Since the war in Iraq began in 2003, an estimated 4.7 million Iraqis have fled their homes, scattering within the country and beyond. Some 2 million now live outside their homeland, mostly in Jordan and Syria. In mid-2007, the U.S. government began resettling Iraqi refugees in this country: Some 15,000 Iraqi refugees already have arrived, and 17,000 more are expected in the next year. Atlanta is a prime destination for them.
Last year, we introduced NPR audiences to a single mother of three who heads one of the first refugee families to arrive in Atlanta. Bothinaa Mohammed had worked for the U.S. Army in Iraq and was targeted as a traitor. She brought her family to the United States in late August 2007, after three years in Jordan. In Atlanta, she got a job as a hotel maid.
A year later, Mohammed remains happy to be in U.S., but the transition hasn't been easy.
She sits in her small, tidy apartment in Atlanta. Half a dozen leafy plants climb almost to the ceiling in the living room and kitchen. Two canaries sing brightly. Mohammed has a TV and a computer for her three teenagers. She knows just a little English, so translator Noora Alshahlan helps her communicate for this story.
Mohammed says she remembers well what it was like when she and her children first arrived.
Exhausted But Satisfied
"It was everything strange for us, everything different, everything — culture, language, system, outside, inside, everywhere," Mohammed says, in Arabic, through the interpreter. "We talk now. We learn the system."
Mohammed's blond hair is pulled back from her face. She is exhausted after cleaning 15 hotel rooms. She started her housekeeping job last year, but now she has a heavier workload and sometimes works six days a week. Last Christmas, her apartment building caught fire. She lost nearly everything and moved to a new unit with help from a relief agency. Two months ago, the family moved to a better neighborhood closer to her job. But now she pays $850 a month for rent. That's $200 a month more — and a bit of a financial strain.
Mohammed loves to work, she says, though "every job, it has some problem. But I should work to pay the expenses and making my children happy. It is hard, but I'm working."
At a nearby Target, Mohammed smiles at the rows and rows of red, green and gold Christmas trinkets. "It's beautiful," she says, without an interpreter. "I like it. I am go shopping for Christmas, yeah."
Mohammed inspects cereal in a large plastic bag but decides against buying it. She picks up a few items: eggs, soda, bottled water and one of her new favorites, Oreo cookies.
While standing in line, Mohammed talks about how she is glad her children are in school now. They missed three years after the family escaped to Jordan, where she could not afford to send them to school. They're catching up on their academics, she says.
Barely Making Ends Meet
Mohammed realizes she has come a long way in the past year. She's kept her job. She was able to start over again after the devastating fire. And she's even purchased an old used car. But the family still lives paycheck to paycheck.
About a week ago, she put up her Christmas tree. This year, it's heavy with glittery bells and sparkling balls of every color.
"She feels when she look to this tree, it gives her some happiness or faithful or something like that," the translator says.
Mohammed recently applied for a green card and hopes to get it soon. Some new Iraqi immigrants tried to persuade her to move to Maine, where they said she would get more financial help from the state. But she's not going. Even though her life isn't easy, it's better this year, she says. Like many Americans, what she really wants is to be able to save enough money for a down payment on a home.
"America beautiful, good. America country, my country. I need buy house, buy everything," Mohammed says, in halting English. She laughs. "I am here; I am die here."
This Christmas, she'll work at the hotel so she can earn extra pay — and perhaps a little breathing room as she continues to make her way in America.