Thousands of Iraqi refugees have arrived in the United States as part of a nationwide resettlement program to bring 12,000 Iraqis to the United States by the end of next month, officials said.
About a quarter of the 9,000 Iraqi refugees already here arrived over the past month, according to a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. Most come from secondary countries including Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.
A resettlement program run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden has received five Iraqi families in recent months — a total of 19 people — and more are expected, according to executive director Kevin Hickey.
"It's picking up," he said.
New Jersey — and the New York metropolitan area — are not usually major destinations for refugee resettlement because of the high cost of living and already-overburdened social service system typical of urban areas. Generally, most refugees are sent to smaller towns and cities across the U.S., officials say.
The U.S. government has agreed to accept 12,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of its fiscal year on Sept. 30. An additional 5,000 are being sent here under a special visa program for Iraqis who have worked with the U.S. military, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Department of State.
An estimated 2 million Iraqis have fled their homeland since the conflict began, and the United Nations' refugee organization estimates more than 2 million people also are displaced within Iraq.
Larry Yungk, a senior resettlement officer in the organization's Washington office, said most Iraqi refugees don't want to resettle as far away as the U.S.
"Most anybody, when they leave their country, their first choice would be to go back home if they could," Yungk said. "If you look at these groups coming here, they're among the most unlikely to go back, and those having the most trouble."
Yungk said most of the Iraqi refugees that are sent to the U.S. either have family ties here, have been victims of violence, are in women-headed households in families where the men have been killed or kidnapped, are among those that fear reprisal for assisting U.S. forces, or are afraid to return to Iraq because of religious or political persecution.
Adjusting to a new life
Mai Lieu, the director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Family and Community Services in Paterson, says her agency has received one Iraqi family in recent weeks and been notified that they should start preparing to help resettle others.
Lieu said her agency helped resettle about 30 Iraqis in North Jersey in 1991 following the Gulf War, and expects to help several families again this time around.
"Because we have the Arabic-speaking community, and New Jersey has a lot of diversity, we do get them here," she said.
Lieu — herself a refugee from Vietnam who was resettled in the U.S. by the kind of program she now runs — does everything from picking up the new arrivals at Newark Airport to helping them find apartments, furniture, jobs and English classes. She enlists volunteers to help welcome the newcomers, ease their adjustment to life in New Jersey, and deal with culture shock.
"We'll have Muslim and Christian refugees too, so we hope the community will welcome everyone," she said.