Iraqi refugees find lack of help, support on First Coast

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on December 6, 2009.

When it comes down to it, Haitham Saleem doesn't really want to be here, doesn't want his life to be like this.

He's glad to be safe, happy to no longer be in the war zone of Iraq. But the middle-aged refugee had expected more than simply safety: He had expected the makings of a whole new life.

Back home in Iraq, he had a home and a business, money and friends. Now, he needs help to afford a house, after moving out of a shabby apartment he hated. He used to have employers; now he works part time delivering dry cleaning, making just a few bucks an hour.

"There is not any help, " he said. "Not any."

Like much of the burgeoning Iraqi population in Jacksonville, Saleem fled his homeland because he was afraid for his life, afraid of being kidnapped or killed. He's safer here but said the angst of his new life takes its own sort of toll.

And he's not alone. Dozens of Iraqi refugees, scattered throughout a number of small apartments across Jacksonville, tell similar stories. After harrowing experiences back in Iraq, the refugees arrive here with little money but high expectations of jobs, of support, of housing, of a future.

Then those expectations are dashed.

Resources for refugees are slim, with most aid running out within a few months. The agencies responsible for helping these men, women and families get settled provide a starting point, but after a short time here refugees are expected to stand mostly on their own.

That's not what the refugees thought they'd find.

"They're supposed to find for us jobs, " Lauy Kathen said. "None of us have jobs."

The shabby apartments and used clothing are welcomed, the refugees said, but don't live up to what they were promised.

"Of course I'm glad to be here, to be safe, but we thought something good would happen, " another woman, Alia Bano, said in a separate conversation.

Hundreds of Iraqi refugees came to Jacksonville in the past year, up about 20 percent from the previous year. Nationally, more than 30,000 Iraqis have been resettled in the United States, where the United Nation's high commissioner for refugees has looked to place the bulk from that country.

The privations suffered by Iraqis are no different from those facing other refugee groups - the largest being Burmese - that call Jacksonville home.

However, the combination of the type of lives Iraqis left behind, the expectations they brought with them and the complex relationship between the United States and Iraq makes those difficulties harder to accept.

For one, many Iraqis come from a different background than some other refugees. Burmese refugees, for example, are often uneducated and come from a country where hardship has been a way of life for many for half a century.

Many Iraqis, on the other hand, are educated and owned homes and businesses back in their country. Living in rundown apartments and working as housekeepers does not fit the hopes they brought to the United States, hopes tinged with old-fashioned "streets paved with gold" expectations.

"The stories they hear over there and the reality they face here is shockingly different," said Elaine Carson, affiliate director of World Relief Jacksonville, the largest of the three agencies that resettles refugees in the area. "Their expectations are so high."

All of the resettlement agencies have stories of Iraqis who say they were told they'd be supported for six months, eight months - even years.

"We were thinking we'd get free shelter provided by the government and they'd find us a job, " said Bano, who said she fled Iraq after her niece was kidnapped and husband killed.

A former employee of the state oil ministry, Bano is now supported by her 20-year-old son, who works at Burger King.

"We feel that we did not find good support, " she said through an interpreter. "I'm an old woman. I cannot find a job easily."

Some states do provide more assistance, depending on exactly how an individual signs up for funding - another irritation for refugees who feel baffled by bureaucracy.

"We are refugees, " said Donia Gorgis. "We did not come as tourists, for a picnic. This is not our choice. They chose it for us."

For many of the refugees, the fact that the American invasion led to their displacement means the country has more of an obligation when it comes to helping them, an obligation they don't see the country living up to. Many of the refugees also have had personal contact with Americans, who painted rosier pictures than reality turned out to be.

The refugees' situation is exacerbated by the fact that in this economy few people can find a job easily, even people who speak English and have an active social network.

"It is hard, particularly in this economy, " Carson said. "I've never faced a situation like this before."

The social organizations typically support a refugee for three months, by which point in years past most refugees have been able to get some sort of job, enough at least to cover the basics.

But not now.

It doesn't help, said several social workers, that Iraqis tend to be pickier about the type of work they'll accept.

"A lot of our other clients - although not all of them - are willing to take whatever is offered, " said Michelle Karolak, director of the refugee resettlement program for the local operations of Catholic Charities. "Iraqis, not so much."

The Iraqis are seen as hard workers who fit in well when they get jobs, Karolak said, but came here expecting skilled work, jobs that draw upon the professional qualifications they earned back home.

The jobs that are on offer are not usually higher-class positions, but rather housekeeping, assembly work and other forms of unskilled labor.

For the Iraqis, focusing on such jobs ignores the skills they brought with them.
Majid Abdulmajeed, for example, was hired as an adjunct professor of chemical engineering based on his experience in Iraq. But he only got the job after an acquaintance passed his resume to the school.

"The main employment agent didn't suggest jobs like this, " he said.

The agencies focus on broader issues, trying to hook up refugees with jobs, housing and social services quickly and with limited resources.

"We have no choice, " Karolak said. "We have to get them up and running as fast as we can."

Refugees, who can become U.S. citizens after five years, are helped in three different ways: By direct aid provided by the state and federal government and handed out by charitable organizations, by the charities providing aid on their own and by general programs including Medicaid and food stamps that are designed for a variety of indigent people.

Federal funding provides about $425 per person. This makes it hardest on single individuals, who get just the one check, while a family of four has $1,800 it can pool.

The state kicks in $180 for a single individual and $61 for a second person, a benefit that runs out in eight months. (For families with children, the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program lasts longer.)

To make the money stretch, the agencies work with apartment complexes, some of which provide a month's free rent, and rely on donated furniture and thrift store clothing.

Nobody thinks that's enough to live on; it's simply all that's available.

"I commiserate with them, " Carson said. "I understand this is horrible. I tell them it's going to be hard, and I'm sorry."

For the refugees, that sympathy doesn't change that while life might be safer, it's far harder than they thought and not likely to get easier any time soon.

"When I came here, I am a refugee, " Aead Saleem said. "Refugee is different than immigrant. Refugees must be supported more than immigrants. We have nothing here. We are tired and scared."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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