BLOG: FROM IRAQ TO SAN DIEGO

This week, Prospect’s Blog takes a look back at a piece we published last year that has, if anything, become more relevant since its original publication.

By Joe Armenta
Senior Editor

Amer Yalda needs a job. As his government assistance begins to dwindle, he fears that he has overstayed his welcome in the small apartment that he and five of his relatives currently share. He is clearly ambitious given that his ability to speak English has gone from non-existent to conversational in less than a year since his arrival to the United States. However, this is not enough for Yalda. He wants a steady source of income that will not only allow him to rent his own apartment, but will also restore a feeling that he lost when he fled Iraq in 2006—a feeling of security.

Unfortunately, Yalda’s story is not an isolated event. On the contrary, he is a member of the growing community of displaced Iraqi refugees who have been relocated to one of the economically stagnant suburbs of San Diego County. According to the California Department of Social Service Refugee Programs Bureau, 14,630 Iraqi refugees have been relocated to California between the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003 and the end of the 2011 fiscal year. Of this population, 9,874 Iraqis have sought refuge in San Diego County, and one can safely assume that the overwhelming majority of them have settled in the City of El Cajon—a predominantly white, middle-income suburb.

A refugee, as defined by the United Nations, is an individual “who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Each year, countries are required to receive a certain amount of refugees. In the most recent report released by the Department of Homeland Security, it is stated that over 73,000 refugees were legally admitted to the United Sates in 2010, nearly all of whom are put on the path to permanent residency.

Refugees arrive to the United States from a wide variety of locations, but there is also a good deal of diversity among those that originate from a specific country of origin. Iraqis, for example, are greatly diverse. They stem from different ethnic backgrounds, speak different languages, and even practice different religions. The majority of refugees that reside in El Cajon speak Chaldean and practice a sect of Christianity that is popular in Syria and northern Iraq. However, there is also a small Muslim Arab population that resides in the same neighborhood, which is located in the middle of a densely populated American suburb. Along with this religious and ethnic diversity, there is also socio-economic variance that further differentiates the refugees. Some come to the United States with a university education and a past replete with professional careers, such as engineering, in the high-tech service industry. Others, like Yalda, have only been employed in the low-level service sector and arrive with very little, if any, knowledge of English.

These issues are not trivial, but rather emphasize the differences that exist among this highly concentrated population. As the government begins settling an increasing number of Iraqi refugees in a particular area, many questions come to light. Do power structures emerge? How is wealth distributed? Does this affect the way in which refugees interact among each other? Questions like these have not been looked into, however they are fundamental to each refugee’s experience.

This being said, some generalized information is known about the population. First and foremost, this is a population of people that share a common and tragic history. Many refugees recount stories of death and terror, bombings and killings, kidnappings and shattered lives. Ultimately, they are stories of chaos. Yalda spoke of the continuous harassment that he faced at the hands of, what he calls, the gangs that emerged after the fall of Saddam. When American forces entered Mosul in 2003, “everyone was happy,” he said. However, this quickly proved to be a façade. After letting an American serviceman into his house, Yalda received a threatening phone call. “They ask ‘why are these people in your house,’” he said. The calls continued until one day in 2006 when tragedy stuck Yalda’s family—his fourteen-year-old nephew was killed. “After they kill my nephew,” he said, “then we leave.”

Tales like these are memories of a place that was left behind. Upon fleeing a country, refugees usually find themselves seeking asylum in a neighboring country. In Yalda’s case, it was Syria where he stayed until his admittance into the United States in 2010. When these refugees arrive in the country, the U.S. federal government provides them with a monthly stipend of around $800 to help them get situated. However, the payments expire after eight months, which is assumed to be an adequate amount of time to resettle, gain employment, and assimilate into the local community. Not surprisingly, this does not happen in most cases. Instead, refugees become increasingly reliant on non-profit organizations like the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Charities to provide assistance in a number of tasks ranging from the complicated immigration process to filing online job applications in the service sector.

The quest for employment can be long and defeating. Of the few employers that are hiring in the midst of an economic downturn, few are hiring middle-aged refugees without a native grasp of the English language or experience in the American workforce. Yalda has filed numerous online and in-person job applications, but has yet to receive a follow-up call from a single employer. The refugees that do gain employment usually find work in the low-level service industry, which primarily consists of jobs in the hotel, retail, and manual labor sectors. These industries offer poor wages and poor prospects for job mobility.

Perhaps Yalda and his fellow Iraqi refugees are what Indianna Governor Mitch Daniels calls “the soon-to-haves” of American society. Maybe they just have to work their way through the difficulties of getting situated in order to live the prosperous life that many residents of the United States already live. This is the story of the American dream—the land of immigrants with a shared (and imaginary) common history of perseverance though difficult times. However, this type of thinking ignores the realities of the situation. This vulnerable population is ill equipped to deal with the realities of the declining American labor market and lacks adequate recognition from all levels of governance. Yalda wants security in his life, however thus far he has only received more uncertainty.

Courtesy of The U.S. Army

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