For Once-Celebrated Iraqi, Life in U.S. One of Lost Hope
Sunday, May 10, 2009
The walls of the little brick house in Fairfax County where Nazaar Joodi lives with his family are adorned with framed photos from his first visit to this country. Here he is shaking hands with Colin Powell. There he is embracing Paul D. Wolfowitz. And, clasping Joodi by the arm, a grinning George W. Bush offers his "Best Wishes."
In spring 2004, Joodi was celebrated on Capitol Hill, at the Pentagon and at the White House as a "living martyr" of the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, who had ordered Joodi's right hand chopped off and his forehead branded with an "X" for the crime of trading U.S. dollars. At a time when explosive photos of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib had just surfaced and public opinion had turned solidly against the war, Joodi was held out as proof that invading the country and ousting Hussein had been the right thing to do.
But now Joodi, who immigrated here on the possibility of a new life he saw in that visit, has more pressing matters on his mind: Should he swallow his pride and ask Fairfax County to move him, his wife and four children into a homeless shelter, or pack it in and return to Iraq?
As he considered the bleakness of his options, Joodi's $50,000 "bionic" arm, a gift from U.S. business executives on his first trip, lay at his feet. A wilted American flag hung outside the living room window. Joodi, a frail-looking man at 45, nervously rubbed the stump from his amputated right hand. "Coming here was a mistake," said his wife, Shaymaa Mohammad, 34. "Everyone says, 'You're Bush's friend. . . . What has he done for you?' How can I tell them that this friend sends me to a homeless shelter? There is no friendship here."
For months, Joodi has resisted making this call. To him, being homeless is a shameful sign of his failure to provide for his family, and being a one-handed dollar trader is not an easily transferable job skill. He's had no luck finding work. Joodi has begged his younger brother, a taxi driver in Switzerland, for help paying the $1,500-a-month rent and leaned on Iraqi friends at his mosque. But his brother is tapped out, and now Joodi is behind. He decided to call his social worker.
"Is there any other way?" he asked in Arabic. "I'm a friend of America. I met George Bush, Colin Powell, other people at the White House. Doesn't that matter?"
Unfortunately, the social worker said, it does not. She gave him a number to call to be put on a shelter waiting list.
Later in the day, Joodi absently sang to himself in Arabic. "I was a friend of America. Now I'm the trash of America."
The struggle of newly arrived refugees in the United States has always been difficult. But now, with a refugee system that hasn't changed in 30 years, a failing economy and an influx of thousands of Iraqi refugees, advocates say many Iraqis are being resettled into institutional poverty. In the past, a lone refugee with mental illness would wind up homeless every few years, they said. Now, a "staggering" number of recent refugees -- one-third of them Iraqi -- are at risk, like Joodi, of being evicted.
"We're actually giving orientation services to Iraqi refugees on how to access homeless services. I've been doing this work for over 25 years, and I've never seen a situation like this," said Robert Carey, a vice president at the International Rescue Committee.
Every year, Carey's agency helps about 4,000 refugees find work with the goal of becoming self-sufficient within six months of arriving. In recent years, almost three-fourths were. But in the last quarter of 2008, only half were self-sufficient.
For years, advocates argued that the United States had a moral obligation to accept more of the 2.2 million Iraqis who fled the country after the 2003 U.S. invasion. For the first four years of the war, the United States accepted fewer than 800 refugees; Sweden, in the same period, resettled 18,000.