Iraqi Refugees Find Hard Times In California

fromSCPR

Since the U.S. opened its doors to Iraqi refugees in 2007, more have ended up in California than any other state — nearly 20,000. They're facing big challenges once they arrive. In addition to the language barrier, many have trouble adapting to living in California because they suffer from depression or PTSD.

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More than 80,000 Iraqi refugees have come to this country since the U.S. opened its doors to them six years ago. Though they have settled in nearly every state, by far the most have come here to California.

Ben Bergman of member station KPCC began his report on how they're faring in a class where newly arrived refugees learn English.

KHALIL ABBOUD: Listen, please. Who is going to introduce himself?

BEN BERGMAN, BYLINE: Khalil Abboud teaches an English class that meets four times a week at Access California, a nonprofit that assists refugees in Anaheim.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I am from Iraq. I was born in Zaakov.

BERGMAN: There are students crowded around tables - one from Mexico, another from Eritrea. But the vast majority of refugees this agency now handles - some 80 percent - are Iraqi.

SUAD HATEM: I am from Iraq. I was born in Mosul. Mosul is in the north of Iraq. It is very beautiful city.

BERGMAN: Suad Hatem arrived a year ago. Her husband, Wajeeh Alameen, joined her last fall.

WAJEEH ALAMEEN: When I was in school and read the map of the world, I dreamed to see America.

BERGMAN: Alameen and his wife try to be upbeat, but it's clear their transition has been far from storybook. Like many Iraqis whose families can't come all at once, they are plagued with guilt about living in safety while loved ones stayed behind. And their life here is spartan. They live in a cramped apartment with no furniture. They sleep on the floor.

HATEM: Everything I built step-by-step: car, home, garden, everything. I am rich, and now I am poor.

RIDA HAMIDA: They're expecting a Hollywood scene.

BERGMAN: Rida Hamida is a social worker at Access California who helps arriving Iraqis.

HAMIDA: They come to the airport, there's thousands of people walking around, nobody knows their name. They're lost. They're frustrated. They don't know the language.

BERGMAN: Hamida says Iraqis are reluctant to talk about their struggles because they don't want to appear ungrateful. Refugees get health care and cash assistance from the county, about $300 a month. But after eight months, the checks stop coming. Ready or not, Hamida has to convince them to find a job, even though the work almost always pales in comparison to whatever they were doing in Iraq.

HAMIDA: They actually have a Ph.D. and were the principal of a school of 2,000 students. And I'm trying to help them take an entry-level position as a customer service representative just to survive.

HANNA GAZNAKH: (Foreign language spoken)

BERGMAN: Hanna Gaznakh says he left his job as a radiologist in Iraq to settle in Anaheim with his son and wife two months ago.

H. GAZNAKH: Because the war in Iraq, security, this not good.

BERGMAN: At 63, he doesn't think he'll find any job, let alone be a radiologist again. But he hopes his son, who's dealt with PTSD, will find a better life here.

Yousif Gaznakh is 19 years old, meaning he's lived about half his life in war.

YOUSIF GAZNAKH: (Foreign language spoken)

BERGMAN: He says he saw a bomb explode at his school. For years after, he couldn't sleep, constantly awakened by nightmares of seeing people killed in front of him. He pulls back his sleeve to show the shrapnel wounds in his forearm. But Gaznakh says since coming to the U.S., his nightmares have stopped.

Y. GAZNAKH: I am here in America now. I have hope for a better life.

BERGMAN: Gaznakh says he wants to follow in his father's footsteps and become a radiologist.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Bergman.

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