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Refugees who resettle in the U.S. from war zones like Iraq face hurdles doing basic things that most of us take for granted. From finding a job to setting up cable TV service, navigating daily life can often seem overwhelming for violence-scarred new arrivals. We look at the challenges refugees face in the U.S., what services are available to them, and how local organizations are helping.
- Naseer Nouri Co-founder, Refugee Roadmap, Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project
- Bob Carey Vice President of Resettlement and Migration Policy, International Rescue Committee
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, everything you need to know about Internet gambling coming to a neighborhood near you in Washington D.C., but first, when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, analysts predicted that Iraqis would flee their homeland in droves. At first, the flow of refugees was just a trickle, but now, the U.S. takes in around 18,000 Iraqis a year, making it the biggest refugee program we have. Instead of being greeted by a land of opportunity, however, the reality of resettling here has been much harder. Iraq's highly educated but violent scarred people have faced the same tough economic climate all Americans have.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJobs are scarce, housing expensive, and a patchwork of benefits and support programs offer some assistance. From setting up cable TV service to finding good schools and even stores with halal meat, new arrivals must navigate a maze of challenges most of us take for granted, but a growing network of local and national programs is stepping up to lend a helping hand. This today is a follow-up to the show we did on Monday, which explored the challenges U.S.-affiliated Iraqis face in resettling to the United States. Joining us on this discussion about challenges for already resettled refuges is Naseer Nouri. He is the founder of Refugee Roadmap, which is a program of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project in New York. Naseer Nouri joins us in our Washington studio. Thank you for joining us.
MR. NASEER NOURIThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJoining us from NPR studios in Bryant Park is Bob Carey, president of Resettlement and Migration Policy for the International Rescue Committee. Bob Carey, thank you for joining us.
MR. BOB CAREYThank you for having me.
NNAMDINaseer, I'll start with you. The headline on your website, refugeeroadmap.org, says the site is, quoting here, a guide to America for Iraqi refugees. Can you tell us a little of your story as a refugee and why you started the site?
NOURIYeah. I worked as a -- I worked in Baghdad in Iraq before as a pilot and aircraft engineer for 30 years at Iraqi Airways. I graduated from United States in the '70s. But after the war that started in 2003, Iraqi Airways closed, and I got -- you know, there was no airport or no Iraqi Airways, so I started working with The Washington Post as a translator and then as a special correspondent from 2003 to 2008. Me and my family were targeted by militant and militias because my name was always, like, on the front page, so they accused me of being a traitor because I work with American organizations.
NOURIYou know, some say that you're a spy, an agent, so they start -- I received a lot of threatens against my family, myself, so The Washington Post helped me moved my family to Jordan, and they applied for resettlement in the U.S. And I arrived to the U.S. in 2008, and now, I work for US Airways at Reagan National Airport.
NNAMDIHow does the Refugee Roadmap work? If I am newly arrived in the United States and I've got a question about life here, do I just submit my question online and you answer it?
NOURIYes. The way we are doing -- in fact, the idea started when I came around here, it was so difficult. I was doing a lot of mistakes, and I was always helped by people over here. You know, I had the back of The Washington Post reporters in Iraq in the Red Zone among the people. When they worked there, I was translating and accept...
NNAMDIYou worked with Anthony Shadid, Rajiv Chandrasekaran and others.
NOURIYeah. And I worked with a lot of those reporters who are Pulitzer holders like Anthony Shadid who recently was kidnapped in Libya.
NOURISo I had their back. And when I came here, they had my back, really. They helped me in everything, so the idea came of establishing this organization, the Refugee Roadmap, it's really based on this idea. We thought that every refugee, they need someone to have their back. So this website, everyone can put his question, and we answer those questions by relating them to links, or that, we don't give like legal advisers -- advices, but we connect them with -- show them like how to apply like, for example, if someone asks how can I apply for a green card or how can I apply for a driver license. You know, we connect them to the link that goes to there. And people can also put their comments on our answers, so the website later on, it will be like full with answers and comments, and it would be a very good archive for refugees in the future.
NNAMDII saw a sampling of some of the questions on your website, and the first one that got my attention was, could you suggest a website where I can I find a contractor to make a repair on my house? That would make the average Iraqi refugee an American, because every American is looking for a contractor...
NNAMDI...where he can find somebody to do some repair work on our homes. So that would be the official stamp of arrival.
NNAMDIBob Carey, can you give us a broader picture of what Iraqi refugees have been facing since they started coming to the U.S. in -- around 2007?
CAREYYeah. I'd be happy to. You know, the Iraqis really, you know, not only were they traumatized and had a very difficult time before they arrived here, and it was a slow process to start, but when they began to arrive and the initial arrivals in 2009-2010 reached a crescendo just as the economy was going into a nosedive. So it was, if you will, kind of the perfect storm of bad circumstances. The U.S. resettlement program is premised on refugees going to work within three months, and the assistance over the years had been cut back from 36 to 18, now to eight months, but also -- but that's for state programs, but private support really is 30 to 90 days. And, you know, when the economy went into a decline, the types of jobs that refugees and Iraqi refugees would be getting were the first to go.
CAREYSo Iraqis arrived here not only with many significant health conditions, many war-related injuries or trauma, many people had been tortured, had significant health problems, but also when jobs for Iraqis and for refugees, in general, were disappearing. So it was a very difficult situation. It continues to be difficult. It's improved a bit, but certainly, the resources that the International Rescue Committee and other agencies like ours provide were not sufficient to meet the needs of the refugees, and so it was a real struggle, and it continues to be.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, that's Bob Carey, president of Resettlement and Migration Policy for the International Rescue Committee. He joins us from NPR studios in New York. Joining us in our Washington studio is Naseer Nouri, founder of Refugee Roadmap, a program of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project in New York. You can call us, 800-433-8850. Are you a refugee who has resettled in this area? Tell us about your experience. 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Bob Carey, what are the backgrounds of these Iraqi refugees? Are they U.S.-affiliated Iraqis like Naseer was or...
CAREYYou know what...
CAREYBoth. But, you know, Naseer's experience is all too common. Many of the refugees who we have been assisting and who I've seen when I've been in the Middle East have been at risk because of their U.S. affiliation, either they worked as translators or in some related capacity for the U.S. or the coalition forces. And that's the basis for the death threats they've been receiving or their family members and of people who've been kidnapped or killed or tortured, so it's many war widows who've lost their husbands in assassinations or kidnappings, torture. So it's -- but a highly educated population overall, many college educated, many professionals, many people who worked as doctors, lawyers, academics, so really the intellectual capital of a country.
CAREYBut within that, there are also religious minorities, Christians, Zoroastrians, who've been targeted because of their religious beliefs or because they are believed to be affiliated with Western ideas. So it really -- and then you have people who are vulnerable for multiple reasons, Christians who are -- female Christians who've worked for coalition forces, for instance. So many people have been persecuted or if -- reason to fear persecution on more than one ground.
NNAMDIWe're mainly talking about Iraqis since the Iraqi resettlement program is the largest in the U.S., but these conditions that we're discussing apply to all refugees coming to this country. Bob, what kinds of benefits do incoming refugees receive when they arrive here?
CAREYWell, it's -- unfortunately, it's not a very coherent system. It's a patchwork that's largely dependent on which state a refugee goes to. There's an initial -- a 90-day service program that's funded by the Department of State, at least in part funded, and that provides for basic support through voluntary resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee. We help refugees to find initial housing, pay the first month's rent and deposit, provide a basic orientation, get children registered for school, try to address health needs. It's a pretty broad range, and obviously not something that can generally be accomplished in one to three months. The resettlement needs extend far beyond that.
CAREYAfter that, there's kind of a patchwork of programs that vary state to state under which refugees may be eligible for some level of support for up to eight months, but it -- as one Iraqi refugee told me, it's a little bit like a lottery, depending on which state you go to and which programs or services or types of support they provide. So it's -- the program is really overdue for reform, and I know there's been an effort underway by the Obama administration to examine the program and look at how it might be changed because it really hasn't been modified in 30 years. And obviously, the populations we're seeing now, Iraqis and others, come with very different needs than those who were coming 30 years ago, and they're entering a different environment in the U.S.
NNAMDIAgain you can call us at 800-433-8850. Should the U.S. provide more longer-term aid to refugees? Do you feel the U.S. has an obligation to refugees from warzones like Iraq and Afghanistan, and if so, what? 800-433-8850. Here is Homan (sp?) in Washington D.C. Homan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. HOMAN RAJIVHello, Sir. My name is Homan Rajiv (sp?). I work for the Iraq Foundation in Washington D.C. Before I was working for the United States Institute of Peace as a project manager for one of their very big programs on the – a computer simulation that talks about an e-government. So the reason I resettled here is because -- the same what the Iraqi fellow was experiencing, is threatened and unable to perform work while -- with a shown ID, I need to be always a low profile to move between the different ministries in Iraq and trying to help Iraqis to have this training. And when I came here, I had a lot of friends from my old organization and some of the fellows that I know from here.
HOMANAnd without their backup, I will not be able to find a job in my area of expertise. A lot of my friends and colleagues, unfortunately they started jobs with different expertise rather than they have. Mainly -- some of them are working in Pizza Hut and McDonald's, and they just lost 30 or 20 years of their experience in a certain field. I echo the -- what the organization is doing, providing backup for Iraqis to come here, allowing them to find a way because I was struggling here.
HOMANWithout the help of my friends, I will never be able to get a driver license or even have an Internet in my house or even do the daily grocery. Everything here is a challenge and different. And there is something I want to transfer through your program.
HOMANBecause -- yesterday, I was listening to the -- to President Obama on his speech. He was talking about the America that he knows. Well, I've been here for three months, and yet I've never seen the real America. Maybe because it's tough, it's a different culture. We came from a community where reputation, there is honor and you are -- you come from a good family and your ethics is good, you've done good to the people. Here, between you and honor, I think it's a bill. The credit would make you legible for home loans, for car loans, for everything, not just your reputation.
NNAMDIA completely different cultural phenomenon...
HOMANCompletely different culture.
HOMANBefore -- I was telling my friend, before, we had nightmares, like people killing us. Now, we have nightmares about bills coming in and the credit go down to 500, and you don't know what to do.
NNAMDICompletely different source of stress but it is a source of stress. Homan, we do have to take a short break. Thank you very much for your call. Were you able to get any assistance from Refugee Roadmap when you got here?
HOMANFrom the Refugee -- actually, when I faced the problem with the resettlement agency, I was referred to the Refugee Roadmap by a friend. So, I look at the different questions and, you know, before I ever noticed that there is a Refugee Roadmap, me and some of my friends, we were look -- we were hoping to do the same, help Iraqis to resettle. And if you can allow me to give you just this last example.
HOMANThe refugees here, it's just like a mother. America is just like another -- a mother who had two kinds of children. One, she delivered him and the other one, she adopted him. We are the adopted children, so we should have equal rights, equal benefits and also equal access to the system. Otherwise -- because, in five years, we will have the same name. We will be American citizens. And there are thousands of Iraqis who are here now. So what kind of community America would like to see the Iraqis would be in the next five years?
NNAMDIHoman, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on daily challenges for resettled refugees, which Homan described so eloquently. But you too can call us, 800-433-8850. Are you a refugee who has resettled in this area? You can share your experience with us also, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the challenges facing resettled refugees in general, and from Iraq in particular, with Naseer Nouri, founder of Refugee Roadmap, which is a program of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project in New York, and Bob Carey, president of resettlement and migration policy for the International Rescue Committee. Bob, is finding employment really your first priority when the International Rescue Committee starts working with refugees?
CAREYIt is, but it's important to remember that for many of the Iraqis who are arriving, there are obstacles that need to be overcome before we can help them find a job. Many are arriving with serious medical conditions, which prevent them from working in the short term. So while the eventual goal is employment, for some, we have to look at them at a longer-term basis. And support while we're doing that is a tough -- and the other concern that we have is many of the Iraqis, as the caller has mentioned, are underemployed.
CAREYYou know, we have people who are, you know, I think it's important to think, these people are assets. They're not a burden. They're bringing with them talents and skills, and it's really a waste of talent and the intellectual and economic powers these people bring with them when you have skilled surgeons, if they're working at all, working in a McDonald's or other fast food, you know, restaurant when, you know, they could be contributing in a much more substantial way, particularly in communities where there are shortages of skilled medical personnel.
CAREYAnd that's true of engineers or, you know, other skilled Iraqis. But there really is nothing to give them those -- the support they need to translate their skills into the American marketplace. The employment services we are able to provide are very, very basic. So we really don't have the staff resources to work one on one with a doctor to get them retrained to work as even a lab technician. So it's a long road. I think, ultimately, these people will succeed and they'll contribute a great deal, but it's gonna take much longer than it would or should because the support that they need is not there to the degree it should be.
NNAMDIFunny you mentioned that. My sister immigrated here as a doctor and eventually first found work as a lab technician before she was able to do her residency here. But, Naseer, the Iraqi population is one of the most highly educated in the Middle East, so it must be very difficult for many Iraqis to accept these lower paying jobs. What do you say to Iraqis who are facing that, people who are professionals who now look at working at Pizza Huts or McDonald's?
NOURIYeah. I agree with you. And many of those questions that we receive in our website, Refugee Roadmap, it's about how we evaluate our degrees. Some of those people are doctors, dentists and engineers. And if they were not famous and celebrities in their countries, they will never be targeted in the first place. This is why they ran away. And they could be very useful to the society here if they will contribute it right. So a lot of those questions is how to get license to work, how to -- how can we evaluate degree, how can we, you know, go to college.
NOURIAnd those questions are not only for themselves, for themselves and therefore, kids and daughters, especially if they are in high school. You know, what's the SAT test, shall we take it, you know, is it good to start with community college or not, you know, questions like that. Those people, if they will find the help that people are here providing, they will be able to find their way.
NNAMDIDo you find some of your countrymen and women who want to go back to Iraq because they don't feel useful here?
NOURII will give you an example. I arrived here from Iraq. At the same time, this fellow -- my fellow, he graduated from the States here. He's also an aircraft engineer. And he arrived here at the same time that I arrived. He was resettled in California and I was resettled in Washington. In Washington, D.C., there was an army of friends from The Washington Post. They were helping me, asking me, you know, like, show me how -- they helped me how to apply for jobs. They had my back ready here. This guy, he didn't have anyone to help.
NOURIAnd after eight months, when -- as Bob said, when the assistance stop, no food stamps, no health insurance, no nothing, no money, he had to return back. He was speaking English and everything. But because he couldn't find the help, he would return back.
NNAMDITo a dangerous situation?
NOURIIn a danger. And when I asked him, he said, I had two choices, either I die by the militias there or I die of hunger here, so I choose to die home. And so he returned back. And now, last time he called me, he's really in terrible condition. People didn't believe -- all the militias up in there didn't believe that he couldn't find a job here, so they told him they recruit you and now you are working for CIA, whatever, you know, over there in Iraq.
NNAMDIThey think he's a spy now?
NOURIAnd he's a spy, and he's hiding. And the problem, he cannot return back. The same guy, another one, he also worked for The Washington Post but he was based in Washington State. He couldn't find somebody to help him. He can only see it for a mistake. He's gonna receive his employment permission card. After eight months, he returned back. And he is hiding now in Iraq. He lost his job and everything. So if they don't receive the help, this is what they gonna get.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Serge in Washington, D.C. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SERGEHello. It is -- most of my statements have already been answered by now. I just wanted to point out some -- how hard this is for professionals from almost any other country that is not America to get -- actually, I was gonna say certified. The trouble is, we have no international certification system for things such as doctors and scientists and things like that put in place. So any foreigner is instantly at a disadvantage when coming to this country if they possess any sort of degree, certifications, skill sets, because there is absolutely no system in place for anybody, not just Iraqis, just pretty much everyone.
NNAMDIThank you so much for your call. Bob Carey, we talked about people not being able to find jobs, but you made a statement earlier that often before you can even think about employment, a lot of these refugees who come to our country, having seen violence that most of us cannot even imagine, you have to deal with stress and trauma. How do you handle that? And what resources are available?
CAREYWell, unfortunately, like most of the resources in the refugee resettlement system, they're spotty. There are some centers for victims of torture in various cities. There's one in New York at Bellevue to which we refer many refugees. In some locations, The International Rescue Committee or other agencies have, often with private funding, sometimes with the mix of private and public, set up some psychosocial or mental health programs for refugees, but it is spotty. So you know, there are a lot of places where you -- there really are no resources for Iraqis who have psychological need. And so we've tried to set up informal support mechanisms, but it is a big problem.
CAREYThere are not enough resources out there for Americans with these needs. And certainly, when you have a population coming in where the levels of trauma are very, very high, that is a critical and unmet need for many of them. And it's really impeding their ability to succeed and move forward in the U.S. I'm confident that Iraqis, as with other refugee groups, will become successful, and many are already achieving great success, but it's going to take longer than it ideally should. And I think the investment in the initial resettlement process on a more substantial level would pay enormous dividends in economic terms and economic benefits to their communities in which refugees are being resettled, and to the refugees themselves.
NNAMDILet's go to Jehan in Washington, D.C. Jehan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. It's my understanding you are a filmmaker, Jehan?
JEHANYes. Hi, Kojo. It's -- I'm making actually a film on the challenges facing Iraqi refugees here. And one of my characters -- the film is called "The Lost Dream," and people can find out more about it at www.jehanharney.com. And one of the characters that I'm -- main characters I'm following actually was supported by IRC. But the challenges that he faced beyond the times of support was really, you know, strange to witness. He was a disabled person. But also, that person has gathered thousands of documents, secret torture documents, handed them to the U.S. to incriminate Saddam. And -- but because of all militia threats and them bombing his home, he came here with his large family.
JEHANAnd I know that there are all these organizations that are supposed to support the people who are tortured and, you know, experienced trauma, but his main trauma that he needed help with was to find a house he can afford. He couldn't find a job. He was getting trained to do something when all his life he was supposed -- he was working in currency exchange, which obviously is not transferable here. So at the end, he became confused, doesn't know what to do. The Americans once supported him and paraded him around Washington, you know, as the public face of Saddam's torture who survived this. He was really celebrated.
JEHANAnd suddenly, he found himself on the brink of homelessness. And my film captures all these phases in his life. And at the end, he -- you know, it has taken him two years until he found a -- his spot came out for low-income housing. But two years for a disabled person who was traumatized with household bombs, whose kids are struggling, who can't find work, who, at some point, had to look for food in churches...
JEHANI mean, you know, what I mean, so it's...
NNAMDIWe're running out of time. We're running out of time very quickly...
JEHANSure. So it's...
NNAMDIThank you for sharing that story. What we're going to do is put a link to your website, jehanharvey.com. We'll have a link to your website at our website, kojoshow.org, so that more people can find out about the film. Naseer, many of the questions you received online are related to immigration and legal status, but you have a large network of pro bono lawyers and law students that you can refer us to. Can you tell us about this organization and how they help?
NOURIYeah. Really, when we start working, one of my Washington Post colleagues is a founder of an organization. He called it Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, IRAP. When he saw the work we are doing, he suggested that we join forces with the IRAP. And when we joined forces with IRAP, IRAP really was funded the -- at Yale Law School in 2008 to provide the legal assistance to Iraqi refugees in urgent situation. IRAP, they found urgent cases, and they tried to make their resettlement process more fair, more fair.
NOURISo also, IRAP also work to reform the refugee resettlement process. So IRAP, their work, the way they work -- as an examples for their, for IRAP cases, they work with U.S. allies. They work for children with medical emergencies, women survivors of domestic violence and sexual slavery, survivors of torture, lesbians, gays, bisexual...
NNAMDIWe will make up -- we will make sure we'll put up a link to the IRAP website also...
NNAMDI...so that people can be able to contact that.
NOURIAnd IRAP has 310 law students and supervising attorneys working on cases. This includes attorneys from more than 20 law firms.
NOURIAnd IRAP has chapters, like, 12 law schools, 11 in United States and one in Jordan, at the University of Jordan. And this fiscal year, with a budget of 76,000, IRAP has provided 2.4 million in dollars in a free legal services.
NNAMDII'm afraid I have to interrupt because we're running out of time. But Bob Carey, one last two-part question for you. In a 2009 report titled "In Dire Straits," the International Rescue Committee recommended that refugee resettlement programs receive more federal assistance and that they receive uniform packages of benefits for refugees. Giving the federal budget situation, do you see that happening anytime soon?
CAREYWell, the State Department did provide an increase in the funding that covers the first 30 to 90 days. It was not enormous. But I think the problem is obviously in the current budget environment, that's a considerable challenge. But I think it's not solely a question of money. It's also a question of how the program is organized. And are the funds that are available being directed to the most urgent needs. And I think we've seen that that process needs to be reexamined because the funding is going, in many cases, to the same types of programs that existed 30 years ago for a very different population.
CAREYSo resources are an issue, but prioritization of those resources and ensuring that the system in the U.S. is more effectively coordinated is also an important part of a reform effort, and I think that needs to be -- is all the more important when the budget constraints limit the funding that can go into the program.
NNAMDIBob Carey is president of resettlement and migration policy for the International Rescue Committee. Bob Carey, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDINaseer Nouri is founder of Refugee Roadmap, which is a program of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project in New York. He does that during his daytime hours, works overnight at Reagan National Airport and sleeps for about one hour a day. Naseer Nouri, thank you very much for joining us today and good luck to you.
NOURIThank you so much. Thank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we will discuss internet gambling coming to a neighborhood near you in Washington, D.C. Well, we'll find out how that's likely to work. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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