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For Iraqi refugees, a sense of community in the American west

For Iraqi refugees, a sense of community in the American west

Members of Iraq's Chaldean Christian community find safety and opportunities in southern California.
12 December 2007
Mayek (left) and Esmahan Yagoo meet with IRC staffer Wafa Toma (in green). With their parents still in Turkey the brother and sister are living with an uncle in San Diego.

SAN DIEGO, United States, December 12 (UNHCR) - Like all of the Iraqi refugees who arrive each month at this coastal city in southern California, Mayek and Esmahan can cite the moment when it was clear they had to leave their homeland.

With the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the brother and sister from Baghdad, members of Iraq's Chaldean Christian community, witnessed the growing animosity among communities which previously had accepted one another.

Mayek was forced to leave his job as a hairdresser. Their father, a tailor, was also soon out of work. One day a letter containing a knife was delivered to their house warning their brother, the last remaining breadwinner, that he, too, should stay home.

Ultimately, their father was kidnapped and the family forced to hand over their house to his abductors. That's when the journey began; first to northern Iraq, then Turkey, and ending one month ago in San Diego.

Numbering 25,000 and growing, San Diego's Chaldean community is one of the largest in the United States. Like Mayek and Esmahan, many newly arrived refugees have relatives in the city, themselves former refugees from the Saddam Hussein era. The Iraqis have set up many businesses, which means finding work is not difficult, even without knowledge of English.

Refugees resettled to the US also receive eight months of government assistance. In San Diego, this is distributed through the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which also runs a variety of assistance programmes. Despite these benefits, Iraqi refugees face particular challenges.

"Nearly every Iraqi we see has experienced trauma," said Robert Montgomery, IRC's regional resettlement director. "They've witnessed death and kidnappings on such a scale that every family has been touched by trauma."

Ekran Gorgrees, the eldest son in a family of eight, speaks for his father, who he says has difficulty recounting the time before they left their home in Baghdad. His mother, who was suffering from cancer, was terrified of the sound of the explosions. She wanted the family to leave, but was too ill to travel. Then, on a day off from his job at a restaurant, a car carrying seven of Ekran's co-workers was stopped by gunmen and the occupants abducted and killed.

Following the death of his wife, Jamil Gorgrees sold what belongings he had and took his family to Turkey in November 2004 by way of northern Iraq, much of the way on foot. There they approached UNHCR, which put the family forward for resettlement.

The UN refugee agency has a target of 20,000 Iraqi refugee resettlement referrals for 2007. It announced in Geneva earlier today that this figure had been passed and that, as of last Friday, the agency had transferred the files of 20,472 of the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees for consideration by 16 resettlement countries, including the United States.

A total of 14,798 files have been submitted to the US authorities, but by December 1 only 2,376 had actually left for the United States, with more in the pipeline. For fiscal year 2008, the US State Department has set a goal of 12,000 Iraqi refugee admissions.

Vincent Cochetel, deputy director of UNHCR's Division of International Protection, said that with three weeks to go before the end of the year, the agency was "extremely concerned about the low rate of departures to date." Including the US figures, a total of 4,575 Iraqis had left for resettlement countries by the end of November - about 22 percent of the total referred cases.

"Refugee resettlement is used as a means of helping the most vulnerable," said Anne Marie Mcranaghan, associate resettlement officer with UNHCR in Washington. "With more than 2 million Iraqi refugees living in neighbouring countries, resettlement is just one solution to this crisis."

In any refugee situation, the best outcome is that families can voluntarily return to their homes. For Mayek, Esmahan and the Gorgrees, return is not being contemplated, even though both families have left behind loved ones. "Even if the situation in Iraq improves we won't go back," said Mayek. "We have been in the US for just one month, but already we feel that it is our country."

By Tim Irwin in San Diego, United States