Many Iraqi refugees in US now in dire straits

Resettlement agencies urge an overhaul of America's 30-year-old refugee policy.

It hasn't been smooth sailing for the thousands of Iraqi refugees entering America's resettlement program. Only 11 percent are finding work this year, compared with 80 percent two years ago. Many are frustrated as benefits dwindle, cash runs out, and eviction notices pile up.

With such findings in hand, nonprofit resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are urging this week an overhaul of America's three-decade-old refugee policy.

Reforms should include more cash assistance from the US government to the refugees, the IRC says. The government should also offer a uniform and more substantial package of benefits, the IRC says.

Refugees "never imagined that they would be struggling to survive here in America," says Alaa Naji, a refugee from Baghdad who now works in Atlanta for the IRC. "They expected more from a country that was involved in the violence that destroyed our land, homes, and loved ones."

Complaints about the handling of refugees have risen as the United States has tried to welcome more Iraqi refugees. Until 2006, only 202 Iraqis had come to the US, partly because of security concerns. In the past three years, 25,659 Iraqi refugees have arrived.

Some argue that US officials have oversold refugees' prospects. "You'll see there's a universal theme to [Iraqis'] complaints, which is that they were told they were going to have a great life, and they're completely shocked when they're given jobs like washing cars," says Ann Corcoran, a Washington County, Md., farmer who runs a critical blog, Refugee Resettlement Watch.

It's often hard for people to reconcile themselves to the reality of life as a refugee, says Kay Bellor, IRC's vice president for US programs. Many refugees are highly educated, and they find it difficult to work in menial jobs and give up their earlier lifestyle, she says.

This spring, as a stopgap measure, the State Department released $5 million in emergency rent stipends to help refugees on the verge of eviction.

Yasmin and Othman left Iraq last fall to start a new life in Lynn, Mass. Like many refugees, they had imagined a new life – a good one – for themselves and their four children. But now they live on state assistance and food stamps.

The family's small, three-bedroom apartment is dingy, despite their attempts to scrub it. On a bookshelf, photographs of the family in their garden in Iraq remind them of better days.

Othman was twice offered a job as a packer at a bread company, IRC officials say, but he rejected it because he wanted to work as a welder. Othman insists that the packer job wouldn't pay enough to support his family, and he wants to work in his field.

"We came here because we had no safety or security because of the US war in Iraq," Yasmin says. "But we didn't think people were allowed to live like this in America.... If we could go back to Iraq, we would."

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