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Iraqi Refugees Struggle to Build a Life in the U.S.

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Iraqi Refugees Struggle to Build a Life in the U.S.

Iraq

Iraqi Refugees Struggle to Build a Life in the U.S.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For a year now, the United States has had a special program to resettle Iraqis - translators and others - who've helped American interests in that country. The program has been plagued by delays and is far from its goal of resettling 12,000 Iraqis in this fiscal year. Meanwhile, some of those who have made it to the U.S. are having a hard time. They say it's tough finding any job, let alone one suited to the skills that made them so valuable to the U.S. Some are so desperate they say they're considering taking jobs back in Iraq. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: On his laptop computer, 27-year-old Bahjat still keeps photos of when he worked with an American contractor in Baghdad. He and his colleagues line up for the camera in matching bulletproof vests.

Mr. BAHJAT (Iraqi Refugee): This is inside the U.S. Army base. Our offices are there.

LUDDEN: Bahjat was an IT specialist. He says just like U.S. soldiers, Iraqis who worked with Americans took their lives in their hands simply by showing up every day.

Mr. BAHJAT: Our guys were going one of the meeting and it got hit by bomb, and of the guys, he got - somebody kidnapped him and killed him, and it was very bad.

LUDDEN: Bahjat doesn't want to use his full name. He fears for the safety of a brother still in Baghdad and also working with a U.S. contractor. Bahjat, his mother, and sister arrived in the U.S. last September and like many Iraqi refugees they ended up in the hometown of an American contractor Bahjat had befriended. Cape Coral, Florida is a retirement resort community and a stark contrast to Baghdad.

(Soundbite of door opening)

LUDDEN: Out the back door of this small ranch house is a canal that leads right to the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. BAHJAT: Well, as you see I have water in my backyard. I'm very lucky, but I don't have boat like the person who's living next door.

LUDDEN: Bahjat was hoping his experience and engineering degree would make him valuable here, maybe let him help the U.S. with its war on terror. Instead, after five months of cold calling on stores and trolling job search sites, he's received one offer from a local hotel.

Mr. BAHJAT: We thought that the job position would be like a warehouse manager, warehouse assistance, something. When I went there, it was cleaner, like room keeper or something.

LUDDEN: Housekeeping.

Mr. BAHJAT: Yeah, housekeeping and I felt like very disappointed.

LUDDEN: Bahjat says he still would have accepted if he thought his family could have survived on that. But for seven dollars an hour, he turned it down.

Mr. BAHJAT: Hello?

LUDDEN: It's Bahjat's sister calling from Jordan. She too worked for Americans in Baghdad and has now fled Iraq with her family seeking to come to the U.S. Bahjat's mother ask after aunts, uncles, and her grandchildren.

Ms. BAHJAT (mother, Iraqi refugee): (Arab spoken)

LUDDEN: Bahjat says he's incredibly grateful to be living in a safe place. He knows it's a bad economy right now, even for Americans, and he needs to lower his expectations.

Mr. BAHJAT: I don't blame them if they don't respect my degree and my experience, but at the same time, they should know that I served this country, me and my family, my brother and my sister, we served this country more than many Americans did.

Unidentified Woman: Hi Welcome.

Mr. BAHJAT: Hi, how are you?

LUDDEN: Bahjat and several dozen other newly arrived Iraqis have been signing on to this weekly conference call run by the non-profit group Upwardly Global. The State Department asked the group to step in, essentially admitting there's not much the government can do for these Iraqis. Upwardly Global coaches them on that very American trait of marketing yourself, and with the young men scattered across the country, the calls have also helped some make welcome connections from back home.

Unidentified Man: This is Ali. It's a good chance to hear you.

Mr. BAHJAT: Hey Ali, how are you? Good to hear you.

Unidentified Man: I'm good, thanks.

LUDDEN: Upwardly Global's executive director, Jane Leu, says if nothing else, she hopes to provide the Iraqis some small measure of validation.

Ms. JANE LEU (Executive Director, Upwardly Global): They feel like they were brought here with some promise and some expectation that the American people or the American government would help them. So in many cases, just that one hour phone call is a validation that yes, we do want to help them and that we are following through on that promise.

(Soundbite of motor)

LUDDEN: In northern Virginia, 31-year-old Salman has been jobless for nearly three months. In Baghdad he worked in public affairs for the U.S. Army, then the U.S. Embassy. Here he landed a part time job in the stockroom of a Barnes and Noble, but lost it because the government was slow with his paperwork. Salman sticks his cold gloveless hands in his coat pockets and says life in the U.S. is not what he expected.

Mr. Salman (Iraqi Refugee): I was expecting more. I was expecting that the process is much easier than now. I still remember the sentence of the first American officer that I met in Iraq in 2003, which is - working American government is a future, and I believed what he said.

LUDDEN: Shortly after he arrived, Salman says he got a phone call from another Iraqi who'd given up after three months of struggle. He was leaving his family in the U.S. to take a contract job back in Iraq.

Mr. SALMAN: Because he said I have nothing and he has the wife and a child and he need to support them.

LUDDEN: Would you ever do the same?

Mr. SALMAN: This is a hard question because later seem just frustration and frustration.

LUDDEN: Most Iraqis are coming to the U.S. as refugees with several months of federal assistance for rent and food, but about 1000 including Salman have come on special visas that offer no aid. Salman's been staying in the guest room of his former American boss. He says she's extremely kind and has even lent him money. But he wonders how long he can keep imposing.

Back in Cape Coral, Florida, Bahjat's rent and food aid will soon run out and he's had to start paying back the government for the family's plane tickets here, $3000 in monthly installments. It all makes for an increasing sense of desperation as he sits on his bed and checks his bursting computer inbox.

Mr. BAHJAT: See, they have jobs in Iraq.

LUDDEN: American contractors are bombarding Bahjat with offers to go back to Iraq and he says it's making him crazy. He also knows Iraqis who went back, but Bahjat remembers all the death threats he faced there and the roadside bomb that ripped into his car and killed a friend.

Mr. BAHJAT: I think that I was lucky the first time when I survived and came here from battlefield. And now they want to send me back there. It's something - something very bad.

LUDDEN: But Bahjat says if he has to go back to Iraq to earn a living, he will.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can hear more stories at npr.org about how Iraqi refugees are coping in America and other countries including Syria where for some art has been the key to a new life.

(Soundbite of music)

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