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New Iraqi arrivals to Phoenix tell similar stories. Violence and anguish in Iraq. Flight, often first to Jordan or Syria, then to Arizona. And then a slow adjustment process. Many of them have related their accounts to Hazem Taee. He’s an Iraqi caseworker, and has his own stories. Taee was tortured by Saddam Hussein’s regime. He came to the US in September 2000.
He told me that on his first day in Phoenix, he woke up in the middle of the night from a nightmare. “I dreamed I was running away from the Iraqi secret service,” he remembers. “They were trying to catch me, and I woke up shouting, ‘No, no!,’ in Arabic of course. Fortunately,” he continues, “I went to get a drink of water and I saw the American flag at the apartment complex where I was living. And I felt safe.”
Taee bought a small American flag and attached to his bed near his head. “That kind of cured me because when I wake up in the middle of the night, I see the American flag and I say, ‘Oh, thank God, I am here, not there.’”
Hazem Taee is now a US citizen. He works for the International Rescue Committee, the largest of the four refugee resettlement agencies operating in Phoenix. Taee says disorientation is part of the deal for many Iraqis when they first arrive.
“Everything is different here,” says Taee. As a caseworker for the IRC, he sees displacement in subtle ways. “You would probably see the Iraqis go to a middle eastern store several times a week. I believe it’s nostalgia, missing home. It’s not because they want to buy something.”
The new arrivals cling to anything that reminds them of home. Even a ringtone. One man I met, Foad Kadhim, has a love song by middle eastern pop star Hussain alJasmi as the ring to indicate calls from his wife.
I went to Phoenix last month to meet a few of these displaced Iraqis. Many came to the US after 2005. With the recession now, they’re just getting by. But they’re way better off than they were in Iraq.
Carmen Daoud says arriving in Phoenix on October 23, 2007 was the best day her life. Phoenix even reminds her of Iraq. “I like Phoenix,” says Carmen. “The weather here, everything here is like Iraq. It’s so hot in summer, it’s cold in winter. It’s the same.”
Of course cold in winter means 75 degrees. And though there are some similarities says Carmen Daoud, her first days in Phoenix were also overwhelming. “For the first month,” she says, “I was just crying because everything gets so scared to me. I didn’t know anything. It was difficult.”
Like many Iraqis who came here recently, Carmen qualified for the US Special Immigrant Visa. She qualified for the so-called SIV because she worked for the US during the war in Iraq. Carmen Daoud paid a heavy price for that visa. Her best friend, who worked with Carmen in the Green Zone, was killed by extremists as retribution for siding with the US. Extremists also killed Carmen’s dad. He was found shot in the street. Carmen says a small piece of paper was put in his pocket. Carmen recalls that on it, his killers had written, “because you work with the US Army, we killed your father, and we gonna kill your mon, brother and you, if you don’t like leave Iraq in 48 hours.”
Carmen Daoud left with her brother, who’s deaf, and her mother, who went mostly blind when an American bomb fell near her Baghdad home. Carmen is now the family bread-winner. She works as an interpretor for Arabic speakers. She’s taking college courses. And she has a part-time job as a cashier at Walmart. “It’s a good job,” she says, “and many people when they start talking with me and they find out I’m from Iraq, they are so interested, they want to know everything that happened over there, and why I’m here. They are happy, and they wish me good luck.”
There’s still a lot that Carmen can’t share yet with her coworkers. That kind of trust takes time. Some Iraqis have managed to find that trust though. This year, Aysar Jaber and her family joined a close American friend of hers and her family for Thanksgiving. Jaber, her husband and three kids arrived in Phoenix two years ago.
“It was really amazing,” says Jaber. “You felt the sense of family, and this year, as we sat around the table and we were talking about what we were thanking God for, I said, ‘This year I have so much to thank God for, especially the house, and everything that happens for us through the year.”
Her family isn’t on solid financial ground. But a special loan program did help them buy a small home. It’s a pretty good situation to be in for Aysar Jaber, considering where she had been. She also worked for the Americans in Baghdad, and also fled with her family. Her husband and kids were all threatened by extremists. After nearly two years in limbo in Jordan, they were resettled in Phoenix. The State Department provides these refugees 900 dollars each as an initial settling-in grant. Aysar and her family came under the wing of the IRC. The family was picked up at the airport, taken to their apartment. They got oriented to their new surroundings, and the kids got signed up for new schools.
Aysar’s daughters, who were still teetering in English when they arrived, applied for a scholarship to a Phoenix prep school, a program co-sponsored by the IRC. Her oldest daughter last year won that scholarship, and this year her other daughter won it. “It’s amazing what’s happening to my family with that,” reflects Jaber, “because it’s really made my kids feel like whatever we suffered is worth it because now we are gettng the reward.”
Aysar’s husband works in the kitchen of a Marriott hotel. Aysar herself is an interpretor. She’s got an advanced degree in statistics, but can’t use it here. It’s a common experience for many refugees. But for Iraqis, there’s irony in that as well. They got the SIV, because they worked for the Americans in Iraq. As Robin Dunn-Marcos, the executive director of the IRC in Phoenix says “because of that, they were persecuted, or their family was persecuted.” Persecuted points out Dunn-Marcos is “a light way of looking at it.” As she explains, “People were killed, people were tortured, then they flee, in the dark of night, leaving everything they know behind. And then they’re in limbo, hoping, hoping that someone is going to help them. So then they’re resettled here. And then what happens after a couple of months, they’re scrambling to pay their rent. So it’s tough.”
Tough and getting tougher. At least Aysar Jaber, her husband, Carmen Daoud and Hazem Taee all have jobs. Robin Dunn-Marcos has been in Phoenix for 14 years, and she’s seen the economy rise and fall. Refugees in Phoenix she told me “historically have been able to come in and find employment within 30 to 45 days, regardless of their English level, and regardless of their previous skill level. Then a couple of years ago with the economic downturn, Phoenix was one of the hardest hit cities, and now, just within the IRC network, Phoenix had the highest lenght of time to get a refugee employed. Last year it took on average over 180 days to get a refugee employed. And that’s too much without a safety net.”
A safety net is what Jarjes Rafek could use right now. He was a building contractor in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. He and his young wife and five children came to Phoenix in July 2008. They’ve just moved into a small pre-fab house in a mobile home community in Glendale, a Phoenix suburb where many Iraqis have settled. When I got there, Rafek Jarjes’s youngest kids were watching a Paddington cartoon in Arabic on TV. Their English is all excellent though. Jarjes Rafek was rushing, and didn’t have much time to talk. He was rushing off to an appointment to pay some bills.
But he did explain that when he first got to Phoenix, the IRC helped him find a carwash job at the airport. Then the economy tanked, and he lost his job. Food stamps and subsidized health care have helped, he said. But these days, “I don’t know what bills to pay first: rent, car, car insurance?” Lately he’s been able to recoop a few hours at his job. But between the cost of gas to get their and what the little he earns on the job, the math doesn’t get him ahead.
I asked him where his money comes from. Jarjes said he’s spending the tax refund he saved from earlier this year. His ten year old daughter, Sura, who’s in fourth grade, seems unaware of her dad’s precarious situation. She’s just a happy kid. Sura is about to change elementary schools. But even that is a trivial affair for her. When I asked her what makes her the happiest in Arizona, school is at the top of her list. Her family and playing around with her friends are two and three.
For one former small business owner from Iraq, the economic downturn has meant opportunity. Omar Mohammedin was a cook and restaurant owner in Baghdad for 25 years. Two years ago, he fled the violence. And this year, he opened Sinbad’s, a middle-eastern kebab joint in a small shopping plaza in Glendale. It’s right next to a bankruptcy and divorce lawyer. Omar didn’t work with any of the four refugee resettlement agencies in Phoenix when he arrived. He had cousins already here who helped him settle in. But he did receive a small business development loan from the IRC to start Sinbad’s.
Omar Mohammedin keeps the prices low at Sinbad’s because no one has money, and he wants customers. His new special is one sandwich $4.99, the second sandwich, .99. He is proud of his business model, and proud that his restaurant seems to be making it. The food is great, and it’s a pleasant surprise to find hot, freshly baked pita in this dowdy shopping plaza in suburban Phoenix.
If there’s a common thread to these Iraqis in Phoenix, it’s their stories of survival. During the war. And now, their stories are of economic survival. Their American neighbors are also preoccupied with their own recent stories of economic survival. But Hazem Taee of the IRC says those neighbors should remember something he and the Iraqis now know. It’s a simple truth for Taee. “Life is very beautiful here,” he told me on my last day in Phoenix. “And sometimes I wonder why people here complain about three people in front of them in a line on a cashier. So what? Three people, you can’t wait here? We wait there overnight for gasoline, and here they complain about small things, which I understand why, but I don’t. I love it here. If those are their problems in life, life is beautiful here.”
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