‘The Journey of Not Coming Back’

By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Contra Costa Times

Of the millions of Iraqi refugees seeking new homes, relatively few are making their way to the United States — and just a trickle reach the Bay Area.

They arrive exhausted and stunned, having seen their homes smashed to rubble, and relatives beaten or shot to death.

They’ve made their way to Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon or the Gulf states where, as “guests,” they cannot work.

They plead for help from refugee workers, and few find a country willing to admit them.

The war has chased more than 4 million Iraqis from their homes, the United Nations has reported. The number is expected to reach 5.5 million by the end of this year.

The United States admitted 1,608 — instead of the promised 7,000 — in the past fiscal year and says it is preparing to increase the flow. It committed in April to take 25,000 Iraqi refugees altogether.

Recent arrivals to the East Bay tell stories of misery and endless waiting.

Hussein, a 42-year-old father of two toddlers, holed up for eight months in Jordan in a two-room apartment with five strangers.

Hiyam, a 45-year-old mother of four sons, fished for food in trash bins during their seven-year limbo in that country.

Nearly all refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, said Kathleen Newland, director of Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization. They know their families in Iraq stomach a daily diet of fear. And they know they themselves will never return.

Refugees International calls the displacement of Iraqis the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world.

Catholic Charities is among 10 agencies helping the refugees start a new life. Hussein, now in San Jose, said he is too fearful of retaliation against his family to make his last name public.

Mortar shells pounded the U.N. agricultural office where he worked. Later, insurgents attacked his home. His brother-in-law was shot dead when he went to collect Hussein’s belongings, he said.

Karim, an artist and an atheist, once taught Arabic to non-native speakers. In April 2006, an anonymous threat arrived: “You are not needed in this place. Leave here.” He sold his car and all his belongings and went to Jordan.

“That’s the journey of not coming back,” he said.

Catholic Charities helped resettle the men in Santa Clara County. Karim, who also asked that his last name not be disclosed, has been here for a little more than a month; Hussein for 20 days. Despite the challenges, they plan to stay.

“It’s better to live in heaven in the U.S. than in hell in Iraq,” said Hussein.

“I prepared myself emotionally,” Karim said. “I am going to live in a different place. This is Part Two of my life.”

Hussein, a veteran truck driver, wants a license here, and fast.

“I have to work,” he said. “I have a family.”

The refugees are impatient to get moving.

Hazim, 48, took one English class then quit in frustration. He says he can learn on the job. With a family to support, he can’t afford to waste time in class.

“I have to tell them to walk, not run, or they can hurt themselves,” said Sister Elizabeth Lang, refugee director for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, who helped Hazim and his family resettle in Concord.

“There is so much disappointment, frustration. It’s easy to lose hope.”

Hazim’s wife, Hiyam, and their eldest son, Ammar, take a bus together to their daily adult-school English classes at Mt. Diablo Adult Education Center. It takes an hour and 20 minutes to get there from the home Hiyam calls “a starter apartment.”

In the ground-floor apartment, vertical blinds cover aluminum sliding windows. A relative with a furniture shop brought them a couch and a table and chairs. On the wall hangs a blue plate with an Arabic inscription: “All blessings come from God.”

It amazes Hiyam that their rent exceeds $1,300 a month. Refugee assistance, which has been folded into the welfare system, pays the family $980 a month for eight months. The system pays $350 a month for Ammar, 19.

Without a history in this country, they couldn’t find an apartment. To get gas and electricity turned on, they had to pay a deposit.

“I asked for emergency food stamps,” said Hayim’s sister, Suna Salim, a Walnut Creek business owner and longtime resident who is helping settle the family. “They said they had to have proof that they had no money. I said, yes, Catholic Charities gave them some money, but they needed that for a deposit for rent.”

Hazim has been suffering from panic attacks. Hiyam breaks out in nervous rashes.

“Every day, I cry at least once or twice,” she said. “I am trying to figure out how to pay for things. I can’t go to the doctor. I had an ear infection, it was bleeding.”

The surprises are relentless. For one, Americans keep to themselves, Hiyam said.

“Here, everybody is in their own world,” she said. “(In Iraq), neighbors come over, drink tea, kids play. People look out for each other. If someone makes some food, they bring you some. ‘Hey, I’m going shopping — want to go?”‘

Another shock: American schools.

“That doesn’t look like a school, that looks like a disco,” said Hazim as the family passed by a high school and saw girls in low-rise pants and tank tops.

Refugee workers note a stark difference between the Gulf War and this one.

“I was responsible for U.S. refugees during the first Gulf War,” said Ellen Dumesnil, now director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities of Santa Clara. “We were able to process thousands of refugees after that war.”

But the Bush administration has fallen far short of its goal of accepting 7,000 this year. At a Geneva conference in April, the United States pledged to take in as many as 25,000.

Dumesnil said the slowdown is a clause in the Patriot Act that bars immigration to anyone who has offered “material support” to the enemy.

That includes people who have paid ransom to insurgents who have kidnapped their loved ones, she said.

But a spokesman for the State Department said the only bureaucratic bottleneck was the lack of “infrastructure” in Jordan and Syria. With two refugee processing centers now in place, 1,000 refugees should now enter the United States each month, Kurtis Cooper said in a telephone interview earlier this month.

“We consider those issues to have been addressed,” he said.

“It’s mystifying,” said Newland. The long processing times occur “partly because they are Iraqis and the U.S. is conducting a war in Iraq,” she said. “But it’s also because — the government doesn’t want to concede the vast majority will not be able to go back.”

Canada will take 5,000 and Australia will take 1,000. Sweden has accepted 6,000 and Denmark several hundred, Dumesnil said.

Priority in this country is given to those who face immediate danger, those who have worked with the Americans and those with family here, she said. The United States has accepted only refugees who have made their way out of Iraq.

Once they are resettled here, refugees can become citizens in five years.

Life is not without its sweet moments. Hazim turned 48 here, and his sister-in-law took the family to Ocean Beach. He had never seen a beach before.

“We went to Ocean Beach and he ran up and down,” Salim said.

And Karim made the rounds of San Francisco galleries, where he touched a Miro and a Picasso.

“I am very eager to achieve a lot of things,” said Karim, carefully folding newspaper reviews of his artwork into a binder. “I feel I can really do something in the U.S.”


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