omar Al Mashhadani began to dream.

"The first dream was about meat," Omar said, explaining that during the embargo imposed by the United Nations from 1990, most Iraqis could afford the luxury only once or twice a month. "Lamb, chicken, fish - I thought the Americans would bring all of this!"

The second dream was that the United States would help rebuild Iraq into something better, as it had done for Japan and Germany after the Second World War. During the looting that gripped the city after its capture by the invading forces, Omar would yell at people hauling loot down Palestine Street, "Hey, you don't need to take that table, America will make Baghdad into Dubai!"

The smile quickly faded from Omar's face as he spoke about the past, sitting with his wife, Shafaq, and young son, Adam, in their new home, a cramped studio apartment in a rough section of the South Bronx. After the hopeful uncertainty of 2004, "the dreams", he said, "became nightmares".

And so, after eight years of death, displacement and living under threat as a journalist with the American-funded Radio Sawa, Omar and his family became some of the 82,000 Iraqi refugees who have been allowed to settle in the US since 2008.

But for many of them, the bitter reality of life as a refugee in the US has been difficult to reconcile with the American dream, as they struggle to reassemble lives shattered by the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.

But of leaving Iraq, there was no question, at least not for Omar, who is now 28.

"It was not possible for me to live like a human in that country," he said. His brother, who worked for an American contracting firm, was murdered by Shiite militiamen in 2006. His family found the body days later, bloated from lying in the summer heat.

Omar began spending most nights at his office in Iraq because traversing the new sectarian geography of the city at odd hours was too dangerous. He was there when his mother called him a month after his brother's murder, crying, saying that the same militia had kicked down the front door of the house and demanded that the family leave the now Shiite-dominated neighbourhood.

In 2008 the US Congress passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, which allowed for thousands of Iraqis who faced threats to their lives and who had worked with the American military and civilian administration, or with American companies, to be resettled as refugees in the US. Omar applied for refugee status soon after.

The process took four years, and in that time Omar survived an Al Qaeda suicide bombing at his office as well as a car bomb during the 2010 general elections. He married, had a son and had given up hope of ever leaving Iraq.

Then, late last July, Omar received a phone call from an aid agency worker saying that in two weeks he and his young family would be on an aircraft bound for Amman. There they would transit to another plane bound for New York, where he would begin his new life.

He and his wife had not expected so tiny a flat in what turned out to be a chancy neighbourhood. It did not help that within the first week in their new home, there was a fatal shoot-out on their street. "If I have to die, I would rather do it in Iraq," Omar said.

They have become used to the neighbourhood, and with the help of a refugee resettlement agency, Omar was able to quickly find a minimum-wage job inspecting fabric at a store in Manhattan. He was also given a small boost of US$400 (Dh1,470) a month for his first three months from the federal Refugee Assistance Programme. Since then he has also qualified for state welfare benefits that include food stamps and basic medical insurance.

But Omar is unable to save any money at the end of each month, and has not managed to move his family into a more comfortable one-bedroom apartment. He would also like to enrol in a journalism graduate programme and restart his career, but he does not know how he would be able to afford the cost.

While the administration of Barack Obama has streamlined the process for eligible Iraqi refugees to come to the US, with 18,000 expected to come this year compared with about 12,000 last year, once they arrive they receive scant help with restarting their lives.

A study by the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law school reported that many Iraqi refugees continue to live in or near poverty long after the resettlement assistance expires, and that US anti-poverty programmes are not sufficient for meeting the unique needs of Iraqi refugees.

"[They] do not break down barriers to sustainable employment, employment services are not properly funded, English-language training is insufficient … professional recertification is not viable … and [medical] options are insufficient to address the serious mental-health issues that affect many Iraqi refugees," the report stated.

Joshua Tyack, who runs the employment programme at the federally funded Iraqi Mutual Aid Society in Chicago, the country's only organisation dedicated solely to assisting Iraqi refugees, said that the Iraqis are generally trained professionals. Their degrees are not recognised, however, so they are forced to take menial jobs.

"They go from being in the elite to all of a sudden being in a job taking orders from someone who has not gone to high school, and it can lead to frustration that they are not being allowed to contribute to their full potential in their new home," Mr Tyack said.

Without better jobs, the Iraqis generally have to rely on state and city welfare services whose budgets have been cut during the recession. "Social services that people used to have access to are no longer there, especially mental-health clinics," he added.

The automatic, across-the-board federal budget cuts now occurring also threaten the initial resettlement help refugees receive, with the Office of Refugee Resettlement warning recently that it faces a $90 million shortfall this fiscal year.

Both Republican and Democratic politicians in Washington once championed the cause of Iraqi refugees, who were seen as having risked their lives on behalf of the US. But as Washington reckons with huge cuts, and with memories of the Iraq war losing political significance, their interest in the issue has faded.

"I can't get a meeting with lawmakers if I say I want to talk about Iraqi refugees," said an employee of a New York-based non-profit who works on resettlement. "They've turned the page. It's off their radar completely."

While Omar remains optimistic about his future in the US, other Iraqi refugees who have been here much longer say the frustration and disappointment is not easily overcome.

"Do I feel like my life has begun here, even now after two years? No," said Muhammad, who preferred to use a pseudonym.

He was resettled in New York after spending four years as a refugee in Damascus. "I want to live, I want to save some money, get married, plan for the future, have some health insurance."

But even after working for two years at a restaurant and being promoted to assistant manager, he has yet to save money, which makes it difficult to start a family.

"When you accept me as a refugee, you should treat me like a refugee," he said. "I have lost ten years of my life, I did not plan for my life to go like this, it wasn't by choice. It was all because of the war."

Zainab, who asked to use a pseudonym, is an Iraqi refugee who lived in New York for six years before moving to Germany because she was unhappy with life in the US. Her two sons, who had experienced wartime Iraq, had a very difficult time adjusting and received little help, she said.

"When I brought my children to the US, they were sent to a regular public school and were expected to do as well as the other kids academically, culturally and socially. It was a harsh, harsh reality," she said.

Back in his apartment in the Bronx, Omar holds his son as his wife cooks chicken, ful and rice at the stove a few feet from their bed.

"At night I dream of going home without a green card, and after dreaming I want to cry because I cannot go back, it is not safe," he said.

He recently realised just how unsafe Baghdad still is after posting an offhand comment on his Facebook page comparing the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, with Saddam Hussein.

"I got two threats," Omar said. "One person said, 'If you come back to Iraq I will cut out your tongue'. The other said, 'Maliki is really bad because he let you live'."

He now stays off Facebook out of fear that he may endanger his family in Iraq.

Omar acknowledges that nothing about his new life in the US is guaranteed. But with a wife and two-year-old son, he cannot afford to look back or worry about the obstacles that may come.

"I left many things in my country, but I came here for my son and I hope he will have the opportunity to be a great person," Omar said.

"When he grows up he will say, 'I'm American', he will never say, 'I'm Iraqi'. Iraq will just be stories for him."