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Iraqi refugees find U.S. life not what they expected

Arriving from a former life of privilege into a U.S. deep in the throes of recession, these Iraqis wonder if they made the right choice.

August 24, 2009|Alexandra Zavis

On a pleasant afternoon in Amman, the genteel Jordanian capital, a petite Iraqi woman with carefully coiffed hair, heavy makeup and lots of gold jewelry sat in a classroom full of refugees heading to America, her face frozen in wide-eyed horror.

Her husband had disappeared in the war. Her request to settle in Jordan had been denied. Now an advisor from the International Organization for Migration was telling her no U.S. firm would recognize her law degree or her nearly two decades of experience.

In a month, the 51-year-old woman was due to leave for Portland, Ore. In the hushed room, she protested helplessly, "I am a lawyer. What else can I do?"

A few desks away, Anwer and Avan Shalchi, bound for Folsom, Calif., nervously took notes on how many bags they would be allowed to take on the plane (two apiece), how much cash they could bring into the United States ($10,000 duty free) and how much financial aid they could expect (only the first month's rent would be guaranteed).

Avan, 32, wondered how they could reduce their lives to so little. Her husband, Anwer, 37, worried about how they would afford medical costs for their youngest daughter, born prematurely, and for his diabetes and high cholesterol.

They too had hoped to last out the war in Jordan. But Iraq's neighbor was handing out few residence permits, and they hadn't wanted to keep working illegally.

In the year of waiting for their applications to resettle in America to be processed, both families had run through most of their savings. They had assumed that the U.S. would take care of them. The two-day class, just weeks before their departure last fall, was the first they had heard of how hard it might be to pursue the American dream.

There would be more rude surprises after they arrived.

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Under Saddam Hussein, the Shalchis had belonged to a privileged Baghdad elite. So too did the lawyer, who asked to be identified only as Shifa to protect relatives still in Iraq. Weekends were spent at clubs, where intellectual leaders and regime favorites would gossip around the pool and sip expensive whiskeys at the bar. Holidays were for touring the Middle East and Europe.

But privilege was no protection once the war started -- quite the opposite. As lawlessness took over the capital, prominent families were hunted down by kidnappers and religious extremists.

Two of Shifa's brothers were shot to death in the streets. In May 2005, gunmen in a speeding car seized her husband as he left for work at an electronics import firm. Shifa watched from a window. It was the last time she saw him.

To pay a $150,000 ransom, she sold the new home they had been building. But she did not get her husband back. She spent months scouring police stations, hospitals and morgues, studying hundreds of pictures of corpses, battered, burned and riddled with drill holes.

"I even went to the trash dump to see if his body was there," she said.

Shifa and her daughter Ann, now 25, fled the country after receiving an envelope with a single bullet tucked inside. Bandits chased the car they hired to take them to Jordan.

Anwer's mother, a respected doctor, was on her way home from work in July 2005 when masked gunmen pistol-whipped her and shoved her into a car. The only reason they didn't kill her, they told her, was because she had treated their wives and children.

Anwer, who owned an Internet cafe and a luxury car parts business, borrowed money for the $30,000 ransom. To pay it back, he sold a car. While he was in court registering the ownership transfer, the kidnappers, who were watching him, called his cellphone.

"What are you doing there?" they demanded. "We will come after you."

Within hours, the Shalchis too were speeding toward Jordan.

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Six years of war have produced an estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees. Jordan and other neighboring countries have been overwhelmed. Refugee advocates have long pressed the United States to take in a greater share.

This year, the U.S. has pledged to admit 17,000 Iraqis, a huge increase over the 202 permitted in 2006.

Some refugees felt ambivalent about moving to America. "The country that occupied my country ruined everything, and now I am going to live there?" Shifa said. "It's humiliating."

The timing of their arrival hasn't helped. Shifa, Ann and the Shalchis flew to the United States last September, as major financial institutions were crashing and jobs vanishing.

Still, the Shalchis have an advantage that most Iraqis lack: family in the country.

The Shalchis landed in New York on Sept. 11, when security was particularly intense. They sat on the floor in a holding area for five hours, before they were cleared to catch connecting flights.

But when the harrowing trip was over, Anwer's aunt, a long-time California resident, was waiting at the Sacramento airport. She delivered them to the home she had found for them, a tidy apartment complex in a leafy part of Folsom.

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