Monday, April 27, 2009

For Iraqis, Terror is Replaced by Financial Woe


By Steve Lannen - slannen@herald-leader.com

Faced with ongoing war and death threats, millions of Iraqis fled their homeland in recent years. During the past 18 months, some Iraqi families have settled in Kentucky, and more continue to arrive every week or so.They come not only seeking refuge from the kidnappings and sectarian killings, but they bring with them the expectation of an America full of jobs and promise — the America that they have been told so much about.

Their arrival here, however, coincides with the massive economic recession, and their hopes for better lives in the United States are severely blunted by economic hardship. They stand among the thousands of Americans who are unemployed.

Some Iraqis have found part-time work or manual labor. But it's a far cry from their work back home as doctors, teachers or entrepreneurs. Plus, their lack of English skills and work experience in the United States forces them to start at the bottom with low-wage jobs. At least one returned to work in Iraq with the U.S. military as an interpreter and now sends money to his family in Lexington. They might be safer, but the Iraqis here have new worries.

They don't know how they will pay rent. And they wonder how they're going to feed their children.

In recent years, more than 95 percent of refugees were employed after four months in Lexington. In this recession, "that's just not realistic now," said Barbara Kleine, Kentucky Refugee Ministries director. "I think the expectation is once they got here, things would be better, and they're not."

Here are stories from a few of Lexington's Iraqi refugees.

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Raghad Abdul Majeed

The bullet left in the envelope outside Raghad Abdul Majeed's home was the sign.

Majeed's husband was already dead, carjacked and killed for his money in lawless Baghdad. Now this was a sign that Majeed's family was a target. They were Shias living in Dora, a no-longer-welcoming Sunni neighborhood.

It was time to go.

Months later, when it became clear she would move to the United States, Majeed attended an orientation meeting for refugees in Syria. It will be easy to find jobs in America, she was told.

Since her arrival last May, however, that has not been the case. Her professional training as an Arabic teacher didn't count for much here because she could not speak English. In the dreadful economy, she applied for jobs that didn't require language skills, but she encountered Americans with college degrees applying for the same work.

She landed a couple of odd jobs.

After a week as a hotel maid, she was fired for not working fast enough. Then, her temporary job at the Amazon.com shipping center stopped soon after the holidays were over.

"We had imagined America to be the safest place for our children and that it would be the best place to find a job. (But) the lack of a job is a kind of threat. It's not a safe situation if you don't have a job here," Majeed said.

Socially, Majeed has suffered, too. She left her parents behind in Iraq, and everyone in America is always busy. She and other Iraqi refugees in her apartment complex do their best to help one another — they share meals or advice on how to act with Americans.

"We have not adjusted to this life yet ... Each of us helps each other," she said.

When the initial money from Kentucky Refugee Ministries ran out, food stamps paid for meager groceries. Walnut Hill Church paid her phone bill and utilities. Still, it didn't alleviate her frustration.

Majeed, 34, yearns to work in a school again to teach Arabic and earn a paycheck big enough to support her two daughters.

Sometimes she visits Cassidy Elementary, where her youngest daughter attends, to use the Internet. She visits teachers, hoping they could one day work together.

For now, that dream is replaced by the need to hold a job — any job that will pay the rent and monthly expenses.

Majeed recently began working full-time at a retirement home, doing laundry and other chores as she cares for the elderly.

"It's not just my problem. It's the problem of all the Iraqi families here," she said. "If someone told me these are the obstacles I would find in America, I wouldn't have come ... I would return to Iraq."
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Subbhi Abbas Ali

Each weekday, 64-year-old Subbhi Abbas Ali rises at 5 a.m., takes two LexTran buses to Goodwill on New Circle Road and then rides with his boss to the tack-and-leather shop on Paris Pike.

As horses trot nearby, he sits at one of two machines used to cut and stitch leather.

Ali earns $9 an hour, toiling on a machine that is not unlike the one he remembers in Baghdad. However, in Iraq, there were 40 machines in the factory — and he was the factory's owner.

Ali's decision to move his family to the United States began when he was kidnapped in Baghdad more than two years ago.

Militia members loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr came to Ali's home looking for money, he said. They would get it by asking for ransom. They threw a hood over Ali's face, put him in a car and drove him to the northern town of Husseiniya on Baghdad's outskirts.

For four days, Ali was held blindfolded. He recalls being drugged. Ali thinks the pills caused hallucinations and made him more compliant to his captors. When he was told to call his family, he recalled saying, "Just give them what they need. Give them money. Give them cars. Just give them what they want so they let me go."

They did.

Ali's captors released him with the order to "just leave everything." If he ever opened his business again, they vowed to bomb it.

So now, instead of fashionable women's shoes and red leather purses, Ali makes custom leather bridles and bits for horses. The business trips to Germany and Hong Kong are no more. He makes trips to the grocery store and returns to a two-bedroom apartment off Richmond Road, rather than three houses and a farm in the Iraqi countryside.

Ali's family lived for more than a year in Syria, relying on the support of a relative. Then, in July, they landed in Lexington. It took nearly six months for him to find work.

Several days a week, he and his wife, Aaeda Ibrihm, struggle through English lessons. He carries a vocabulary list with him at work to better understand what is asked of him.

Despite the torture and loss he endured, he said it is his "good luck" to live in the United States. His younger son and two daughters live with him; two daughters remain in Iraq, and his oldest son is in Syria.

"I love to study, but now I am an old man," he said. "The thought is for my children."

All he wants is for his oldest son and his family to receive a visa to come live with him. Ali is fearful that his son — even though he is in Syria — could be targeted by the same people who kidnapped him.

"When I work," Ali said, "it's him I think about."

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Akkram Kareem

In Baghdad, Akkram Kareem managed a jewelry store. For this, people assumed he had a lot of money.

So he tried to hide his job as best he could.

He altered his route to work. He took public transportation instead of driving his car. He even moved to a different house in the neighborhood when he was sure his secret was out.

In a country without laws and full of desperate people, he was a marked man.

"We didn't know who was our enemy," Kareem recalled.

In early 2006, armed men came to his home looking for him.

He wasn't there, but his grown nephew was.

There were two gunshots — one hit Kareem's nephew in the leg.

When Kareem came home, he found his injured nephew. He took him to the hospital. While Kareem and his nephew were away, the men returned to the house and roughed up his wife and mother. They demanded that his wife call Kareem's cell phone.

"Give us your money, or we will kill all of your family," they said.

Kareem says he gathered the gold that was in the shop, about a kilogram, and melted it down. It was worth about $40,000. He arranged for it to be delivered to an outdoor market, as instructed. Leave Iraq or die, were the last instructions.

He fled with his wife, son and daughter to neighboring Syria in February 2006.

Australia was where he hoped to settle his family, but he was offered a place in the United States.

"Anywhere besides Iraq. I just want to be in a safe place," he replied.

The four of them, plus an infant daughter, arrived in Lexington on July 24.

Here, there is cool weather, electricity and water that runs on cue. Kareem's children can play outside and take a bus to Cassidy Elementary School.

"It's much better than I thought it would be," he said.

But Kareem's forehead furrows when asked about money. For three months, the rent and utilities were paid, but that ended months ago. Local churches have helped pay some of the bills since.

He knows he is expected to get a job to pay for it all, but nothing has panned out.

Iraqis who were in Lexington several months before him still don't have jobs, he said.

"How will I get a job to continue this beautiful life?" he asks.

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By the numbers

■ About 14,000 Iraqi refugees were admitted to the United States in 2008, which remains a small fraction of the millions displaced by ongoing war and sectarian violence in Iraq.

■ Since September 1997, about 350 Iraqis have settled in Kentucky. The largest number, about 220, are in Louisville, followed by Lexington and Bowling Green, according to statistics kept by the Kentucky Office for Refugees at Catholic Charities in Louisville. About 50 have settled in Lexington. Thirty more are expected to arrive in the coming months.

■ The placement of nearly all refugees who arrive in Lexington is handled by Kentucky Refugee Ministries, one of about 350 volunteer agencies nationwide contracted with the U.S. State Department to coordinate refugee housing and settlement. Initially, a few hundred dollars from the State Department plus food stamps and donations from churches are cobbled together to fund a refugee household, but the expectation is that the family will be self-supporting within a few months.

How you can help

Contact Kentucky Refugee Ministries, 201 East Maxwell Street, Lexington, Ky. 40508; (859) 226-5661.

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