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June 2nd, 2009
Iraq Refugees in the United States Struggle to Work Amid Economic Crisis
Iraq refugee, Kamil Silewa.<br /> (Photo by Sandy Huffaker, LA Weekly)

Iraq refugee, Kamil Silewa.
(Photo by Sandy Huffaker, LA Weekly)

The economic crisis and almost 9 percent unemployment rate in the United States has made it difficult for Iraqi refugees – one of the fastest growing refugee populations in the world – to settle here, as Hanna Ingber Win documents in her LA Weekly story, Between Iraq and a Hard Place:

It’s been 10 months since I first met [Kamil] Silewa, and he has now been living in El Cajon for about a year. But he is no closer to having a steady job and cannot survive without help from others. He worked as role player for the U.S. Army for a few days in the beginning of 2009. That job, which paid him about $200 a day, helped him to pay his share of the rent. But the job ended, and he has found nothing to replace it. He has filled out applications with companies in person and online, but he has not heard back from anyone.
“I want to work,” he says. “I need to work. I need the job. But nobody calls me. What can I do?”

For a while, it seemed violence in Iraq was subsiding and the estimated 2 million Iraqis who have fled their country would be able to return home. As recently as May, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees revised its refugee guidelines to stop recommending automatic refugee status for Iraqis abroad. But on Tuesday the commissioner said many Iraqis had been forced to return home before it was safe, and he urged the international community to maintain its support.

“While overall security conditions have improved, they are not yet sustainable enough to have encouraged massive returns of Iraqis,” said agency spokesperson Ron Redmond.

The United States used to settle Iraqis in states like Michigan, which is home to the nation’s largest Arab and Muslim communities. But with the 13 percent unemployment rate in that state, and hundreds of layoffs announced there almost monthly, Iraqis are being redirected to other areas with similar communities like El Cajon on the outskirts of San Diego, and to cities like Houston, Texas – where the unemployment level in April was 6.3 percent.

“We can track how long it takes people to find jobs,” said Aaron Tate, Director of Refugee Services at Interfaith Ministries in Houston. “It was taking people an extra month for a while, but now we’re back to three months, which we feel good about considering that they they have no work experience in the United States.”

Interfaith Ministries serves refugees with varying levels of education, but most of them find entry level work doing manufacturing or stocking warehouses. “We’ve always advised our clients that this is a nation of immigrants, but it is also a nation of immigrants who started off in entry level jobs,” said Tate. “The U.S. Refugee Program is not a jobs program. Its purpose is for people to live in a place where they have physical protection and rights – including the right to work.”

Iraqi refugee, Kamil Silewa, says more people like him arrive everyday in El Cajon to move in with relatives or friends. Many have to borrow money as they struggle to find jobs, and he says sometimes he wishes he had never come. But it is too dangerous in Iraq to return home.

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