Image: Saif Alnasseri and his family
Sarah Simonis  /  AP
Saif Alnasseri, his daughter Sarah, wife Zeinab Alrubaye and mother Layla Alshawi gather to break their fast during Ramadan at their home in Plainfield, N.J., on Aug. 30. "Every morning we wake up and ask ourselves, 'Did we make the right decision,' he said. "In Iraq, financially we were living the good life, but we were in danger."
updated 10/10/2009 5:03:02 PM ET 2009-10-10T21:03:02

Her mansion in Iraq was bombed, her medical career and future in her beloved country dashed the day she found a white envelope on her car windshield. Inside was a single bullet. Wassan Yassin was marked for death.

She knew she had to flee. She eventually landed in America, far from where her life was threatened, her sister was shot and her co-worker kidnapped. Her new Florida surroundings offered a haven from the horrors of war.

But there is no happy ending. Not yet, at least.

Yassin's first year here has been marked by frustrating — even humiliating — experiences: A small apartment in a crime-scarred area of Jacksonville. Food stamps. And no job, even though she's a gynecologist who also morphed into a construction company executive during the war.

Saif Alnasseri, a 31-year-old wartime translator and journalist, has fared better. A former pharmacist at a large Iraq hospital, he now is a pharmacist's assistant in a New Jersey drug store. Life in America has been a trade-off: His job supervising dozens of workers, his comfortable home and lush garden in Baghdad are gone, but he has something else — security.

"We are safe here and this is very important to us," Alnasseri says. "But there are a lot of things I spent years building in Baghdad. ... I was very well-known in my neighborhood. They called me doctor. I had a lot of people who respected me. Here I'm starting from the beginning. From zero."

"Every day I say, 'OK, I made the right decision,'" he adds. "After two hours, I say, 'Did I really?'"

Agonizing transition
For thousands of Iraqis, resettling in America has been an agonizing transition filled with questions, doubts — and, sometimes, despair.

Many Iraqis have discovered that gold-plated resumes have opened few doors in a nation reeling from its worst economic decline since the Depression. Stories abound of Iraqi professionals doing menial jobs — a doctor flipping burgers, a druggist washing dishes.

Iraqis also have struggled to navigate a confusing bureaucracy and an overburdened social service system that has sometimes run of out money to help provide their basic needs.

"Everything is kind of conspiring to make it a particularly difficult time for them," says Bob Carey, a vice president of the International Rescue Committee, a refugee assistance agency. "There's the declining economy, the conditions from which they come, the conditions in which they arrive, the fact they're often highly skilled professionals with sometimes high expectations."

"It is," he says, "the perfect storm."

38,000 in U.S.
Only a trickle of some 2 million Iraqi refugees have resettled in America since the war began. Most have poured into Syria, Jordan or other neighboring countries.

About 38,000 Iraqis have come to the United States in the last three fiscal years, compared with just hundreds in the three prior years. The overwhelming majority are refugees; others received special immigrant visas, awarded to translators or those who've worked with the U.S. government or contractors.

The State Department says the exodus of Iraqis didn't start until 2006, after the bombing of the mosque in Samarra ignited sectarian violence.

Advocacy groups and some lawmakers have long accused the U.S. government of being too slow to respond to the Iraqi refugee crisis, imperiling those who'd been targeted because they'd worked with Americans. Some of the delays were blamed on the many layers of security clearance.

But things have improved. After Capitol Hill hearings, a new law making it easier for American-affiliated Iraqis to move here and the appointment of a State Department adviser to deal with the issue, the pace of admissions has picked up dramatically since 2007. The Obama administration this summer also named a coordinator of Iraqi refugee efforts.

Even so, only 20 percent of at least 20,000 Iraqis with American ties who've applied have arrived in the United States since 2003, according to an April report by Human Rights First. Some wait more than a year in other countries, unable to work. "It has the potential to put them in this cruel psychological limbo," says Ruthie Epstein, the report's chief author.

Once Iraqis do arrive, they face new problems.

Many Iraqi refugees interviewed in Atlanta and Phoenix had exhausted government and social service aid, according to a recent report by the rescue committee.

"We really do have a moral obligation as a country to help them start over with basic tools in a dignified way," Carey says. "Right now, that's not happening."

Almost every refugee has a story of terror in Iraq, followed by struggle in America.

Consider Sameer Oro, a food and beverage manager for a U.S. Army contractor who later opened a store selling liquor near a Baghdad hotel. In 2005, he says, he was kidnapped, blindfolded, stuffed in a car trunk, a knife held to his throat. He was freed after seven days when his wife raised $35,000, selling their car and gold.

Last year, Oro moved with his family to California, where his brother lives. At first, he says, his $1,350 monthly government aid (along with food stamps) was enough, but then the payments shrunk. Now he has to borrow about $400 a month from his niece.

Image: Sameer Oro
Lenny Ignelzi  /  AP
Sameer Oro, now living in El Cajon, Calif., talks in his apartment on Sept. 22 about differences with his life in Iraq.
"We are not coming here to start suffering again," laments the 57-year-old former airline flight service director, who is unemployed.

The State Department gives resettlement groups $900 for each arriving refugee; about half goes to immediate needs such as rent; the other half is for services, such as picking up families at the airport.

Refugees also are eligible for up to eight months of cash aid that varies by state, Carey says. His group found the average monthly assistance for a family of four (in states where the agency had offices) ranged from $309 to $575 — far too little, he says, for living expenses.

Iraqis can, instead, choose matching federal and private agency funds for four or five months while they look for jobs. But Carey says only about 30 percent of refugees have been able to take advantage of it because of limited funds.

"The system's a mess," he says.

Thoughts of paradise, reality of no job
Iraqis who arrive with Hollywood-inspired visions of their new homeland quickly face a sobering reality.

"I was told when you go to America, there are organizations that will ... cover your rent until you find a job ... that it would be like a dream, it will be a paradise," says Mohammed Yousuf, a 39-year-old former translator living in a Washington, D.C., suburb.

Instead, he says, the resettlement agency placed him in an unaffordable $1,700-a-month apartment. He moved, but says he now has bed bugs in the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife and their four children.

Friends have generously helped out, but he says, "I thought someone would help me find a job. That's what I need."

Image: Raid Shawket
Ted S. Warren  /  AP
Iraqi refugee Raid Shawket, who used to own an art gallery in Baghdad, now lives in Kent, Wash.
Raid Shawket, a 46-year-old Iraqi living in a tiny studio apartment in Kent, Wash., is having similar problems. The only job he could find was in Target stock room and he was laid off after three weeks. He's now taking business classes at a community college.

Shawket, a former art gallery and gift shop owner, said officials processing him in Cairo had assured him, "It's going to be very easy to find a job."

Mustafa Al Waeli has an advanced degree in software engineering, but that hasn't provided steady work for him in Louisville, Ky.

But it's not just the lack of money that troubles him.

It's the "cultural shock," he says. "We're used to seeing America through Hollywood movies. It's nothing like that. It's very tough. It's a hard life."

In Iraq, Al Waeli says, he could always turn to a relative or a friend in times of need. "Here we have nobody to depend on," he adds.

And yet, Al Waeli doesn't regret moving here.

"I know the American dream is available," he says. "I know I need to work hard to get it. This is my country now. I will never leave it. It's the land of opportunity. I don't care where I was born. I care where I can live in peace."

There are, of course, Iraqis who've overcome the obstacles.

For some, it's luck or perseverance. For others, it's support from family in America, an established Iraqi community — two of the largest are around San Diego and Dearborn, Mich. — or friendships forged in the line of fire.

When Mohammed al-Mumayiz arrived in Nashville last year from Jordan, the former translator leaned on a wide network of soldiers from Iraq.

"It was scary in a way," he acknowledges. "But you have to learn the system. You have to know the way things are done. ... You have to dig your heels in and say, 'This is going to work.'"

Al-Mumayiz devoted six straight months to a job search, eventually landing a position as a contract translator for the State Department.

"You have to be patient," he says.

From pharmacist to dish washer
Suhama Mansour, who owned a pharmacy for 22 years in Baghdad, has fewer options.

Her English is limited and it would take years to get recertified as a pharmacist, so she now washes dishes at a restaurant. The transition, she says, is "very hard in my mind."

"There, everyone called her, 'doctor, doctor,'" says her 24-year-old daughter, Nadeen Oro, who shares a one-bedroom apartment in Sterling Heights, Mich., with her mother and 16-year-old brother.

Family members say that as Chaldeans, or Iraqi Christians, they were harassed, threatened and accused of working with the Americans In Iraq. They fled to Michigan, home to Mansour's three sisters as well as one of the nation's largest Iraqi populations.

"We used to live good," Oro says. "We didn't think about money there. ... Now we have to worry."

In Florida, the Yassin sisters worry, too, as they rebuild shattered lives.

Wassan, who worked for an Iraqi construction company that contracted with U.S. forces, slept in different homes every night to evade insurgents. She traveled with security — for good reason.

In the summer of 2005, the brother of the company's chairman was kidnapped. The following day, another brother received an anonymous call saying the doctor would be next. Wassan believed this meant she was going to be killed.

Then came the bullet on her windshield, a bomb at her house and her company office, the latter explosion killing two guards. She escaped to Jordan.

Her sister, Areej, who had an antiques shop, followed later, after a chaotic incident in which her car was rammed and she was shot in the leg by unknown assailants.

Sisters move to public housing
The sisters recently moved from their apartment to public housing. They're still looking for full-time work; both have held temporary jobs.

Wassan was fired from one job as a medical assistant. (Her case worker says she took too many sick days too soon; she insists the pediatrician told her she was overqualified.) She's hoping to eventually be certified to practice medicine.

"We expected more job opportunities," Areej says. "I think my future, 'Inshallah' (God willing), that he will guide us to a good way ... not perfect — but very good."

Meanwhile, Alnasseri is studying for his pharmacist's license. He has new American friends and that makes life easier, though he admits he once considered returning to Iraq and even priced an airline ticket.

"Right now I have reached a decision," he says. "Let me take my chance here."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments