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.
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."
Mark Kadel says Shamah's plight is common. Kadel, director of the High Point office of World Relief, says refugees at their field offices around the country face difficulties finding jobs. Rising unemployment has created more competition for blue-collar jobs that used to be widely available for refugees. Other labor-related jobs-like cleaning up construction sites-are suitable for refugees with limited English, but have dried up with the construction industry. When a refugee competes for a job with dozens of Americans, employers often naturally select the candidate with the best English skills and familiarity with the industry. That's usually not a refugee.
World Relief is one of 10 nonprofit agencies contracted by the State Department to help resettle refugees. The government provides funding for some administration costs and a small allowance for each refugee-$425 per individual. Agencies use those funds to procure housing, furniture, food, and other basic items for refugees. They also register children for school and adults for English classes, and help with job searches. The goal, according to Kadel, is self-sufficiency as quickly as possible. The agencies aim for refugees to be self-supporting in the first three to six months (though they are still eligible for some government aid), but the economic climate is making that more difficult.
Robert Carey of the International Rescue Committee, another group resettling refugees, says his organization has seen a 50 percent drop in their job placements, and other agencies report similar declines.
Those declines are discouraging to Ahmad Yaseen, husband of Fatima, the Wal-Mart applicant who faced 56 other applicants for an entry-level job. Yaseen, once a taxi driver in Baghdad, suffered shell injuries in his back and head in Iraq, but the family's worst wound: the loss of their oldest daughter, a 19-year-old girl killed by a mortar that hit the family's kitchen.
World Relief is assisting the Yaseen family (who for fear of attacks on relatives remaining in Baghdad asked that their real names not be used in this story) as both parents look for jobs. From a chilly living room with bare walls in a modest rental home in High Point, Yaseen talks about his job search while Shamah, the young Iraqi doctor, translates. Yaseen says he looks for jobs everywhere: "Anything so I can support my family." World Relief's rental assistance has technically ended, but volunteers helped cover the family's rent in January. Yaseen doesn't know about next month, and says he feels guilty for not being able to provide for his family.
Still, he's grateful for World Relief and for volunteers who help meet his family's needs. "Without them, only God knows," he says. "Probably I would have been sleeping on the street."
Kadel says World Relief depends on volunteers from churches to partner with refugee families: "We look to be the conduit between the government and the church to get the church involved with these vulnerable people groups." Church groups often help families settle into their homes, learn English, and adjust to life in America. Kadel says refugee families-often Muslims-are surprised by Christians helping them with no strings attached: "What an opportunity to show what Christianity is all about."
It's also an opportunity for churches that can't afford expensive mission trips to remain globally minded, says Kadel: "Local churches are beginning to think outside the box and realize that mission work can be done right here on their own doorstep."