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Economy | America in recession is doubly hard on its new arrivals

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

HIGH POINT, N.C.-When Fatima Yaseen interviewed for a job at one of two Wal-Mart stores in High Point, N.C., she faced stiff competition: At least 56 other people applied for the entry-level position in the town of 100,000. Yaseen didn't get the job.

Finding a job can be difficult in a state with an 8.7 percent unemployment rate, but Yaseen has an added challenge: She's an Iraqi refugee, a mother of nine, and she's lived in the United States for just four months.

Yaseen is one of some 60,000 refugees that the United States admitted last year. Nearly 14,000 of those refugees were from Iraq. The State Department says that it plans to admit at least another 17,000 Iraqi refugees this year.

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That's good news for those fleeing abuse, persecution, and death threats in their native countries. But coming to America isn't easy for refugees, especially if they lack English or job skills. And now new refugees face another dynamic: an economic downturn affecting the entire country. As the unemployment rate rises and the number of refugees goes up-especially among Iraqis-settling in America grows more difficult for an already vulnerable group, and the work gets harder for those trying to assist them.

Since the Iraq war began in 2003, some 2 million Iraqis have fled the country, often pouring into neighboring Jordan or Syria, and sometimes resettling as refugees in countries all over the world. U.S. officials facing criticism over the relatively small number of Iraqi refugees admitted to America ("Stalked," Dec. 6, 2008) dramatically increased the number of Iraqi admissions last year: The State Department admitted 13,800, compared with 1,600 the year before.

Ambassador James B. Foley, senior coordinator for Iraqi refugees issues, said the State Department would accept at least 17,000 Iraqi refugees this year and hoped for more: "I think you'll see the U.S. government admitting over the course of fiscal 2009 tens of thousands of Iraqis." (Foley said the United States would also accept an additional 5,000 Iraqis under a special visa program for Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military, government, or contractors.)

Immigration officials say streamlining the refugee application process has helped workers manage more cases. Increased cooperation from other nations helps too: Syria-home to the largest number of Iraqi refugees-has lifted restrictions on U.S. workers interviewing refugees, allowing the process to accelerate. The entire refugee process can take up to two years, but for many Iraqis, it takes as little as a few months.

Suhaib Albu Shamah arrived at JFK International Airport in New York City about one year after leaving Baghdad in July 2007. Shamah remembers well the date he left Baghdad: just after he graduated from medical school. The 26-year-old had studied for six years and was about to begin his medical internship when threats from local militants forced his family to flee. Shamah says a group calling themselves "the Patriotic Resistance of Iraq" demanded $10,000 from each member of his family. The consequences for refusal: "We're going to behead each one of you."

Shamah's father-also a doctor-believed the threats. Militants attempted to kidnap him months before, and murdered a friend. Shamah had also seen local violence firsthand. Working in a Baghdad emergency room, he treated victims of bombings and suicide attacks: "It was like watching the dead everyday." One afternoon was particularly brutal, he said: "They brought in 14 dead bodies of young men from one neighborhood in four hours."

The young doctor's breaking point came when militants murdered a close friend while he was waiting in an hours-long line at a gas station. The reason for the murder isn't clear, but Shamah says: "He didn't do nothing." After killing the 24-year-old man, Shamah says the gunmen took his car and left his body on the street: "And the other cars were just driving around him."

Shamah and his family fled to Jordan, where they applied for refugee status through the UN. Five months ago, they arrived in the United States and eventually settled in High Point, N.C., with the help of World Relief, an evangelical relief agency that assists refugees resettling across the country.

Shamah began looking for a job immediately, but found he can't use his medical skills without completing a long process of tests and certification to practice in the United States. Instead, he took a job at a local foam factory, working in the shipping department. The job lasted three weeks before the plant laid off a large number of workers, including Shamah.

It's hard to find an entry-level job with a medical degree from a foreign country, says Shamah: "You apply for a job, they read your name-it's a foreign name. They read your degree, and think, 'He's an M.D. applying for this?' It doesn't make sense."

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