Refugees Fleeing Violence in Iraq Face New Challenges upon Resettling in the U.S.

As the last U.S. ground troops withdrew from Iraq toward the end of 2011, many Americans breathed a sigh of relief as our troops returned home. But for thousands of Iraqi refugees forced to flee their war-torn homeland, the struggle was far from over. Between 2006 and 2014, the United States has admitted more than 103,000 Iraqi refugees for resettlement. And while they are anxious to escape the chaos and violence of their native country, many face new challenges that they must overcome in order to rebuild their lives.

Making it to the U.S. as a refugee is often a long and arduous process. First, the individual must obtain entry into a surrounding asylum country, such as Egypt, Jordan, or Turkey, and register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UHNCR), an international agency founded by the United Nations that tries to resolve refugee problems worldwide. If the case qualifies, the UHNCR then refers it to the U.S. embassy, although applicants who have worked for U.S. contractors or institutions may apply directly to the embassy without a referral. A long application and interview process then begins, and the refugee may be left waiting for a decision for up to eight years. And as violence continues to erupt in Jordan, Syria, and other countries surrounding Iraq, many are left without a safe haven in the meantime. [See Iraqis Come Home to Austin, by Dina Samir Shehata, The Austin Chronicle, 05.Dec.2014.]

More challenges remain once a refugee is granted the opportunity to resettle in the United States. In Detroit, Michigan, one of the top resettlement destinations for Iraqis, the city experienced a 38 percent increase in the number of refuges moving into the area from 2010 to 2014. Yet Detroit, as well as many other cities that are taking in large numbers of refugees, is still recovering economically from the nationwide recession that began in 2008. This makes finding steady work difficult for many Iraqi refugees. Not only are they competing in job markets with high unemployment rates, while simultaneously trying to adjust to U.S. culture, they also may face potential employers who are reluctant to hire them. Arjawn Khadoori, who works for the Lutheran Social Services office in Dearborn, Michigan and assists Iraqi refugees in finding jobs, explained in a recent interview with the National Journal that employers often accuse him of trying to take jobs away from Americans. “I tell them it’s against the law,” he said, “but it doesn’t matter.” Many refugees enjoyed professions in the medical and legal field in their native country, but upon resettling in the U.S. find that they cannot afford professional recertification, and instead must accept low wage jobs in the service industry. Salim Daguer, a resettlement specialist at Caritas of Austin, a nonprofit group in Texas dedicated to the eradication of poverty, explained to The Austin Chronicle that “for someone who used to work as a physician, working in a job that may be looked down upon is challenging. For many, it feels like losing your identity.” [See Detroit is a Dream Come True for Iraqi Refugees, by Alexia Fernandez Campbell, National Journal, 18.Mar.2015.]

Refugees escaping violence in Iraq faced daily threats that few Americans can imagine. The United States offers a safe haven and a chance to start over, but Iraqi refugees often face a whole new set of challenges when they attempt to begin new lives on our shores. Yet, hopefully, with proper support, these refugees will be able to properly resettle and pursue the peace and prosperity that simply was not possible in their home country. And it is this noble pursuit that is the true embodiment of the American dream.


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