Before U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, Saad Hamid was a prosperous Baghdad businessman. He and his family lived in a comfortable house, with a nice garden and a thriving furniture business — that is, until he refused to stop selling goods to the U.S. military and Al Qaeda militants firebombed his store.
Hamid barely escaped with his life. The assassins followed him home, but he jumped a fence into his neighbors’ yard and escaped. His eldest son, Farqad, wasn’t as lucky. The militants captured him, put a Kalashnikov rifle to his belly and shot him at point-blank range. The 16-year-old survived the attack — the bullet passed through his body — but he still suffers pain from his injuries. When Farqad’s 9-year-old brother, Ali, started crying, the militants broke his teeth with the butt of a rifle.
Hamid fled 70 miles north to the city of Samara, where he hid out for several months. Then, on November 27, 2005, he left Iraq for good. Within weeks, he sent for his family from neighboring Syria, where they joined the estimated 1.4 million other Iraqis living there in exile.
In all, Hamid and his family left behind more than a half-million dollars in property and real estate. But those losses don’t compare with the devastating personal toll on his family: More than 10 of Hamid’s relatives were killed in the sectarian violence. They include his 25-year-old nephew, whose execution-style murder — a bullet to his head and two in the back — was videotaped and sold on the streets of his neighborhood as a warning to others not to cooperate with the Americans.
After he’d waited more than a year, Hamid’s application to relocate his family to the United States was approved. In July, just days before their departure, the family was told that a field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants would set them up in a small city in northwestern Vermont. The family had never heard of Burlington.
Standing recently in GlobalMartVT.com, a small ethnic market in the Old North End, Hamid, 49, already looks like a Vermonter. Dressed in a Carhartt coat and wool cap, he’s tall and muscular, with a thick mustache and dark, penetrating eyes. And, though he speaks almost no English, his animated hand gestures convey the deep emotions behind his quick bursts of Arabic.
But on the day we meet, Hamid isn’t venting about the militants who tortured and killed his relatives, or the U.S. occupation of his homeland, which he describes only as “incorrect.” Instead, his frustration and anger are directed at, as he puts it, “the refugee center,” which he claims promised him and his family good housing, a decent job and financial support until they got on their feet again. Like the other three Iraqis hanging out at the market that day, Hamid says he feels abandoned and betrayed.
“Ever since we got here, we didn’t get any of what we were promised,” Hamid says through an interpreter. “The means provided to us are not enough.”
This is the face of the other Iraq surge — the small but growing population of Iraqi refugees who now call Vermont home. In the last year, about 50 Iraqis have been resettled in the Burlington area, and their numbers are growing. After years of delays and complaints from national refugee-assistance groups, the U.S. government finally upped the number of Iraqi nationals allowed into the United States, from a paltry 1600 in fiscal year 2006 to nearly 13,000 this year. And, while the feds have pledged to accept another 17,000 in 2009, those numbers represent a minuscule fraction of the more than 4 million Iraqis believed to be living in exile worldwide, not including the estimated 2.2 million displaced internally in Iraq.
Starting a new life in a foreign land with an alien language is never easy, and each new immigrant group faces its own unique challenges. Still, national refugee advocates say it’s been particularly hard for the Iraqis who’ve resettled in the United States. In part, that’s because their losses are so new and so extreme, and they’ve had very little time to grieve and process. Even compared with other displaced peoples, the Iraqi refugees suffer from unusually high rates of trauma. Many were wounded, were violently interrogated, or saw friends and relatives tortured or killed in front of them.
Not surprisingly, many of these refugees blame the U.S. government for their suffering and expect their lives to be made whole again. As a result, they can harbor unrealistic expectations, often fueled by what they’ve been told before their arrival. Then, once they encounter the harsh realities of refugee life in the United States, their fears and frustrations can turn to anger — particularly after their relatives report how much better things are for them in countries such as Canada, Sweden, Germany and Australia.
It’s a chilly November afternoon as five Iraqi men huddle in the first-floor apartment of Waleed Abdul Kader, his wife, Halah, and their three children: Basmallah, 8, Jomana, 5, and Mustafah, 22 months. It’s a weekday, but most of the men aren’t working, or have just finished seasonal jobs. Since few speak English, I’ve brought along an interpreter from the Arabic School at Middlebury College.
Kader’s two-bedroom apartment on North Street, where he’s been for two months, is roomy but in desperate need of a good cleaning, if not a complete overhaul. The kitchen walls literally drip with layers of grease accumulated over years of cooking. The linoleum floor is grimy and brown; the dingy carpet looks hopelessly uncleanable. The apartment’s few window blinds are caked brown; the other windows are covered with sheets or blankets to keep out the light and cold. According to Kader, the bathroom toilet often overflows.
“The smell, really dirty. And cockroaches,” Kader says in broken English. Then, via the translator, “It would be better living outside than in this house. It’s cleaner out there.”
The paneled walls are bare except for a few hand-drawn Iraqi flags scrawled by a child’s hand on sheets of note paper. One of those flags is tacked above the children’s bed, just below a smoke detector that beeps periodically. When I urge Kader to replace the battery, he says he’s already done so, and it still makes that noise.
As the men crowd onto a stained sofa in Kader’s living room, lit by a lamp without a shade, Halah serves us cocoa. Then the men begin telling their stories in Arabic. Though I don’t speak their language, the pleading in their voices conveys an unmistakable discontent.
Among the more vocal in the group is Areef Areef, a round, husky man with thick hands. He’s been in Vermont just over a year, longer than the others, and speaks a few words of English. Areef was also a successful businessman in Baghdad. His family owned a 10-room house, four cars and two supermarkets.
“One store very big, one store small,” he says in English. “Very famous, like Price Chopper.”
Areef was forced to flee Iraq after his life was threatened — in his case, by Shia militants from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Areef, a Sunni, left Iraq with his wife and two children for Amman, Jordan, in July 2006. After more than a year, they were resettled in a cramped, second-floor apartment in Winooski that cost them $850 a month. Only recently did they move into better quarters.
“It’s good. New house,” Areef says in English. “Before our house this, very bad.”
Areef recounts, in Arabic, how his 4-and-a-half-year-old son tumbled down the stairs of the first apartment; when his wife tried to grab the boy, she fell, too. The house was no good for children, he says. The steps were too small and steep.
Just then, the door opens and eight more men stream into the apartment and exchange greetings in Arabic. Only one is not Iraqi: Ashraf Mohamed is an Egyptian who’s been living in the United States for 12 years. He speaks English well and is studying to be a physical therapist in Burlington.
Mohamed has become the Iraqis’ unofficial guide to life in Vermont. He explains to them how to cash checks at the local supermarkets, brings them to doctors’ appointments, shows them where to catch the CCTA buses, and helps them find halal foods that meet their Muslim dietary needs. Not surprisingly, GlobalMartVT.com, which is owned by an Arabic-speaking Palestinian American, has become their daily hangout.
“In Iraq, these people were all wealthy,” Mohamed explains. “They owned their own homes, their own cars, their own businesses.” Here, he says, they can do very little for themselves and often complain that no one is helping them. Several of the men have pregnant wives and fear they’ll be unable to provide for them.
Mohamed, who has an easier time understanding the Iraqi dialect than does my interpreter, introduces the other men and translates my questions. Salah Ali, 38, came to Burlington seven months ago. He’s from a family of barbers in Mosul and worked in the trade for nearly 25 years.
“I took him to one place downtown to test [his skills], and the guy couldn’t believe how well he was doing,” Mohamed recalls. Ali shaved Mohamed’s face with a straight razor; the shave lasted him more than a week. Still, Ali complains he cannot find work.
Haithem has a wife and three children, with a fourth on the way. He arrived eight months ago. He too complains that he can’t find work, and that the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP) won’t support him anymore. He claims he applied for Section 8 housing assistance four months ago but never heard back. Now he’s behind on his rent and is having trouble with his landlord. He fears his whole family will be thrown out on the street.
I ask Areef what’s been the hardest part of adjustment to life in Vermont. The lack of work? The weather? Learning English? Areef shakes his head.
“Refugee center,” he says in English, referring to the VRRP. Areef claims he never got a check he signed for, and no one ever investigated his complaint.
Why? According to Areef, the Iraqis’ caseworker doesn’t speak Arabic. Several other men nod in agreement. In fact, three men in the room complain that they had to sign documents without anyone to explain to them, in Arabic, what they were signing.
Salim, 24, worked as a bodyguard for the U.S. Army but fled Baghdad when militants threatened his life. He complains that he was “forced” by the VRRP to share a three-room house with another family. According to Salim, six people share one bathroom. “We’re treated like ordinary refugees,” he says, “instead of Iraqi refugees.”
Make no mistake. The Iraqis aren’t ungrateful for the assistance they’ve received. To a person, they all emphasize that Vermonters have been very nice, helpful and generous. But, as Mohamed says, summing up the sentiments of many of the men in the room, “It’s not the Americans they dislike. It’s the system.”
Judy Scott, director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, understands and sympathizes with the Iraqis’ frustrations. When asked if their feelings are typical of new arrivals, she recounts a recent experience that’s stuck with her.
In May, the VRRP learned that a Burmese family of seven was due to arrive soon and needed a place to live. Since the Colchester nonprofit group often gets no more than a week or two of advance notice of a new arrival, Scott scrambled to find housing. A landlord in Winooski was reluctant to let seven people rent his three-bedroom apartment, but finally agreed.
When the apartment was furnished — exclusively from donated items, since the VRRP has no money for home furnishings — the family was given a tour of their new home. Scott admits the bedrooms were pretty tight, but says the living room and kitchen were larger.
“I stood in the apartment and asked [the family] if they had any questions about it,” she recalls. “The dad had a question for me that was interpreted to us, which was, ‘Which part of this is for us?’” Scott says it took her a moment to realize what he was saying. He assumed other families would live there, too.
“In many different circumstances, as I move through my life, those words echo back to me,” Scott says. “‘What part of this is for us?’”
Scott isn’t suggesting that the Iraqis are ungrateful. The VRRP’s mission is to serve refugees who’ve been here for up to five years, with its “intensive focus” on those who’ve spent less than a year in Vermont. But the nonprofit, with a paid staff of only 19 people, has seen its caseload double in the past year from 150 new refugees in 2007 to 300.
This year, the VRRP began resettling three new groups in the Burlington area. The largest, the Bhutanese, number about 150; the Burmese, about 100. The 50 Iraqis compose the smallest group.
The Iraqis have legitimate reasons for voicing more dissatisfaction than do other refugees. As Scott explains, their circumstances differ markedly from, say, those of the Bhutanese and Burmese, most of whom lived in refugee camps for a long time, sometimes 15 years or more. The younger adults have known no life outside.
“For them, this is a very long-awaited opportunity to get their lives under control again, to be able to work and support their families,” Scott says. “It’s their dream.”
The Iraqis, however, were torn from their homeland just recently. They’ve experienced a sudden loss not only of wealth and social status, but of identity.
“To a refugee [from Iraq], it seems as though this has to be a brief aberration, and surely if you’re going to the richest country in the world, you’ll immediately be able to return to some semblance of your former life,” Scott says. “The adjustments that have to be made are particularly tough if you’re still grieving for everything you’ve lost.”
The VRRP’s goal, she continues, is “early self-sufficiency.” This means that all refugees, regardless of their nation of origin, get the same opportunities and must meet the same obligations. First and foremost, those requirements include learning English and getting a job, often doing work they’re overqualified for. For many, that comes as a real shock.
“Somebody who was a doctor in their home country isn’t going to arrive and be able to practice medicine here,” Scott says. “In fact, the most important thing is getting a first job and developing a work history.”
Since the VRRP is largely federally funded, it has limited resources and cannot offer indefinite support to its clients. And, because the Iraqis are the smallest of the new immigrant communities in Vermont, the VRRP doesn’t yet have the funds to hire an Arabic-speaking caseworker.
That said, the VRRP runs an interpretation service with more than 60 interpreters who speak 29 languages, including six paid Arabic-language speakers. And, contrary to the Iraqis’ claims, Scott maintains that refugees are not allowed to sign documents without an interpreter present. “We counsel clients not to sign anything unless they understand it,” she adds.
Still, Scott readily acknowledges that some of the Iraqis may have been woefully misinformed before they arrived here. A possible source of that confusion could be the orientation classes that refugees take before their journey — classes that, Scott has discovered, don’t always paint an accurate portrait of refugee life in America. And evidence from elsewhere suggests that a sense of disillusionment is felt not just in Vermont, but among Iraqis who’ve resettled elsewhere in the United States.
Kathleen Newland is director of the refugee policy program at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C. Newland also serves on the Commission on Iraqi Refugees on behalf of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the world’s largest refugee resettlement agencies.
Newland says the complaints from Burlington’s Iraqi community are not markedly different from what she’s heard elsewhere in the country. By talking to refugees and advocates, both here and abroad, she’s learned that the orientation programs Iraqi refugees receive overseas can vary widely. Some still promote a “streets-are-paved-with-gold mentality” about life in America.
Moreover, once the refugees arrive and fan out across the United States, the social services for which they’re eligible can differ markedly from state to state and from program to program. For example, refugees in Vermont may have heard from relatives in Michigan or California that they’re getting public assistance not available here. As Newland puts it, “It’s a very confusing picture, and it’s hard for people to understand that.”
The confusion doesn’t just derive from the language barrier. “R.” is a well-educated Iraqi woman now living in the Burlington area. (She asked not to be identified because she fears retaliation against her or her family.)
R., who speaks English, French and Arabic, is a college graduate who spent six years as a computer programmer in Baghdad, where she and her family lived very well. They had cars, chauffeurs and a spacious house. But when dead bodies began showing up in her yard and threats were made on their lives, the family fled to neighboring Jordan for several years.
Unlike other Iraqi refugees in Burlington, R. says she got a fairly accurate description of how life would be in Vermont. Still, her first house was, in her words, “disgusting.”
“If you see the furniture they gave us, ugh!” she says. “It was so dirty!”
R., who has extensive computer skills and experience — she says she worked on “artificial intelligence programs” in Iraq — shares many of the frustrations voiced by the other Iraqis about the VRRP’s inability to find her a job. And she claims her caseworker never returns her calls.
“I don’t know why,” R. adds. “No procedure, just talk, talk, problems, problems . . . I don’t need that.”
Again, Scott empathizes with such concerns and says her job counselors do whatever they can to find clients employment. Still, in a troubled economy, refugees are competing for jobs not just with one another but with all Vermonters.
“When I started out as a volunteer, I thought that when a refugee arrives here, their struggles were over,” Scott says. “What I learned, to my dismay, was that the only change is that a whole new set of struggles begins.”
Newland at MPI is equally sympathetic. No one in the refugee-policy community believes the Iraqis are acting selfish or are overly demanding, she says. In fact, refugee-policy advocates have a strong feeling of moral obligation to assist the Iraqis, especially since the United States unleashed so many of their current miseries. Still, wherever you go in this country, refugee resources are limited.
“The [refugee] agencies aren’t really set up to deal with populations that regard a cellphone or a laptop as a basic human right,” Newland notes. “But that’s what this population is used to. So it requires some nimbleness to respond to those needs without appearing to discriminate against other groups.”
Even R.’s friends, many of whom were doctors, lawyers and dentists in Baghdad and now live in Boston, Michigan and California, report that jobs are few and far between.
“They are so depressed!” she says. “They say that if they had money for a plane ticket, they’d return to any Middle East [nation].
“It’s so difficult here,” she says with a sigh. “Like a newborn. Everything new.”