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Iraqi Refugees in Arizona

Fawzi al-Khazraji, 42, feels stuck in his small apartment. Iraqi refugees such as him feel like prisoners in their apartments because they speak little English, have no friends and are overwhelmed by American culture. (Photos By David Sanders For The Washington Post)

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By Omar Fekeiki
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 8, 2007

TUCSON - After escaping death threats in a town north of Baghdad, Nadhum Ali al-Hasnawi and his family landed in the United States six weeks ago as refugees, hoping to build a new life for themselves. But since its arrival, the family has rarely left their apartment.

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"It is like Iraq all over again," said Hasnawi's wife, Buthaina Hassoun, 28. "There, we were under house arrest; and here, we are under house arrest, too."

Although they consider themselves fortunate, given that there are hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis awaiting resettlement outside of their country, life here has not been easy. They have to navigate an alien city, where they do not speak the language and do not know the culture. Their children have had trouble understanding lessons and making friends at their new school.

"We are strangers in this country," Hasnawi said.

The Hasnawi family is part of a vanguard, among 34 Iraqi Muslims and Christians who arrived in Tucson in August and September as refugees. They are among the 1,600 Iraqi refugees that the United States has resettled. That number is far short of the 7,000 the Bush administration promised in February to settle by the end of September, a figure it later lowered to 2,000.

Like the Cuban, Vietnamese, Laotian and Sudanese refugees before them, some of the Iraqis are going through a difficult adjustment period, feeling disoriented, alone and even abandoned by the social service agency that is supposed to serve them. They do acknowledge that, whatever their travails, they would not trade them for the difficulties of life in Iraq itself.

"At least, now, we are not worried about the children," said Fawzi Khazraji, 42, who was a car dealer. "At least they'll have a bright future, and we'll have a normal life."

Before the U.S. invasion, Hasnawi, 37, a Shiite, worked as an upholsterer and lived with his wife and three children in Taji, a predominantly Sunni town north of Baghdad.

With the escalation of sectarian violence, he and his family decided to hide in their house, leaving it only for emergencies or at night. Even those precautions did not help. Late last year, an armed man sprayed bullets into their house -- a common death threat. Having nowhere else to go in Iraq, the family fled to Lebanon, where they applied for resettlement through the United Nations' refugee program, and eventually ended up in Tucson.

Sometimes, the refugees joke that Tucson is too similar to Baghdad: flat, with high temperatures, wide streets and the same kind of trees. "This is not America that I've seen in the movies," said Bushra Abdulatif, 32, who arrived with her husband and two sons. "I want lots of mountains and snow."

The refugees have not heard news from Iraq since they arrived here because they do not have access to Arabic-language satellite television channels and they do not have Internet access. Most of them have spoken to their relatives in Iraq only once or twice since they arrived here.

To cope, they are socializing as they did in Iraq: They gather every night at someone's apartment and exchange memories, over tea and pastry. Although the Iraqi refugees in Tucson met for the first time when they arrived, they have become fast friends. They swap displacement stories and listen to Iraqi music from the CDs they brought with them.


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