Report: Iraqi Refugees in US Need More Help

Published on
by
the Houston Chronicle

Report: Iraqi Refugees in US Need More Help

Resettled and struggling

by
Susan Carroll

Thousands of Iraqi refugees resettled in the U.S. are living in poverty and need additional federal aid to survive the nation's economic crisis, according to a new report by an international aid agency.

The report - issued Tuesday by the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based refugee resettlement organization - found that the U.S. government's resettlement program is "dangerously underfunded" and fails to meet refugees' basic needs.

The report's findings were echoed by Houston resettlement workers and refugees who said they are struggling to find jobs and make ends meet. More than 19,000 Iraqi refugees have been resettled in the U.S. since 2007, including hundreds in Houston.

The IRC report called for an overhaul of the U.S. program and an infusion of millions of dollars from Congress to ensure that refugees do not end up homeless.

"In Iraq, we did not feel safe because of the violence," said Hassan Al Jaber, a 52-year-old Iraqi who said he worked as a CNN cameraman in Iraq and arrived in Houston as a refugee in January 2008 with his family. "Here, we do not feel safe because we do not have jobs."

A spokesman at the State Department, citing an agency policy of not speaking on the record about such matters, said $5 million in funds initially designated to go to Iraqi refugees overseas has been funneled into an emergency housing allowance for those resettled in the U.S. Those funds have not yet been distributed to volunteer agencies at the local level, but will be soon, he said.

Refugees from across the globe are finding a difficult economic reality in much of America, including Houston, according to multiple resettlement organizations. Caseworkers in Houston said they are dealing with a major influx of refugees while the available job pool continues shrinking.

Refugees from across the globe are finding a difficult economic reality in much of America, including Houston, according to multiple resettlement organizations. Caseworkers in Houston said they are dealing with a major influx of refugees while the available job pool continues shrinking.

"Things are getting rough here, but they're not yet in a critical stage," said Geleta Mekonnen, the assistant director for refugee services with Interfaith Ministries in Houston, which helps resettle refugees from countries including Iraq. He said some refugee families, particularly those with children, are struggling. In some cases, he said, even when both parents are working minimum-wage jobs, they are having trouble paying the rent, utilities and groceries.

"In order to make up the deficit, I think people need some kind of assistance," Mekonnen said. "We are lucky, though, to live in Houston, where people are a little bit better off than other areas."

Living ‘on the edge'

The State Department gives local resettlement agencies an initial stipend of $900 for immediate needs, like rent, utilities and services that aid groups provide. Refugees can apply for additional cash assistance and health care for up to eight months.

Al Jaber has not found employment, though his wife has a minimum-wage job and one of his sons has worked on and off since coming to the U.S. Al Jaber said his family is relatively better off than some of the newly arrived Iraqi families in his apartment complex at South Gessner Road near Richmond Avenue. He has helped translate for others having difficulty paying their electric bills, he said, or dealing with the apartment complex.

In general, Al Jaber said, Iraqi refugees in Houston live "on the edge, the very edge" of U.S. society. "They are in a very declining situation of poverty," he said. "There is a danger that they might fall down into homelessness."

The IRC reported that many Iraqis who came to the U.S. as highly educated professionals - including doctors, lawyers, scientists or accountants - have struggled with disappointment after finding even entry-level jobs out of reach.

Some more vulnerable

The report also called for the U.S. to build more flexibility into the program to help the most vulnerable of new arrivals, including widows.

Al Jaber checks in periodically on an Iraqi widow in his apartment complex, 32-year-old Azhar Saleh. Saleh, who came to Houston as a refugee in April 2008, said she held a job as a baby sitter on the city's east side for a few months, taking two buses each way, to and from work. But she started to worry about her children arriving home to an empty apartment if she was stuck at work.

Saleh gave up the job, which paid $6.50 an hour, and has had to rely on charity for the past few months. Now she worries about paying rent, and whether the worn and stained carpeting in her apartment is contributing to her 5-year-old son's asthma attacks.

"It is very difficult for me," Saleh said through an interpreter. "I don't want to rely on help. I want to find a job so I can have a normal life."

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