When Iraqis Come To America

The 7-year-old has learned to love hamburgers and fries; the first thing he ate in Phoenix was a Happy Meal

There are moments when Faeza Jaber wants to pick up Khattab, her 7-year-old son, and flee back to Baghdad. Life in Phoenix is proving harder than she had expected. She needs a job that will pay her rent–not easy for a 48 year-old single mother with basic English and little local experience. Then there are a number of smaller challenges that, taken together, can seem insurmountable for a woman who has never previously lived away from her homeland–where to find day care for Khattab, how to decipher utility bills, what to do about her car that’s been towed away. Just the thought of more logistics is daunting. “My head is tired,” she says, her voice shaking. “All these papers. In America, a woman must be a man.” So sometimes she dreams of going back to Baghdad, where she knows the language and the streets and has friends and family–and where the men do the paperwork.

But then she calls home, and her eldest sister, Samira, sets her straight. You can’t come back, she says. It’s still too dangerous for the wife of a journalist who was murdered in the street in broad daylight. Think of your son’s future, Samira says. Stay in America.

Faeza knows she’s incredibly lucky to have a new life at all. Though security in Iraq has improved considerably in recent months, it’s a safe bet that most Iraqis would willingly switch places with her. “Life is difficult here,” says Faeza. “But there, in one moment, you can die.”

Iraq’s civil war has made more than 2 million Iraqis refugees in foreign lands. The vast majority are stuck in limbo in neighboring Syria and Jordan, not allowed to work, unwilling to go home and denied visas to go anywhere else. U.S. and Iraqi officials say some of those refugees have begun returning home, spurred by the reduction in terrorist attacks and sectarian violence, especially in Baghdad. But that amounts to a small trickle compared with the numbers still seeking a way out. Though 66,000 Iraqis have applied for asylum, just 14,000 of them have been granted refugee status by the U.N. and have had their files sent to the State Department for resettlement in America. So far, some 2,700 have been brought to the U.S.

James Foley, the State Department’s senior coordinator for Iraqi refugees, says arrivals could jump to 1,000 a month this year. But that number is still “shockingly small,” says Melissa Winkler, a spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the nonprofit organizations tasked with helping resettle Iraqis in the U.S. (By contrast, Sweden has taken in some 31,300 asylum seekers since March 2003.) Charles Shipman, who runs refugee programs for the state of Arizona, says growing U.S. cities like Phoenix can handle more Iraqi refugees than are coming in at the moment. Housing in Phoenix is relatively inexpensive, says Shipman, and the local job market can still absorb entry-level workers. Of the 600 refugees who pass annually through the IRC’s Phoenix program, 91% find jobs and go off state and federal subsidies within five months of arrival.

But Faeza is more than a statistic to me. I first met her and Khattab in May 2003 at their house in Baghdad, just weeks after U.S. soldiers had swept into the capital. Her British-educated husband Omar worked for TIME as an office manager and translator, and he brought me to meet his family. Faeza, a computer engineer, had never been drawn to housework. Before the war, when she wasn’t programming computers at the Baghdad airport, she was swimming laps at the élite Hunting Club. Life wasn’t always good in Saddam’s Iraq, but for Faeza, it was relatively easy.

It all came crashing down on March 31, 2004. Omar was shot and killed in his car on his way to work at TIME’S Baghdad bureau, a victim of a new insurgent strategy to murder Iraqi interpreters working with U.S. companies. Faeza moved to Syria and then Jordan, where she applied for refugee status with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Amman. It took another two years before the U.N. granted her refugee status, and her case was referred to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which handles country placement for refugees. She told IOM that she wanted to go to the U.S.; it had been Omar’s dream that Khattab would be able to grow up there. Many refugees ask to be sent to places like Detroit and Dearborn, Mich., where they can find support among large communities of immigrants from Iraq and other Arab countries. Faeza, having never lived in a cold climate, asked only to be placed “somewhere warm.”

On Aug. 31, Faeza and Khattab landed at Phoenix International Airport. It was 111°F (44°C) outside–hotter than in Baghdad that day. “Is this America?” she asked the IRC guide who picked her up, a fellow Iraqi named Hazem Olwan. “We all know the Americans have high technology,” Olwan told her, “but they can’t do anything about the weather.” The heat was just the first in a series of disappointments. “Many refugees have an idea of America without any negatives,” says Robin Dunn Marcos, head of the Phoenix office of the IRC. “Their expectations are not exactly met.” Faeza noticed that not every building was a skyscraper, not every car was new. Most of all, not everyone was rich. After a pit stop at McDonald’s–Khattab insisted that his first food in America be a Happy Meal–Olwan pulled up to their new home, a low-slung warren of apartments on a hardscrabble stretch of West Indian School Road in Phoenix. The $450-a-month unit picked out for them had a busted air conditioner and cockroaches. It was sweltering inside. Faeza was distraught, and the manager of the building was nice enough to let her spend the weekend in the dressed-up unit used to lure new renters.

Faeza’s adjustment has been slow. At first she barely left the apartment. She had always used her Jordanian cell phone as a clock, and when its battery petered out because her charger didn’t fit the wall socket, she lost all track of time. She didn’t know how to let her relatives know she had arrived safely in the U.S. Police patrol cars appeared regularly at the complex, and loud fights broke out in the hallways. Even the boisterous schoolkids getting off the bus, clowning and shrieking, spooked her.

Although Arizona has only a small population of Iraqi immigrants– about 2,800, out of more than 90,000 in the U.S.–Faeza was able to turn to them for help. A few days after she arrived in the U.S., she ran into two Iraqi Americans from the local Chaldean Catholic Church, who were in the IRC office to meet Iraqi Christian refugees. When they saw Faeza, who is Muslim, they immediately offered to help. They found her a comfortable apartment in a safer neighborhood and brought her some furniture, food and a cell phone. The church also helped her set up a bank account, collect food stamps and get a driver’s license. “She’s all alone here,” says Amir Sitto, a real estate broker in neighboring Scottsdale. “No husband, no relatives. We had to help her.”

If some of Faeza’s hardships are over, others await. The State Department’s refugee-resettlement program offers Iraqis rent assistance and food stamps from the Department of Health and Human Services for three months. In Faeza’s case, that got her through only until December. She now pays the rent out of her savings, and the monthly allocations of food stamps have stopped. In late January, she starts work as a part-time teaching assistant at Khattab’s elementary school, earning $700 a month after deductions. Her monthly rent in the new apartment is $750. Eventually, she hopes she’ll be hired to do data entry or computer programming in an office, as she did in Iraq. She’s taking classes in English speech and grammar at the University of Phoenix. For many refugees, the language barrier can be the hardest to overcome. Marwan, another Iraqi, who arrived in Phoenix with his wife and infant son just a week after Faeza, remains unemployed. A furniture salesman in Baghdad, his English is even more rudimentary than Faeza’s. “It’s close to impossible to stand on my own feet,” he says in Arabic. Marwan, who asked that his real name be concealed in order to protect relatives still in Iraq, has enrolled in a basic English course, but it may be months before he is proficient enough to get a job.

Though the war is no longer at the forefront of the U.S. political debate, it has upended the lives of a generation of Iraqis, in ways both hopeful and tragic. In Phoenix, Khattab brings home new English phrases he learns every day in second grade at Sahuaro Elementary School. “Khattab is showing great progress and learning the language very quickly,” his teacher wrote on his midterm report last month. After his first week of school, he figured out that to fit in, he would need an Arizona Cardinals hat. When I saw him recently, he was asking “What’s up?” over and over again. Then he stopped, looked up at me and asked, “Where is my father?”

Recently, Faeza spoke with her sister, who is still in Baghdad. Samira said her teenage son had narrowly escaped being kidnapped from a street in their neighborhood. Faeza immediately grabbed her son and hugged him tightly. “When I see Khattab, this let me to stay here,” she says in her broken English. “O.K., this is for Khattab. This is the future for Khattab.”

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