A Shabby Welcome

As U.S. troops are preparing to return to the United States, millions of Iraqis continue to endure hardship both as displaced persons within Iraq and as refugees in surrounding countries. But even Iraqi refugees in the United States face harsh pitfalls. Since the war’s mass displacements began in February 2006, barely 30,000 Iraqis have been admitted to the United States, and few of these were admitted prior to August 2008. Now, because of the sharp economic downturn, nonprofit resettlement agencies are finding it increasingly difficult to help them find jobs. Many face eviction and homelessness.

The title of a recent report by the International Rescue Committee tells the grim story: In Dire Straits. The report focuses on two cities, Atlanta, Ga., and Phoenix, Ariz., which were chosen by the I.R.C. because the relatively high numbers of Iraqi cases in those cities, as an I.R.C. spokesperson told America, have been significantly affected by the economic crisis. The I.R.C. plans to settle approximately 230 Iraqi refugees in Atlanta in 2009 and an equivalent number in Phoenix. But resettlement has become increasingly difficult, because all refugees are expected to find employment within a few months of their arrival in a city.


The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration provides a reception grant of $900 per refugee upon arrival at their destination—an amount meant to cover immediate necessities like security deposits on rental housing, food and other immediate needs for the first month. But this falls far short of actual needs, especially with housing costs varying widely by city and state. In a strange reversal of roles, better-off relatives in Iraq sometimes send assistance to loved ones in the United States.

Individual states in which the refugees resettle provide some public assistance, but the amount varies widely from state to state—an inequity in itself. The average for a family of four nationwide is $575 per month, but in some states the amount can be as low as $309—which adds to the precariousness of the refugees’ lives. Medicaid, which is generally included, is crucial because many arrive in poor physical and mental health. But Medicaid does not cover all medical needs, such as those of trauma victims. The trauma can make it more difficult for them to begin work in their new country. In addition, a number have serious medical problems or physical disabilities that can undermine their immediate employability.

Widows face especially harsh struggles. Most are from traditional backgrounds in which the wife or mother was not expected to be the primary breadwinner in their families. But the requirement to find employment quickly applies to them as well as to men. Male relatives attempting to join them face additional security checks and therefore longer delays in being reunited. And yet family reunification is one of the strongest indicators of resettlement success. The I.R.C. report tells the story of a widow living alone in Phoenix. Like others who have received eviction notices, she has nowhere to go, and homeless shelters are full. The waiting list for subsidized housing is two years.

The most immediate need is for increased federal assistance in the form of cash and better access to medical treatment. Also needed is a leveling of the widely disparate amounts individual states offer for refugee resettlement. The I.R.C. urges that Congress provide $97 million in supplemental funds for the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services to cover emergency rent payments for refugees at risk of eviction. This past spring the State Department released $5 million in emergency rent stipends to assist those facing eviction, but such modest steps are mere stopgaps. The entire refugee resettlement program needs to be reinvented.

The United States has agreed to admit 17,000 Iraqis in fiscal year 2009 (October 2008 to September 2009), a shamefully small number, given that many Iraqis have even risked their lives working for the U.S. military and government and for American companies in various capacities—for example, as interpreters. Whether that number will be reached remains to be seen, although so far the U.S. government is on track and resettlement groups are optimistic. As of June 30, 2009, 13,537 had been received. Roughly a third are Christians, still a targeted group in Iraq. Some four million refugees in all have fled their homes because of a war for which the United States bears primary responsibility.

The least we can do is to better share the load with Iraq’s neighbors and provide adequately for those Iraqis who manage to arrive here as traumatized refugees. The voluntary resettlement agencies that care for them are increasingly overburdened as the recession continues and unemployment climbs.

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9 years 5 months ago

The treatment of Iraqi refugees is sad indeed. In contrast there is the Iraqi Student Project begun two years ago by Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak two Americans who are living in Damascus.  By September of this year, 35 Iraqi students, most of them from the refugee population in Syria, will be studying in 32 different US colleges.  The colleges have contributed free tuition and local communities have provided financial and emotional support.

From the start, Iraqi Student Project (ISP) is about "one small thing we can do":  give a good undergraduate education to a few of those who lost their opportunities for study when Iraq's once fine educational system, like so much else, came apart after 2003.  But it is also about building face-to-face relationships between Americans and Iraqis.  All these students intend to return to their country-a country they love- when their studies are completed.  To find out more about the Iraqi Student Project and the colleges and communities that are supporting these students see www.IraqiStudentProject.org 

9 years 5 months ago

Even before the recesion, volunteer agencies dealing with refugee resettlement were experiencing popular support diffculties.  Host families, once readily volunteering, have been increasingly difficult to find. As a result, most refugees are no longer assigned a host family to assist in their transition.

Though unable to refuse the refugees, some local cities and municipalities have attempted to charge the federal government "social impact fees" or have been in other ways administratively uncooraperative concerning refugees. Once resettled, the refugees often find that low English / low skill employment positions are scarce and that many employers have a historical preference for seeking and employing ethnic group "X' for positions "Y".

Realistically, the reasons for this noticable decline in public support are varied. They range from prejudice to an honest feeling that they have "done their fair share" with earlier waves of refugees. 

Paul Louisell
9 years 5 months ago

What is the proper function of government?  I'm sorry, but I refuse to feel ashamed of my government for not providing food, shelter and clothing to refugees when it has overspent its budget by more than a $trillion this year. 

It is not the government's function to provide assistance to anyone.  That responsibility falls upon each of us, individually, as practicing Christians to voluntarily provide assistance for those, including refugees, who need it.  Our government is supposed to provide its citizens with the framework to (personal and national security, property law, rules promoting free trade and commerce) provide for themselves; it is not supposed to feed, clothe and shelter us. 

I'm frustrated by this publication's mind-set that assumes our federal and/or state government should assume the role of provider of food, clothing, shelter and health care, to both citizen and non-citizen alike.  The danger of having the government provide the necessities of life for its citizens is two-fold: 1. It discourages productive citizens from producing since an ever increasing portion of their property must be involuntarily seized by the government to carry out its "benificent" policies; and, 2. It encourages those non-productive citizens and non-citizens alike to wait around for the government to take care of them, making them increasingly dependant on the government's largesse. 

Socialism may work in the "City of God".  It does not work outside of Eden.  The Soviet Union, Cuba, and any number of socialist experiments have proven that. 

Well-meaning government "entitlement" programs (Hud; ADC; Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac) have all produced more harm than good.  Corporate bail-outs are equally unwarranted and just as harmful to the economic well-being of the average citizen.   Yet, every time I open this magazine there is another article extolling the virtue of government "charity".  The term is an oxymoron.  A government cannot be "charitable".  It can only steal property from the wealthy and give it to the less well-off in exchange for votes and with a mandatory service charge to pay the government to redistribute the wealth.

It also promotes a we vs. them mentality that is inherently destructive.


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