As more Iraqi refugees return to the Middle East disillusioned about America and defeated by unemployment, many of those who remain in Utah are increasingly angry. Recognizing their sacrifices and the growing dilemma, the state refugee office is fighting for additional federal funds to alleviate their painful transition.
“We started this war,” said Gerald Brown, director of the Utah Refugee Services Office. “These people are a direct result of federal policy.”
More than 300 Iraqi refugees are expected to arrive in Utah in 2009, pushing the state’s community beyond 500. Many have been tortured, threatened or lost members of their family — often due to their association with Americans. They have acted as interpreters, assisted with security and watched their country unwind in chaos after the U.S. invasion.
At the request of the state refugee office, Mara Rabin, medical director at Utah Health and Human Rights Project, recently summarized her concerns in writing. She urged changes large and small — from increasing mental health services to ensuring an appropriate welcome and expression of thanks to arriving refugees who helped the U.S.
It’s what she’s tried to do as she’s heard their stories. “I have now said, ‘Thank you for what you have done,’ ” she said.”I’m sorry you had to leave your homes.”
The Iraqis are a unique group: Often highly educated professionals, they left behind middle-class lifestyles and assumed they would re-create their lives here. Instead, they have arrived at one of the bleakest economic times in the past century, leaving many unemployed for months. The jobs they can find often make little or no use of their skills and degrees.
Most new arrivals do not have a network of family or friends already in Utah, which is not the case in areas with established Iraqi communities, such as Detroit.
“I do have a staff that does their best to try to do everything [refugees] need,” said Tawfik Alazem, director of U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Dearborn, Mich. But “at the end of the day, there is a sister or a brother or a father or somebody that is giving them advice, support.”
To help create a softer landing in Utah, the state hopes to secure federal funds to hire staff at nonprofits for additional counseling and orientation.
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