By New York Times. Student Journal Institute, January 10, 2012
by Carole Moran
Dalya Sarkees sat with her hands in her lap in the deserted cafeteria of Pima Community College, where she is a student, reflecting on the three years she has lived in Tucson as an Iraqi refugee, and on the injustice of war.
Six years ago, increasing violence forced Sarkees, 30, from her native Baghdad.
“I didn’t do anything to have everything collapse in my life,” Sarkees said. But she added that she’s thankful for the opportunities she’s had in Tucson. “I’m lucky to be here.”
Sarkees is taking 19 credits this semester, one last hefty load before she graduates with an associate’s degree in social services. She hopes to move on to Arizona State University to take courses in social work next fall.
She is one of 1,708 Iraqis resettled in Tucson since 1987, according to Charles Shipman, Arizona’s state refugee coordinator. The city has a reputation for providing the kind of close community that can be comforting for traumatized refugees.
Ken Briggs, executive director for the International Rescue Committee in Tucson, which helps refugees resettle, said of the city, “There are just so many people who pull together to help refugees restart their lives.”
Tucson has developed a network of refugee support services, including three national resettlement agencies and a long list of resource providers. But while the city has a reputation for welcoming refugees, it is now facing an unprecedented burden in having to provide for an influx of people from more countries than ever before, Shipman said.
“The situation is difficult these days” because such a wide range of languages and cultures have flooded the city, Shipman said, leaving too little time to develop programs specific to each one.
Erina Delic, executive director of the Tucson International Alliance of Refugee Communities, an agency that provides services to refugees, also singled out the challenge of meeting the needs of people from so many cultures.
“With everything that we do with refugees,” she said, “it’s very hard to put it just under one hut and say, ‘This is what we do and how we do it,’ and have a system that applies to everybody.”
For Sarkees and her family, a long-awaited call came Oct. 1, 2009, after they had been living in Syria for three years. They had been relying only on their savings, something less fortunate families are not able to do. The United Nations, which runs a program that resettles refugees, offered Sarkees’ parents the opportunity to emigrate to the U.S.
They settled on Tucson after chance put them in contact with Imad Rasheed, 56, who was Dalya Sarkees’ biology professor at the University of Baghdad. He had made the journey to Tucson with his family in November 2008.
Sarkees said she and her 28-year-old brother were able to join their parents one month later. But when she arrived, she was shocked by the cramped, roach-infested apartment where the social worker dropped them off, a sharp contrast to the family’s three-story Baghdad home.
“We didn’t expect that you would come here and no one would even carry the bags in the airport,” she said. “But of course that’s not the case manager’s job.”
Only a few weeks after her arrival, a social worker at the Tucson office of the International Rescue Committee discovered that Sarkees spoke both English and Arabic, and asked if she would work as an interpreter.
It gave her something that few Iraq refugees have: a job. Without the ability to speak English, Iraqi refugees are often forced to take entry-level jobs as security guards or housekeepers in hotels. After the recession hit in 2008, even those jobs were hard to come by.
The International Rescue Committee provides refugees with 90 days of direct financial assistance through U.S. State Department grants, Briggs said. When he first began working for the IRC, in 2007, 90 days was enough time for most refugees to secure jobs, he said. After 2008, that changed, leaving resettlement agencies scrounging for funds to extend aid for refugees reliant on welfare.
The daughter of an engineer educated in Germany and a dentist educated in Turkey, Sarkees, like many other refugees in the U.S., was dismayed to find her family’s and friends’ status had dropped precipitously.
Rasheed, her former professor, works as an office manager in the Islamic Center of Tucson. Though he took classes and is now certified as a medical assistant, he wasn’t able to find work. He said he aspires to continue his scientific studies, at the University of Arizona, but he faces a problem not uncommon for refugees and other immigrants: His diplomas aren’t recognized in the United States.
When she arrived in the U.S., Sarkees became part of the federal Matching Grants Program, which assists target populations, like refugees and asylum seekers, in finding employment. Enrollment is voluntary, and participants are required to accept the first job available to them.
For Sarkees, that was a position as a housekeeper in a hotel, a job that would have carried a stigma for a single woman in Iraq, she said. She refused to take it, saying she didn’t want to work below her skill level, and knowing that others were more desperate for work than she was. She was cut from the program.
“I just felt like my agency, instead of supporting me, was pushing me against everything I believe in,” she said. “There was no need to push me, squeeze me into this.”
Learning to speak English and finding employment are only two elements of the challenges Iraqi refugees face in resettling in the U.S. Aspects of everyday American life, like writing checks or building credit to buy a car, aren’t easily taught, especially to those less educated.
Imam Watheq al-Obaidi, 49, of the Islamic Center of Tucson, came to the U.S. from Baghdad as a refugee in the spring of 2009, he said, when his anti-terrorism views made him a target of al-Qaida.
Obaidi said the resettlement agencies and the United Nations should more carefully consider how well refugees will be able to integrate into their new communities. The agencies should be more selective, he said, so that those with more education, who may be better prepared to succeed in the U.S., are given priority.
Shipman said that he appreciated Obaidi’s perspective, but that refugee resettlement is an arm of U.S. foreign policy, and that the country resettles people based on their humanitarian needs, not their integration potential.
“This is about lifesaving,” he said. “This is about protection.”
Delic, of the Tucson International Alliance of Refugee Communities, said the U.S. invasion of Iraq had given some Iraqis too high an expectation of what the U.S. should provide for refugees, and that has made the resettlement process more complicated.
Sarkees added that tensions and distrust among Kurd, Sunni and Shiite refugees from Iraq have also made integration difficult at times because it can keep Iraqi families from developing relationships.
Obaidi, the imam, said he had witnessed some of these tensions at the Islamic Center, and tried to calm them.
Sarkees and her brother make a living as self-employed interpreters, working with social workers and counselors. Perhaps, she said, she’ll leave Arizona after graduation if she isn’t able to find a job as a social worker in Tucson. But for now, she finds the city a comfortable place to reflect on the past and rebuild her future.
Shifting her thoughts back to Baghdad and where she grew up, she said, “Every moment of my life I want just to go walk on that street.”
“The worst thing is that all of us did the right things in life,” she said. “So what went wrong?”