Displaced Iraqis, Afghans settle in Tucson
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a continuing series on the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on Tucson and its residents. For the series, go to www.tucsoncitizen.com/ warathome.
Suraia Ehrari, 44, came to Tucson alone, a political refugee from Afghanistan, in 2002.
She celebrated her first Afghan New Year March 21 as a U.S. citizen. Today, her table is set with placemats that read “Home Sweet Home.”
Ehrari is one of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis resettled in the United States since the U.S. invasions of their countries.
Millions of their countrymen remain displaced in countries neighboring their war-torn nations. Though most want to return home, tens of thousands want to come here.
The U.S. State Department has budgeted for the admission of 70,000 refugees from around the world for this federal fiscal year, according to its report to Congress. About 2,000 refugees are expected from Iraq and 1,000 from Afghanistan, the report said.
They will be placed in communities around the country where social service agencies “resettle” them.
Dozens of Iraqis and Afghans will come to Arizona, most placed in the Phoenix area and others in Tucson. They will join hundreds already here.
Since 2002, 488 Afghans and 367 Iraqis have been placed in Arizona, most in Maricopa County.
An influx of 163 Iraqis has arrived in Arizona since Jan. 1. About 40 came to Tucson.
Ken Briggs directs the Tucson office of the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency working with some of the new refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most of the new arrivals “suffer from culture shock and transition shock. They’ve lived in tough situations” and at least one has been tortured, he said. Some have unrealistic expectations about life in the United States, he added.
“Our job is to make sure when they get here we adjust those expectations as soon as possible. For some, it’s a little more challenging than for others.”
Ehrari’s parents were killed in a mujahedeen rocket attack in Kabul, where her father was a rug merchant, she said. She was a college professor who taught literature and language at Kabul University.
After her parents’ slayings, Ehrari fled to Pakistan and taught in a makeshift high school for Afghan refugees “with no help from Pakistan,” she said. She also wrote and edited a magazine for Afghans.
In 2001, she applied to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees for refugee status and asked to come to the United States or to Canada, where her sister resettled. About a year later, her application was approved for the United States.
Ehrari had no choice where she would live, or which resettlement agency would handle her case.
She came to the International Rescue Committee’s Tucson caseload in July 2002. In September that year, she started working full time at a day care center and then a preschool.
“I like working,” she said.
To Ehrari’s friends, the preschool job was a big step back. But to her, it was a key step forward. Life in Afghanistan is very tough now, she said.
She watches news from Afghanistan on satellite TV and is upset by what she sees.
“People don’t have anything. No food. International aid can’t get there. Sheep, cows: They die. No food, no water. Snow. They freeze to death. A woman could never live by herself there. It would not be safe,” she said.
“Now, my life is safe.”
About 67 percent of all applications for U.S. refugee status are approved, according to the State Department.
In Tucson, four nonprofit refugee resettlement agencies are working with refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan and other countries.
Refugees can get Social Security cards immediately and can work legally in the United States. They get subsidized mental health services, employment services and case management for up to five years.
A refugee can apply to become a naturalized U.S. citizen in five years.
The agencies receive $425 in government funds for each refugee’s initial expenses: rental housing, food, clothing and transportation – a bus pass – for the first month. Adults must go to work as soon as possible before that money runs out.
One month after arriving here, they are eligible for state and federally funded assistance. The resettlement agencies make sure they get to a Social Security office and to an initial medical screening.
“Most go to Pima County (its subsidized health plans) or University Physicians. They get their immunizations and immediate medical needs taken care of,” Briggs said.
Nadhum Ali al-Hasnawi was among the first 1,600 Iraqi refugees resettled in the United States since the start of the war in Baghdad.
He and his family arrived here in September with about 30 other Iraqis – Christians and Muslims.
The family was assigned to Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest’s refugee resettlement staff in Tucson.
Al-Hasnawi, 37, a Shiite, and his wife – Buthaina Hassoun, 28 – fled Sunni terrorists. They have found life in America frustrating and disappointing.
Their lack of English skills is a barrier to their assimilation here. They’ve had trouble negotiating the red tape associated with obtaining some services, despite the best efforts of their caseworker and a volunteer.
Staff changes at the agency caused some confusion, they said, after the head of the refugee program there left.
The family’s youngsters – three younger than 4 – are enrolled in the federal government’s Women, Infants and Children, the program that provides milk and food for children up to age 5 to prevent malnutrition in low-income families.
And on April 1, the family moved into a government subsidized apartment, lowering their monthly expenses considerably.
Expenses are also a concern for Ehrari, whose situation is exacerbated by health problems that prevent her from working.
She worries about her country, has high blood pressure and suffered two stress-induced strokes last year. She sees a physical therapist twice a week.
Ehrari struggles to feed herself with $88 in food stamps each month.
“I have to buy cheaper, cheaper food,” she said a few days ago.
Like other workers who have paid into the federal Social Security system, Ehrari is eligible for Supplemental Security Income. Her monthly allotment is $523.
She pays rent on a federally subsidized apartment and makes monthly car payments.
Her English skills are good, but communication has been a problem for other refugees and the social workers helping them.
Iraqis’ native language is Arabic. Afghans speak Pashti or Dari.
Some who work with refugees said at the state’s annual refugee conference in Phoenix this week that local nonprofits have few native speakers and not enough translators to meet the demand.
“English is huge,” said Charles Shipman, who directs Arizona’s federally funded Refugee Resettlement Program.
Though he said Pima Community College “does a great job” offering English as a second language classes that are helpful to refugees, Shipman pointed out other obstacles. “How do you get around town when you work full time?”
The language classes meet federal resettlement guidelines for “accessible” but “how accessible is accessible?” Shipman asked. “For some people it’s more difficult. People are struggling.
“We have to find some approach that strengthens people and their ability to do things.”
The language barrier makes it more difficult for refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan to blend into community life.
There is suspicion by some that new refugees could be terrorists. But Tucsonans have nothing to fear, Briggs said, explaining “The screening Homeland Security does is extensive.
“With the FBI, the whole government apparatus for the screening of refugees who come into the United States, that concern should be allayed,” he said.
In the haste to get the most recent Iraqis here, however, not all of them got the cultural briefing the State Department gives to prepare refugees for life in America, Shipman said.
Some thought they would not have to work but they quickly learned they were expected to take low-paying jobs as hotel maids or dishwashers.
Most have found jobs but many are making less than $10 an hour. The average starting wage for the refugees in Arizona is “roughly $7.50 an hour,” Briggs said.
The refugees get to work by bicycle, walking or taking the bus. Some pool their resources and share a vehicle, thanks to loan programs that help them get a car earlier than they might otherwise, he said.
Retail, hospitality and manufacturing employers here are hiring the refugees, Briggs said. “Employers in Tucson have been great. They are in dire need and our refugee clients fit the bill.”
Three members of the Muhammad family work full time to support the family. The parents and a teenage son plan their work schedules so someone is home to take care of the their first American-born: 4-month-old Sohail.
The family is making payments on two cars purchased with their earnings.
Hasnawi, an Iraqi with little formal education, got a job right away here doing the same work he did in Iraq: custom car upholstery. After a month on the job, he received a raise from $10 an hour to $11, he said, speaking through a translator.
Iraqi Hussein “Tony” Abdul Waheed, 26, is among the newcomers here. He got permanent residency in the United States right away because he served as an interpreter for the Defense Department in Baghdad for several years.
Employees of the U.S. military and embassy there are being given U.S. residency if they want it because they are no longer safe in Iraq.
Waheed, who speaks fluent English peppered with American slang he learned from the troops, has been here about two months. He is eligible for eight months of resettlement assistance and “entitlement” programs, such as food stamps.
Waheed, who left his family behind, was invited to stay with the family of a retired U.S. Army chaplain he met in Iraq. He’s still deciding what to do next.
“I’m trying to give it some time,” he said. “I could get a job with any translation company.
“I could join the Army.”
He thinks about going back to Baghdad. “I miss the action sometimes,” he said.
Ehrari, however, has no intention of returning. She’s an American now, having taken the oath of citizenship in a ceremony March 28.
“I am so glad about the U.S. government,” Ehrari said. “They are like angels. (In my life) everything has changed.”
Meet the families
Sooman Muhammad, 9, was kidnapped and tortured four years ago for a $10,000 ransom.
Today, she is safely at home in Tucson, among the city’s newest Afghan refugees.
Her abductors sent the family a photograph of her mangled fingers with the demand for payment so the Muhammads sold everything that had to get her back, said her brother Tawab, 13, translating for their parents.
That act, which helped them qualify for refugee status here, could put them in violation of the Patriot Act, which forbids paying money to terrorists, when they apply for U.S. citizenship. They can request an exemption because the money was paid under duress, State Department officials say.
“They’ll need a good immigration lawyer,” said Charles Shipman, who directs Arizona’s federally funded Refugee Resettlement Program. It oversees the work of nonprofit refugee resettlement agencies.
The Muhammads were settled in Tucson last year by the State Department as refugees of the war in Afghanistan.
Mom, Dad and a son work full time to support the family, which has its first American citizen: Sohail, born Nov. 18 at Tucson Medical Center.
Childhood friends Muhammad Muhammad and Ritiak Rafi grew up in the same neighborhood in Kabul and now they are together again here.
Rafi said he came to Tucson as a refugee several years after his wife, Fahim, was resettled here as a refugee. They have a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Henna.
Muhammad, 41, works as an assistant manager of a shoe store at a mall.
Wife Khatool, 39, is a housekeeper at an East Side hotel, Raddison Suites Tucson.
The family’s eldest son, Shyuab, 16, works as a shoe salesman in another mall. He plays soccer on weekends with friends and doesn’t feel he is missing out by having dropped out of 10th grade at Catalina High Magnet School.
“I study English all day,” he said. “Customers talk to me about everything.”
Tawab speaks English fluently and is a popular, multimedal-winning track star at Townsend Middle School. He also plays with the Tanque Verde Soccer Club and has lots of new friends.
He recently returned from a soccer tournament in Las Vegas and was impressed by the casinos’ re-creations of foreign landmarks.
He said teachers and coaches have paid his travel expenses and provided his track and soccer shoes.
The Muhammad girls – Sosan, 7; Sooman, 9; and Sooma, 4 – have friends their ages in the midtown apartment complex where they live.
Sooman had difficulty in Tucson at first and didn’t want to leave her family to go to school, because of the trauma she suffered in her abduction. But the Muhammads said the teachers and counselors at Wright Elementary School have been very kind, and Sooman has been going to school for months now and doing well.
A ‘special immigrant’
Iraqi Hussein “Tony” Abdul Waheed, 26, was given permanent residency in the United States because of his work as an interpreter for the Defense Department in Baghdad for several years. He came to Tucson about two months ago.
Employees of the U.S. military and embassy can get permanent residency here if they want it because they’re not safe from insurgents in Iraq after working for the U.S. military.
Their official State Department category is “special immigrant,” not refugee.
Waheed speaks fluent English, unlike most of the Iraqis being resettled in the United States by social services agencies.
Other special immigrants such as Waheed arriving here now will get eight months of subsidized social services, under new provisions of the Defense Appropriations Bill. Previously, they got none.
To talk with other Arabic speakers, he sometimes visits the Arabian Oasis – far from an oasis here – a nonprofit Arabic language clubhouse at 250 W. Speedway Blvd., across from a muslim mosque.
The building gets 24-hour satellite TV reception from Iraq and Afghanistan and men gather to watch sporting events or the news.
The family of Nadhum Ali al-Hasnawi was among the first 1,600 Iraqi refugees resettled in the United States since the start of the war in Baghdad.
They arrived in Tucson last September with about 30 other Iraqis.
Al-Hasnawi, 37, a Shiite, and wife Buthaina Hassoun, 28, fled Sunni terrorists who dominated their town north of Baghdad.
They left their parents and nearly all their material possessions behind when they came to Tucson and still are angry about not being fully briefed.
Through a translator, they said they are exhausted by the challenges of adapting to a new way of life.
They said other refugees they talk to tell them they got more from their social service agency than the al-Hasnawis did.
Larger families do get more, based on the $425-a-person allotment from the federal government.
How it is used is up to the discretion of the agency. Some may provide cash along with furniture and household goods.
The family is given no choice which agency gets their case and the families have been comparing notes.
Al-Hasnawi said the family left Iraq because he could no longer get to work with all the assaults and bombings in Taji, the predominantly Sunni town where they lived north of Baghdad.
He gets angry when he talks about the difficulty of the family’s new life here. He said no one from the agency showed them how to shop at a grocery store.
They just showed them how to use their “food stamps” card, al-Hasnawi said.
He said the family had no milk for its first month but the agency working with them said they were provided with groceries.
Al-Hasnawi, who said he dodged attackers in Iraq, could be suffering from the effects of what he witnessed there but he isn’t getting mental health counseling, which is available to all the refugees here.
He said he has no time or energy left for English classes.
His wife, who has picked up some English, is the full-time caregiver to their three children – all under age 4. She did not want to put them in day care so she could get a job.
She complained about the difficulty of taking them with her to medical appointments. Volunteers help her with transportation when they can. She’s pregnant with their fourth child and said she will put them all in day care and get a job when the baby – their first American – is born.
Pat Kelly, a member of New Life Lutheran Church, volunteered to help the family.
She tried to get al-Hasnawi to a dentist for his tooth pain but he feared losing his job if he took time to go to the dentist and refused to be treated without an interpreter there.
He turned down an emergency appointment and insisted on a weekend or evening appointment.
When al-Hasnawi finally saw a dentist a month later, Kelly said, the tooth had to be extracted.
Source: Arizona Refugee Resettlement ProgramSource: Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program
How you can help
Through a refugee resettlement agency, you can:
• Volunteer to help a refugee family as a mentor or friend
• Ask your faith-based congregation to sponsor and mentor a family
• Donate material goods such as furniture, household items and personal care products
• Make financial contributions by donating to the nonprofit’s refugee resettlement program
• As an employer, agree to add qualified refugees to your work force or train them for jobs
Nonprofit resettlement agencies in Tucson
Catholic Community Services: 623-0344
International Rescue Committee: 319-2128
Jewish Refugee Resettlement of Southern Arizona: 319-5882
Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest: 721-4444
Department of Economic Security
Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program: 602-542-6645 or 800-582-5706
Director: Charles Shipman
By the numbers
The number of Iraqis currently referred to the U.S. Refugee Program for processing abroad
The number of potential refugees who have been interviewed for “in-country” processing
The number of U.S. immigration officers in the region interviewing prospective refugees
Amount the U.S. provided in 2007 to humanitarian assistance to Iraqi refugees displaced within Iraq
Top 10 refugee arrivals in Arizona by nationality
1980 to present
1. Vietnam 10,444
2. Bosnia 6,803
3. Cuba 3,948
4. Somalia 3,321
5. Iraq 2,923
6. Soviet Union 1,863
7. Sudan 1,967
8 Afghanistan 1,557
9. Cambodia 1,477
10. Romania 1,273
More to come
Projected Refugee Arrivals in Arizona
Country Tucson Phoenix Arizona
Africa: 340 789 1,129
East Asia: 127 533 660
Eastern Europe and
former Soviet Union 57 146 203
Western Hemisphere 74 234 308
Near East/South Asia 239 465 704
Some of these refugees are joining family in the U.S. Others are arriving on their own.
Political refugees in Arizona
Fiscal 2007 (Oct. 1., 2006, to Sept. 30, 2007)
New arrivals in Arizona: 2,383
Refugees receiving cash assistance: 530
Refugees receiving medical assistance: 3,097*
Refugees receiving at least one employment service: 2,089*
Refugees receiving English language training: 989
Refugees obtaining employment: 725
*(Numbers may be duplicated across quarters)
Source: Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program