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Iraqi Refugees Discover Security Comes at a Price

November 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Nearly 32,000 Iraqi refugees have come to the United States over the past three years to escape violence and political uncertainty. But as Jeffrey Kaye reports, more refugees are learning that personal safety often comes at the cost of economic security.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: the growing numbers of Iraqi refugees arriving in the United States. Special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye reports from California.

JEFFREY KAYE: For Hanan Tamimi, the simple joy of baking pastries with her daughter and then with her husband, Amir, sharing them with neighbors in El Cajon, California, seems a world apart from the life the couple knew in Baghdad. Amir was a journalist and a public affairs officer with the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. Because of his association with the U.S. government, he faced threats, then violence.

AMIR TAMIMI, Iraqi refugee: They hit me with a big sword. It cut my abdomen from up to down. And the same week when I was lying in the hospital, my son, also, they stop him and they try to kidnap him on the way from Baghdad to Fallujah.

JEFFREY KAYE: The family fled to Egypt, where they lived for three years, waiting to come to the U.S. The Tamimis have lived here in El Cajon, where they have relatives, for nine months. They are among nearly 32,000 Iraqi refugees to have arrived in the U.S., mostly in California and Michigan, over the past three years. The influx compares to only hundreds who were allowed to come in the three previous years.

More Iraqis have come to El Cajon, near San Diego, than any other city. With signs in Arabic and familiar products on store shelves, Main Street offers a taste of home.

Unlike the Tamimis, who are Muslims, most of the new arrivals are Chaldean Catholics, an Iraqi minority that faces persecution in their home country. And while they now feel safe in the United States, some fear that, if their faces are shown on TV, relatives back home may face reprisals. IRAQI REFUGEE: You cannot live as a Christian there. It’s difficult. We have always to be worried, to be careful.

JEFFREY KAYE: Like other refugees, Rita and Juasim — they gave just their first names — are thankful to have found sanctuary, even if economic security appears elusive.

IRAQI REFUGEE: You know, living here is expensive. And, especially, we don’t have a job. So, all the time, being — it’s a little bit hard or difficult.

Fewer resources for refugees

JEFFREY KAYE: That's a common story among new arrivals. Government-funded resettlement agencies on contract with the U.S. State Department are finding themselves overwhelmed by the large numbers of refugees. The government provides medical care and cash assistance for the first eight months. Afterwards, refugees can apply for welfare. But the support is falling short of the need.

MICHAEL MCKAY, department director for refugee and immigrant services, Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego: Right. She can take the...

WOMAN: Without the green card.

JEFFREY KAYE: Michael McKay, head of the Catholic Charities office in San Diego, says, in this economy, entry-level jobs that in the past were available for refugees don't exist. Housing costs are high. And families are crowding into shared apartments.

MICHAEL MCKAY: They end up relying on their own family members. And, largely, because the Chaldean community is strong and because they have come together and planned this, they're assisting very much in working with the resettlement agencies. And that is why I have yet to hear of any Iraqi who is on the street, who is homeless, although I fear that those who are vulnerable to that could end up that way.

JEFFREY KAYE: Many Iraqi men spend their days hanging out at a club, frustrated at their inability to find nearby work. Ramsey Tafyek owned a liquor store in Baghdad. It was bombed, and he had to leave the country.

IRAQI REFUGEE: No job in America.

JEFFREY KAYE: No job?

IRAQI REFUGEE: No job. No job.

JEFFREY KAYE: Joseph Nehme, a Lebanese immigrant who owns an El Cajon produce store offering a variety of ethnic foods, is someone new Iraqi arrivals often turn to for work. But he's already hired more people than he needs. So, he has to turn away most job-seekers, who return repeatedly to plead for work.

JOSEPH NEHME, store owner: "Please, we are looking for a job. We need help. Just give us one day, two days, just even that." And I feel very sorry sometime. I hire somebody, the one he makes me feel really -- and I tell him, OK, I give you a few hours or something.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Tamimis, who also haven't been able to find jobs, are living on borrowed money.

AMIR TAMIMI: We have been supported by the Catholic Charities eight months. And the -- the budget was cut from us. And I managed to borrow some money from my friends. And when I got a job or work, I will return it back to them.

MAN: There's equal opportunity in education for any person, whether it be women, men, young, or old.

Starting over

JEFFREY KAYE: At seminars held in the church hall, the Tamimis joined other Iraqis learning about American society and how to find work.

MAN: One of the top industries is hospitality.

JEFFREY KAYE: For many refugees, who, like the Tamimis, worked as professionals in Iraq, the transition can be jarring.

MICHAEL MCKAY: Much of the population is quite educated and quite well-connected in Iraq. And they're starting over so to speak, which they're willing to do as well, except they can't find that tread, that -- that pathway yet, partly because of the economy, partly because of cultural differences.

WOMAN: So, she has experience, more experience as a teacher in Iraq for 23 years.

PRIEST: Oh, great. Wow.

WOMAN: My certificate, chemistry.

PRIEST: Chemistry.

WOMAN: So, chemistry, yes.

JEFFREY KAYE: After the session, Hanan Tamimi asks the priest about using her experience to find work. He was reassuring.

PRIEST: Maybe come. We can help you with your resume. At the same time, you improve your English. And I think a job will open for you here.

JEFFREY KAYE: Although many spent years seeking to come to the United States to find refuge, bleak prospects here have led some Iraqis to reconsider their decision. At the men's social club, patrons told me that some Iraqis in El Cajon are dissuading relatives from coming to the U.S. In addition, they say, a handful of Iraqi families have packed up and returned back to the Middle East, not to Iraq, but to Syria and Jordan. They couldn't afford to rent housing, according to Sabal Babrus a carpenter at the club.

When ends don't meet

CARPENTER: They stay, honestly, about two or three months, and they go back.

JEFFREY KAYE: Stay two or three months, and that was it?

CARPENTER: Then they go back, yes, because they -- how long do they stay with -- every Monday, several -- you know? We share, all of us. You know, we give them some coats, some chairs, some merchandise for the home.

JEFFREY KAYE: Yes. It wasn't enough?

CARPENTER: But it wasn't enough.

JEFFREY KAYE: Seventeen-year-old Shahad Tamimi, a high school senior, worries, her parents will make the same decision.

IRAQI REFUGEE: I'm scared because I don't want to go back.

JEFFREY KAYE: You're -- you're afraid that you may have to go back...

IRAQI REFUGEE: Mm-hmm.

JEFFREY KAYE: ... to Egypt or somewhere?

IRAQI REFUGEE: To Iraq.

JEFFREY KAYE: To Iraq?

IRAQI REFUGEE: Because I -- I can't live in Egypt anymore.

JEFFREY KAYE: Why not?

IRAQI REFUGEE: Because we don't have job there.

JEFFREY KAYE: There's no job there?

IRAQI REFUGEE: Yes.

JEFFREY KAYE: Is that a possibility, Amir, going back to Iraq?

AMIR TAMIMI: It's actually just like we were dreaming about the American dream, to come here. The life here, it's hard without -- without money.

JEFFREY KAYE: Are you seriously thinking about going back?

AMIR TAMIMI: Well, if -- there isn't any choice or an option, if I couldn't find a job here.

JEFFREY KAYE: At the State Department, the main government agency responsible for refugees, officials say the administration plans to provide more assistance. Eric Schwartz heads the Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration.

ERIC SCHWARTZ: We will indeed, next year, in 2010, we will increase the amount of money we provide for initial resettlement, for reception and placement. We're working on just how much more we can provide. But I'm committed to finding funds to do that, even in very difficult circumstances.

JEFFREY KAYE: In El Cajon, the Tamimis greeted new neighbors, recent arrivals from Iraq, for, despite all the difficulties, they keep coming. At the airport in San Diego and elsewhere, there's a steady stream of Iraqis reuniting with family members in America. Government officials say they are hopeful that, as time passes, most will settle in, as so many refugees have in the past.