Iraqi Refugees Find A Complicated New Home In Mass.

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On April 9, 2003, TV stations played non-stop footage of an iconic image from the Iraq War: the moment when the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square was toppled. For many Iraqis, that day was only the beginning — a symbolic start to the post-Saddam era of violence and civil war.

Since that day 10 years ago, tens of thousands of Iraqis have fled to the United States as refugees. Many have come to Greater Boston. In fact, in the last five years, more refugees have arrived in Massachusetts from Iraq than any other country.

The year the war started, there was one documented Iraqi refugee in the entire state. Now, there are close to 2,700. Essentially, 1 out of every 4 recent refugees in the state is an Iraqi, according to Massachusetts' Office for Refugees & Immigrants. Most of them arrived after 2008.

Anas al-Hamdani moves clean dishes into the dining hall at MIT's Simmons Hall. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Anas al-Hamdani moves clean dishes into the dining hall at MIT's Simmons Hall. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

New Challenges

Take Anas al-Hamdani. His life in America hasn’t been easy. But he's safe, and he says that counts for a lot when you know how it feels to be kidnapped, beaten up by insurgents, and stuffed into a trunk.

Shortly after he landed in Massachusetts, al-Hamdani found a job washing dishes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. But he lives in Lynn.

“Every morning, I wake up 5 in the morning, and bus, bus, two buses, and two trains,” he says, explaining his daily commute.

As al-Hamdani goes into a back room at MIT to grab some milk, he starts speaking in a stream of consciousness. He says he needs to go to school, change his life and try to become more than “just a dishwasher.”

Refugees Aiding Refugees

That's where Iman Shati, an Iraqi refugee herself, can help. Life used to be grand for Shati — a three-car garage, a garden, a spacious house in Baghdad. Then the bombs started falling.

Five years later, she moved to Massachusetts with her family. Her son, who was an engineer in Iraq, took a kitchen job to pay the rent. She quickly realized he was not an anomaly. Many Iraqi refugees are highly educated — doctors, lawyers, engineers.

“For the community, when they came here, there was a lot of problems,” Shati says. “They struggle to find work. The money is not enough to pay the rent, to pay the utilities.”

An ESL class reads English phrases at the Iraqi and Arab Community Association In Lynn. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
An ESL class reads English phrases at the Iraqi and Arab Community Association In Lynn. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

So Shati created the Iraqi and Arab Community Association in Lynn. The city has become a local hub for Iraqi refugees.

Shati says she understands her people better than a typical social worker.

“I know the needs of the Iraqi people,” she says. “And I know what they feel. Most of them, they call me mom, and they call me aunt.”

At Shati's center, refugees find job training, health care advice and, most importantly, English language classes.

One of the ESL students is Muna Al-Hamood. She arrived in Massachusetts three months ago, after militants killed her son.

“I lost one of my sons,” she says in Arabic through tears. “I cannot imagine losing the rest of my children.”

Al-Hamood was a clothing designer in Iraq; now, she's on the verge of homelessness. When I ask her for an interview, she looks at me skeptically, and asks, "What I am going to get out of this? Is my husband going to get a job?"

Her husband has not been able to find work since they’ve arrived. They can barely make ends meet. “I'm ready for my husband to work any kind of job just so that we don’t have to go to the shelter,” she says.

That fear of going to a homeless shelter is something new, according to resettlement agencies.

Trying To Make A Home In America

Resettlement agencies help new immigrants from Day 1 — picking them up from the airport, showing them how to use the T, and vamping up their resumes.

One of the largest agencies is the International Institute of New England in Boston’s Financial District. The organization’s CEO and president, Carolyn Benedict-Drew, says part of the problem is that after the first month, refugees generally don't receive rental help. The government gives them a monthly cash allowance — $428. (That amount goes up to $531 for a couple.)

“It is simply not enough,” Benedict-Drew says. “It's never been enough, and it probably will never be enough. So, that is really a tremendous dilemma. And you almost feel like you're setting people up for poverty. It is poverty. It's a poverty level.”

Benedict-Drew says that first year in America is particularly rough for refugees because it's tough to find a job, and there's so little money in the pipeline.

“You know, it brings tears to your eyes because it's wrong,” she says. “It's totally, totally, unequivocally wrong. However, going forward, I know we will be better off. We, as the United States, will be better off for the Iraqis being a part of our community.”

And, because of the war, Benedict-Drew says, Americans have a moral duty to ensure Iraqi refugees not only survive but also thrive in the U.S.

As for the Iraqis, every Iraqi I spoke with for this story told me they miss Iraq; they wish they could go home, but they can't. They're grateful to have found a new home in America where at least they feel safe, even if they have less cash in their wallets.

This program aired on April 9, 2013.

Asma Khalid Reporter
Asma Khalid formerly led WBUR's BostonomiX, a biz/tech team covering the innovation economy.



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