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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)

Abdulatif's eldest son, 7-year-old Abdullah, started school two weeks ago. On the first day, he came home crying. "I don't understand what they say," he told his mother, complaining that he had to mime to make himself understood. A while later, his classmates got tired of trying to communicate with him. But he is proud that he is trying to learn English by himself. The few words he knows now are: "What's your name? Thank you. Zoo. Yes. No. This is," he proudly said out loud.

Speaking English is not a criterion in the refugees' resettlement process, said Tim Irwin, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency. With an increasing number of Iraqis flowing into neighboring countries and applying for resettlement, "we look into the vulnerability criteria," he said. Families with urgent medical needs or those whose lives have been directly threatened and have nowhere to go are a priority, he said.

"No Iraqi refugee should go back to Iraq in this situation, of course," he said, "but the majority are able to stay where they are."

When the Iraqi refugees arrive in the United States, they are sent to cities where there are other Arab or Muslim populations. Social service organizations are assigned to help them resettle.

"Refugees, in general, endure a tremendous cultural shock," said Janell Mousseau, a program director at the Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, an Arizona nonprofit organization that helped to resettle the 34 Iraqis here. "They have a lot of adjusting to do in a short time."

The organization was asked by the State Department to find proper housing for the Iraq families, providing them basic supplies and helping them acquire Social Security numbers and food stamps. The group is paying the refugees' rent for three months. After that, the families will have to pick up the cost themselves.

Before they arrived here, the refugees said they were told by U.N. representatives that they could get jobs based on their professional qualifications. But they said they have now been told that they should work as hotel housekeepers, an occupation many of them have refused because they deem it degrading.

To add to their frustration, when the families arrived, they said they found their apartments missing beds, kitchen supplies, bedspreads and blankets.

To help with the resettlement, two Tucson residents, Christy Voelkel and Erin Simpson, organized a community collection effort to provide supplies to the refugees. They sent e-mails to members of their church and friends asking for donations. Last Saturday, they visited the families and handed out kitchen equipment, clothes, pillows and children's toys.

"I think of this stuff as encouragement," said Voelkel, a middle-school teacher, "to tell them that they are welcome in the community, that we appreciate what they've been through."


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