Iraqi Refugees Settle In California

A majority of Iraqi refugees have been relocated to the San Diego area since 2007. Madeleine Brand visits the El Cajon Adult Education Center, where Iraqis go to learn English and learn about American culture and customs. She speaks to a few Iraqis about their harrowing experiences back home.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Late summer is the time when a surge of Iraqi refugees cleared to move to the United States arrive. The U.S. government has been relocating Iraqis displaced by the war since 2007. July and August are peak months because the program's fiscal year ends each October.

BRAND: Thousands of Iraqi refugees have come to a town called El Cajon. It's a hot, dry place, miles inland from the beach in the San Diego area. And, you know, just a few years ago, most of the stores on Main Street in El Cajon, they had Spanish language signs out front. Now, I passed by an Ali Baba restaurant, Babylon market, a deli that sells only halal meat. And I'm standing outside a grocery store. There's a wooden camel tied up out front. And inside, they're selling Middle Eastern groceries and fruit.

Unidentified Woman: A lemon.

Unidentified Group: A lemon.

Unidentified Woman: A flock.

Unidentified Group: A flock.

Unidentified Woman: Excellent. Bingo. Wonderful.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman: Two stickers. Two stickers.

BRAND: And just a few blocks away from that market with the camel is the El Cajon Adult Education Center, one of the first stops for Iraqi refugees after landing in the United States. More Iraqis have been relocated to El Cajon in the last three years than any other city in the U.S. They come from refugee camps in Syria, Jordan, or Turkey, straight here often without knowing much English.

Unidentified Woman: Number 10. He is confused.

Unidentified Group: He is confused.

BRAND: Phyllis Ruth runs the Adult Education Program. She says nearly all of her students are Iraqi. Five years ago, most were Hispanic. Now, the teachers have to start with the basics: a new alphabet, how to write from left to right. Some students have never held a pencil.

Ms. PHYLLIS RUTH (Director, El Cajon Adult Education Center): You're going to take the California driver's license form, for example, and you're going to keep bringing it down. First, it's only going to have the name on it, help them understand how to fill out any line that says name, first and last. So they understand what that means, because every application is going to have some of that basic kind of thing.

So you are actually teaching them how to write their first name, last name, their birth date, those kind of things on any form.

BRAND: But it's not just teaching how to write your name on a form with a new alphabet; there are profound cultural conflicts that these teachers have to navigate.

Ms. RUTH: One of the biggest issues we have is with a father, or a grandfather, or an older brother and someone looking at their sister, literally, that can set a very large problem off very rapidly. Or some of those very distinct issues of Sunni versus Shiite versus Chaldean versus Kurdish versus whatever. You know, when you have me sit next to someone that isn't really - or has traditionally been your enemy, it isn't always a cozy situation.

BRAND: Most of the Iraqis in El Cajon are Chaldean, Iraqi Catholics. The local Chaldean church says it has 37,000 members in a city that had about 100,000 residents in the last census. Refugees who have even a distant relative in El Cajon are being sent here because the State Department emphasizes family reunification.

Even though he has relatives in the States, Eunus Cananian(ph) had no desire to move to America until he lost everything in the war: his house, his possessions, his life savings. He tells me in the hallway of the Adult Education Center during a break, tears filling his eyes, about being kidnapped in Baghdad.

Mr. EUNUS CANANIAN (Iraqi Refugee): They take money from my wife and I took my family and went to Syria. And in Syria, the United Nations sent me to USA.

BRAND: Eunus and the other Iraqi refugees are given a small stipend and food stamps for eight months as long as they're learning English and looking for work. Eunus says his money will run out soon.

Mr. CANANIAN: They give us here $584 for me and my wife. They give us food stamp card. But after two months, they - no food stamp.

BRAND: So in two months, you will have no food stamps and you will have no $584.

Mr. CANANIAN: No money. But my son now he's work at Subway restaurant.

BRAND: Eunus' son has a master's degree. What he makes at Subway will not be enough to help the family pay their rent in a few months. And Eunus says he's having trouble finding work, especially in a city with a 17 percent unemployment rate. But he likes El Cajon with its hot streets and palm trees -maybe it reminds him of home.

Tamara Mirza(ph) doesn't ever want to go home. She fled after one of her friends was kidnapped and murdered.

Ms. TAMARA MIRZA (Iraqi Refugee): They have many burns on her body. And she -they had - have sex with her, and that's all.

BRAND: How old was she?

Ms. MIRZA: My age, 21.

BRAND: Tamara decided to quit school for her safety and she, too, became a refugee.

Here in the United States, she wants to go back to college and finish her studies.

Ms. MIRZA: Maybe after one year, if I had the green card�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MIRZA: �I'm go to the college.

BRAND: You want to go to college here�

Ms. MIRZA: Yes�

BRAND: �and study?

Ms. MIRZA: Biologist.

BRAND: And be a biologist?

Ms. MIRZA: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Why are you laughing?

Ms. MIRZA: I don't know. I love be a biologist.

BRAND: It just makes you happy to think about that?

Ms. MIRZA: Yes.

BRAND: You're fresh. You're new�

Ms. MIRZA: I have many dreams.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Yes. You have a big future ahead of you.

Ms. MIRZA: Yes.

BRAND: Her break over, Tamara Mirzah and the other Iraqi refugees stream back into their classrooms to learn, bit by bit, how to be American in this Californian town with a Spanish name, El Cajon.

Unidentified Woman: We are homesick.

Unidentified Group: We are homesick.

Unidentified Woman: They are in love.

Unidentified Group: They are in love.

Unidentified Woman: I am hungry.

Unidentified Group: I am hungry.

Unidentified Woman: She is nervous.

Unidentified Group: She is nervous.

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