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Iraqi refugees find hard times

Thousands have settled in El Cajon since the war in Iraq, but the tough economy has left many unable to find jobs and running out of options.

March 29, 2010|By Richard Marosi
  • In their El Cajon apartment, Iraqi refugee Abdul Azeez, with his wife, Haifaa, shows how he was tortured with a glowing hot metal poker by gunmen who broke into his house in Baghdad. Before that their daughter had been kidnapped and $25,000 ransom demanded. The Azeezes are among thousands of Iraqi families that fled their war-torn homeland, only to find joblessness, welfare lines and isolation amid fellow refugees in this city east of San Diego.
In their El Cajon apartment, Iraqi refugee Abdul Azeez, with his wife, Haifaa,… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from El Cajon, Calif. — Bomb blasts, torture and years of exile had all but ruined the Azeez family of Iraq. So the news sounded promising: Their refugee application had been approved. Abdul, his wife, Haifaa, and their four adult children were coming to America.

The family of Mandeans, a persecuted religious minority in Iraq, had left behind almost everything in their Baghdad home but planned to create a new life in El Cajon.

One year later, Abdul, 49, fiddles with worry beads as he paces in his two-bedroom town house. His three sons scour the streets competing for jobs with Mexican immigrants. Haifaa, 49, bends her brittle, bomb-shattered back to light rose-scented candles and prays.

Abdul, once a wealthy merchant who owned jewelry stores in Iraq, was counting on government support to resettle, but the eight months of payments have run out. The family members still lack work, as do many Iraqi refugees they encounter around town.

"Why are they bringing Iraqis here? There are no jobs," Azeez said.

Similar accounts of fading immigrant dreams are increasingly common in this San Diego suburb, where thousands of Iraqi refugees crowd apartment complexes, welfare lines and English-language schools, their appreciation for the United States tested by the specter of poverty.

Unlike previous waves of refugees from wars and other conflicts, the Iraqis' displacement has landed them in an economic desert. Gone are many of the jobs and generous government benefits that lifted earlier generations of immigrants up the economic ladder.

Refugees like the Azeez family resort to selling off jewelry and family heirlooms to pay the rent. Others borrow or live off money sent from relatives in Iraq. Families double up in tiny apartments. A handful have given up and returned to the Middle East.

"They're on a natural high when people get here. They are grateful," said Michael McKay, head of the Catholic Charities office in San Diego. "But after a few months, it's kind of a crash. Things are tough."

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A refugee existence came unexpectedly for many. Saddam Hussein's ouster and execution lifted hopes that Iraq -- flush with oil profits -- would join the ranks of modern Arab states, minting millionaires and sprouting gleaming skylines. Instead, sectarian violence broke out in 2006, fueling attacks against ethnic and religious groups, many of whose members fled to Syria or Jordan. The U.S. government, inundated with immigration requests, dramatically increased the number of Iraqi refugee admissions in 2008.

Since then U.S. communities with large Iraqi populations have been flooded with refugees. In El Cajon, where about one-quarter of the population of 96,000 has Iraqi ancestry, an estimated 7,000 Iraqis arrived last year. A similar surge is expected this year, straining resources and schools in the city believed to have the second-largest number of Iraqis in the country, most of them Chaldean Christians.

On Main Street, which is dotted with signs in Arabic and kebab eateries, cafes are jammed with retired or unemployed Iraqi men sipping strong black tea. Refugees using food stamps buy fresh koboz bread and dates at storefront markets and get in line for donated mattresses at St. Peter's Church. There are waiting lists for English classes, and some refugees have been referred to homeless shelters.

Nearly half of the kindergartners in the local school district are refugees.

Last month, hundreds of immigrants tried to squeeze into a three-room social services agency to meet with Iraqi government officials. Police had to disperse angry crowd members who had gathered to get their Iraqi government documents processed.

Joseph Ziauddin, president of the East County Refugee Center, spends his days shuttling car-less widows to work, finding people jobs and translating police calls. Every morning, he wakes to dozens of phone messages from people asking for assistance.

"It's overwhelming," said Ziauddin, who runs one of a handful of social service agencies for Iraqis in the city. "People are in need. They need help, and there's not enough."

The tales of trauma and struggle spill out from women in veils, middle-aged men playing dominoes and children who sleep in clothesline-strung bedrooms. The refugees have been interviewed extensively by U.S. authorities abroad who have determined that their fears of persecution back home are credible.

A white-haired man stands in a welfare line, jobless in a new country after having been kidnapped and losing his chicken farm in Iraq to Muslim militants. A burly man in a cafe who had worked as a security guard for foreign media left Baghdad after receiving an envelope with five bullets inside, meant for each member of his family.

Many refugees are doctors, engineers and other educated professionals who feel humiliated taking jobs as busboys or waiters or landscapers -- when they can even land such work.

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