Features » April 21, 2008
They Can’t Go Home Again (cont’d)
Ita, who resettled from Iraq in 1994, says LSSM’s support was critical to his successful immersion into American life. “It was a blessing when I came here and they took care of me, getting me transportation, finding me a job,” he says. “Without [LSSM], it definitely would have been very difficult.”
But what Detroit boasts in Middle Eastern culture, it lacks in economic opportunities. As Michigan sheds more and more manufacturing jobs – 300,000 since 1999 – its unemployment rate rises. In November 2007, that rate hit 7.4 percent, a full percentage point higher than any other state in the nation. Even worse, the Department of Treasury forecasts that unemployment will jump to 8.3 percent this year and 8.9 percent in 2009.
“It’s hard because the economy is so bad,” says Ita. “When they came in, there were no jobs, and the services [like food stamps and Medicaid] were … more difficult to get than they were 10 years ago.”
Since arriving in September, Fadi has failed to secure employment, although it’s not for lack of effort. He’d prefer to work in accounting, but his age and his cursory knowledge of English are major liabilities in the tight labor market, and he’s applied for entry-level work in a variety of fields. So far, he’s found no takers.
His eldest son, a former university student in Baghdad, landed a job working in the stock room at a department store. His mother and father were thrilled, but his bosses quickly cut his hours to 15 per week, meaning he nets only around $400 a month, the family’s sole income source.
The youngest son is adept with computers but has been turned down repeatedly for information technology jobs. As the months pass, his father says the 18-year-old, who has battled depression since leaving Iraq, spends more and more time holed up in his room.
Samir’s English is better than Fadi’s, but he has had just as much difficulty scoring work. Down the road, he would like to sell jewelry like he did in Baghdad, but he says that without a car, which he can’t afford, it’s difficult to connect with people in that industry. For now, he waits patiently with his wife and son at home, hoping something comes up.
Despite their woes, both families seem resolutely optimistic and say they have no intention of returning to Iraq. And when friends and family update them about life in Baghdad, it puts Michigan’s shortfalls in perspective.
“Our family is still over there and it’s just such a dangerous life,” Samir says. “The main things we hear about are the services. There’s almost no water, electric [or] transportation.”
Mona says that when they fled, they left their home fully furnished. Insurgents have since moved in. “We can’t go back,” she says, “or we’d be killed.”
Given this context, the Bush administration’s response to the displacement crisis has been pitiful. From 2003 to 2007, the White House – which instigated the war and made scores of Iraqis vulnerable by employing them as translators and drivers – refused to acknowledge the existence of a crisis at all, resettling a mere 466 refugees into the United States.
Rising violence and growing attention to the emergency forced President Bush’s hand in early 2007. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice created a high-level State Department task force on the refugee issue and promised to resettle 25,000 Iraqis. But over the course of the year, that target dropped to 7,000, and later to 2,000. By year’s end, only 1,608 Iraqis had been admitted.
The number of refugees processed each month would have to triple for the administration to meet its new 2008 goal of resettling 12,000 refugees. And on March 11, the State Department’s Senior Coordinator of Iraqi Refugee Issues James B. Foley told the House subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia that reaching that number is “not guaranteed.”
By contrast, Sweden, a nation of 9 million people, has resettled more than 90,000 Iraqis, in spite of its opposition to the invasion. The Center for American Progress’ Katulis and his colleagues have advocated that the United States should take in at least 100,000 refugees annually, based on UNHCR estimates of Iraqi citizens facing extreme vulnerability.
Why does America keep missing its targets? The State Department points to bureaucratic snafus, ranging from the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) stringent security review of each applicant, to jurisdictional confusion between the State Department and DHS, to a lack of interviewers in the field. Kurtzer says the fault lies with the White House, where officials refuse to take the problem seriously.
“There’s been a lack of political will from the senior levels of the administration to respond to this crisis in a way that we know the government is capable of responding,” he says. “When the White House is interested in putting resources and finding solutions to a problem, they are clearly capable of doing it.”
Such was the case in 1975, when, under President Gerald Ford, the United States resettled 130,000 South Vietnamese refugees between May and December after the fall of Saigon. Overall, more than 900,000 were eventually admitted to the country. “To do less,” Ford later said, “would have added moral shame to humiliation.”
Even the current administration has accepted expatriates when it has been politically viable. In May 2006, the White House agreed to move forward with the resettlement of thousands of Burmese refugees, a region that has garnered the attention of First Lady Laura Bush.
But Iraq is a different story.
Admitting that the embattled nation is in the throes of a humanitarian crisis disrupts the narrative that Iraq is stable and the war is winnable. Allowing people from the Arab world to emigrate freely could also brand the GOP as soft on terrorism, a political liability among the party’s conservative base, especially in an election year.
Unless the Congress and the president implement sweeping reforms immediately, the crisis will only worsen; Foley told the House subcommittee that the situation is intensifying and “the most critical problem is increasing impoverishment.”
What’s more, mass displacement could complicate Iraq’s national reconciliation, a process Gen. David Petraeus recently admitted is nowhere near complete. As Iraqis relocate permanently, shifting populations will, in part, determine how certain sects are compensated in a power-sharing deal.
“It’s not only a humanitarian issue, it’s a deeply political issue, too,” says Katulis. “This will necessarily be one component of that [process] that many people have not yet thought of.”
Back in Michigan, the refugees continue to put their lives back together. The Karanas are planning to enroll their son in day care soon, which will allow him to interact with kids his own age. The Rabbans have enjoyed spending time with their extended family, including their daughter.
“We want to build our future here, for ourselves and for our kids,” says Fadi. “We have nothing to build back home.”
Adam Doster, a contributing editor at In These Times, is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former reporter-blogger for Progress Illinois.