Living with shattered expectations

Iraqis began fleeing to the United States in large numbers in 2007 after sectarian violence began ¿ a response to the bombing of a mosque.
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On a rain-lashed afternoon in rural Virginia, Manal Jafer watched her 7-year-old son fill a box with Cheetos and frozen fries from the shelves of a food pantry. She thought back to her old life in Iraq, and her eyes filled with tears.

Seven years ago, Jafer was a doctor in Baghdad. Her husband was a university professor with a PhD in microbiology. They lived comfortably, had interesting, well-paying jobs, and were surrounded by friends and family. On the morning of Nov. 15, 2003, as Jafer and her husband were getting their children ready for school, three men burst into their home and shot the couple in front of their kids. Jafer never learned why, and no one was charged. She survived the shooting; her husband did not.

A year later, her 16-year-old son, her firstborn, died suddenly of mysterious causes. Jafer, 44, believes that it had to do with the stress of living in Iraq, where violence can strike so randomly.

His death was the final straw. Like 3 million or more Iraqis in recent years, she and her three children fled across the border. They went first to Jordan and then to the United States, where the number of Iraqi refugees has swelled dramatically in the past three years after the Bush administration was criticized for accepting only a trickle.

Since 2007, more than 54,000 Iraqi refugees have been admitted to the United States, and an additional 6,651 Iraqis and their families have received "special immigrant visas" for people who have worked for the U.S. government and U.S.-affiliated agencies.

About 1,000 Iraqis have been resettled in Northern Virginia. But some now say they would hesitate before advising others to follow.

"We came here looking for a better life," said Jafer, who arrived in 2008. "But . . ."

High expectations

For refugees from anywhere, America comes with a lot of "buts" - the harsh realization that life here is not the Shangri-La they imagined, the discovery that it can be costly and lonely.

For Iraqis, there is often an extra "but." Many remain bitter about the impact of the U.S. invasion on their homeland, which has triggered years of sectarian violence.

Once the refugees arrive in the United States, they receive a one-time stipend of $1,100 per person and are placed in housing where their rent is paid for a limited period, depending on their situation. But landing jobs to support themselves hasn't been easy in the midst of this country's worst recession in decades.

Officials at the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration say that in the past year it has taken refugees an average of 6 to 12 months - twice as long as usual - to find jobs.

The Iraqis also have struggled to accept their change in status.

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