Iraqi foreign nationals search for a place to call home

“Obviously we have no money, We are going back. We cannot staying here anymore,” Jabbar Sattar said in a tired voice.

Jabbar a former Iraqi translator for the US military procurement unit embedded at the Iraqi Defense Ministry in Baghdad came to the United States 14 months ago with his wife and two sons.

In 2006 the Bush administration amended the National Defense Authorization Act to create a special immigrant status for Afghan and Iraqi nationals whose families were in peril due to their work as translators or interpreters for the U.S. military or diplomatic missions. Jabbar’s family was one of the 500 families that were resettled under this special visa category in 2009.

“A colleague lost his father in 2008. An unknown group beat his Abba to death with a baseball bat. We got constant death notices in our mail box,” Jabbar said in a phone interview. Jabbar  started working for the American Military in 2003 and waited for almost two years to have his US visa processed.

The Office for Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services in its 2009 report states that the cumulative number of Iraqi refugees shot up to 17,000 individuals in 2009 from 202 in 2006.

When Jabbar’s family arrived in the United States, they were first settled in a one room apartment in Hernando, a crime riddled suburb in Tampa Bay, Florida. According to the 2009 International Rescue Committee annual report Florida resettles 25,000 to 28,000 refugees each year – three times more than any other state. The non-governmental aid agency that is a key stakeholder in the overall US Refugee Admission Program (USRAP) states that Tampa Bay is the second largest refugee resettlement area in Florida with over 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers from all across the world including Cuba, Bosnia, Sudan, Somalia, Burma, Colombia, Venezuela and Liberia.

Jabbar said that he found it “disorienting at first” to hear so many languages, and about not being able to communicate much with his neighbors despite his fluent English.  “It was a total culture shock for my wife and I. We didn’t want to bring up our kids in such an environment,” he said.

Once the food stamps from the county dried up after the first three months and after witnessing several forced break-ins in his neighborhood, Jabbar contacted Chris Wiley, an instructor at the joint Iraq-US defense academy in Baghdad and a procurements specialist at the US military unit embedded in the Iraq ministry of defense.

Wiley had just returned to her home in Los Gatos after an year-long stint in the “international green zone” in Baghdad, where she worked with Jabbar to create procurement manuals in English and Arabic.

“Chris said that the situation in her home town was a bit better. She invited us to her home. We packed our bags in two weeks and left Florida,” he said. Jabbar moved with his family to Los Gatos in May 2009.

However according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.2 percent of the labor force in Santa Clara county, where Los Gatos is located, were unemployed as at Dec. 31, 2009. In this majority white town tucked away in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains in the San Francisco Bay Area, 4.3 percent of the population were also below the poverty line.

“I came with a lot of hopes, a lot of dreams. But now there is nothing. But I understand. I understand that I came at a bad time. There are no opportunities here now,” Jabbar said. “I have a degree in Electrical Engineering. But there are a lot of people without jobs now in America. There are no opportunities here now.”

Reza Odabaee, a Program Director at Catholic Charities in San Jose, has worked with Special Immigrant Visa cases since 2006. His organization resettled almost 60 percent of the 162 Iraqi’s that trickled into the Santa Clara county in 2009.

“Unemployment among refugees has spiked to almost 70 percent. It is the worst I have seen in the past 15 years,” he said.

Odabaee also noted that state funding for employment assistance programs run by resettlement agencies have dried up.

“We provide courses on English as a second language, resume clinics and even job hunting expeditions, where we take groups to malls or small businesses where they can interact with employers directly and understand the social interaction skills. But most of these programs reply on state funding, sometimes up to 60 percent,” he said.

Santa Clara County Refugee Relief Co-ordinator Phaivanh Khowong said that county’s 2010 budget for refugee employment assistance has been slashed by almost half to $458,000 from $ 700,000 the year before.

Khowong, who fled Laos and came to the US in 1986 said that the average time for a refugee to find their first entry level job in the Santa Clara area has increased to 13 months from 7 months since the recession kicked in.
“With so many people unemployed, it is very difficult for refugees who have no employment history in the US to find work. In the Bay Area employers mainly rely on their personal networks for recruitment. They don’t even advertise jobs. It takes years for resettled families to build up those networks,” she added.

“Jabbar always said that things will get better for him once he finds a job,” Chris Wiley, a procurement consultant for the US military in Iraq, who hosted Jabbar’s family in Los Gatos said.

“I tried to introduce him to friends and even got a membership to attend Los Gatos Business Club meetings. But he didn’t understand networking. My problem with resettlement agencies is that they give them handouts, but do not try to teach them the cultural differences,” she added.

Ms. Wiley said that Jabbar would leave the house when she pushed him to go out and look for jobs. “Later I found that he had parked the car somewhere and slept and returned after a few hours. Once I found a wanted sign at Cosco and told him about it. I think he felt it was beneath him to apply for that kind of job. But most of those who are resettled only get entry level jobs,” she said.

Santa Clara County Refugee Co-ordinator Khowong agreed that “there was a sense of disillusionment” specially among the new wave of Iraqi’s coming to the US under the special Visa category. “Those who are being resettled are professional with many years of experience and academic qualifications. There is a shortcoming in the refugee awareness process, that fails to  inform them that their qualifications may not be valid in the US or the nature of the work that they are most likely to find here. This creates problems later on both for families and for case workers in charge of them,” she said.

Jabbar abruptly left Los Gatos in early February. When contacted via telephone, he refused to divulge his current location. Now Jabbar is planning to return to Iraq in three weeks.

“It is still dangerous to go back. But I have no other option. All the money I brought is over.  We have to spend $1500 to $2000 per month here. I asked my family to send me more money but even that is coming to an end now,” he said.

“I have come with my wife and children.  It is not like when you come alone. If I came alone I could have slept on the road or lived with someone else. But now there is no other option. We have to go back,” Jabbar said.

“It is my wrong calculation. I suppose I have to better know the situation here. May be it will get better in America in 4-5 years and may be I come back then. I don’t know,” he added.

According to the Khowong, the Santa Clara County Refugee Coordinator, the State provides subsidized medical facilities via MediCal, food stamps and cash aid for both refugees and low income families and individuals. “But there is a limitation on the services available for those who fall under the Special Immigration Visa Category. If the refugee who holds this visa comes alone to the US, then the state benefits will only be available for eight months. But for other refugees, who come alone these benefits are available for up to two years,” she said.

“This is mainly because the special visa holders get their Green Card within a month from arriving in the US, while it takes 12 to 18 months for those with an ordinary refugee status. But now many individuals are finding it almost impossible to find work in the first six months, and they are left without any welfare after eight months,” she added.

Neither the county nor the resettlement agencies collect statistics on individuals or families who leave the US after being resettled refugees.

However, Reza Odabee, who was with Catholic charities since 1993 confirms that a few Iraqi families are slowly trickling back to Jordan, Syria and other neighboring countries.

“Refugees who come under the Special Immigrant Visa category rarely go back to Iraq. But some are going back to other Arab countries. But there they face greater discrimination based on the Sunni – Shia ethnic divide. But we are slowly seeing people loosing hope about making it in America,” he said.

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