Refugees Hit Hard Times

This piece first aired in June, 2009, as part of the show, “Best of Spring ’09.” A previous version of this report aired in April, 2009, in the show “Another Man’s Paradise.”

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    HANSI LO WANG: A recent Human Rights First report estimates that approximately 146,000 Iraqis have worked with US forces or other Americans since the war began. These US-affiliated Iraqis, along with other targeted populations, are eligible to come to the US as refugees through the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act. But since the war began, only 4,200 have actually arrived on American shores.

    JESS ENGEBRETSON: For those who do make it, adjusting to life in America can be a long a difficult process. Most support programs for refugees only last for the first few months. And like many American families, Iraqis in the US have been hit hard by the current economic crisis. Some are beginning to question whether leaving Iraq was the right choice. My co-host Hansi Lo Wang prepared this report with Abdulla Mizead and Emily Hager.

    HANSI LO WANG: John Muftah worked for the US military as a translator in Iraq for three years. Things changed in 2007. That’s when Muftah’s father was shot and killed in Baghdad. Muftah decided to flee with his mother and two older brothers. Since then, they’ve been living in Syria. But they’re unable to work there. So they survive – in part – on money sent by Muftah’s three sisters. They live in Sweden and the US. But Muftah’s situation could soon change. He recently completed the last step in the application process to come to the United States. He’s hopeful that within two months, he’ll be on his way to join his sister and her husband in New York. Muftah says his brothers are excited too.

    JOHN MUFTAH: They are looking forward to this, and they cannot wait to get out of here. Dude, when they see New York on TV, they go crazy! When they see like Manhattan or Times Square, they go like, “When we gonna go? We want to go now!”

    HANSI LO WANG: Muftah says he knows the US economy is hurting. But he’s not worried about finding a job. He plans to stay with his sister in New York – in what she calls the “heart of America.” And he says the International Organization for Migration – based in Geneva – has promised to help him out for several months.

    JOHN MUFTAH: For me, it’s gonna be pretty easy because I speak English. That’s no problem. But I’m not gonna be interpreter anymore in the States. I want to study and I want to go to medical school. So I gotta get a job, right? And my sister said that New York City is, you know, city never sleeps. So there are many, many opportunities to work in there.

    HANSI LO WANG: Muftah’s sister, Maha Masoob, is also hopeful. She says it can’t be worse for her family in New York than it’s been for them in Syria. Food and housing are expensive there and Iraqi refugees can’t work legally. Masoob arrived in New York in 2003. She says adjusting to life in America hasn’t always been easy, but she would not go back to the violence of Iraq.

    MAHA MASOOB: That’s why I tell you I love America, because you found the peace over here. And you see, not only me like America. A lot of people, why they come to America? Because they found the peace over here. So when I spoke with my family about America, they say, “Tell me, tell me about America. How is it?” I say, “Nothing like America!” This is one sentence, a short sentence, but a lot of meaning inside!

    HANSI LO WANG: If John Muftah, his mother and brothers make it to the US, there will be a support network here waiting for them. But most Iraqi refugees aren’t so lucky. Sajad Mohammad worked in Iraq for an American news organization. And he was granted entry to come to the US under a program that’s meant to help Iraqis in danger because they worked for US companies. Mohammad, his wife and their two young sons arrived here in January 2009. And they were placed in Iowa, far away from anyone they knew.

    SAJAD MOHAMMAD: (voice over) The people in the embassy did give us a brief description of the conditions in the U.S. But I think we came in a very bad time. We came in a very wrong time. The U.S. economy is falling apart, and I think the people in charge of this program should stop it during hard times. As you know, here in America, it’s very hard if you don’t have a job.

    HANSI LO WANG: Mohammad says he couldn’t find a job, and didn’t know what to do.

    SAJAD MOHAMMAD: (voice over) After that we began feeling homesick. We became depressed. We stayed at home, feeling choked and cornered. Going out was hard, coming home was hard. My little boy was sick for 3 to 4 days because of the cold. I was waiting for him at the bus stop. It was February, and I started crying. I tried to cover him from the snow, and it was freezing. I faced many problems, but thank God, we are now standing face to face with the conditions we are living in. One has to adapt to his surroundings.

    HANSI LO WANG: Mohammad says he was so frustrated, he bought tickets to go back to Iraq. But the day before he was supposed to leave, the U.S. Postal Service called with a job offer. For now, he’s decided to stay in Iowa. If he did go back to Iraq, he says he’d be in danger… because people know he worked for the Americans.

    SAJAD MOHAMMAD: (voice over) I have no more ambitions for myself. It’s true that I am only 26 years old and still young, and the road is still open for me. But my only concern now is to look after my children. I want to work and struggle for their sake, so that I can secure their future. But for me, I have put a stop on all my ambitions.

    HANSI LO WANG: Soon, Mohammad will have to struggle like never before. The US refugee program provided financial support for Mohammad and his family for four months. But those payments have already ended. And now it’s Mohammad’s responsibility to secure his family’s future here in this country.

    With Emily Hager and Abdulla Mizead, I’m Hansi Lo Wang, for War News Radio.

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