Living with shattered expectations

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; B01

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.

"The expectations from the Iraqis are a lot higher than refugees who come from African countries," said Munira Marlowe, executive director of the IMANI Multicultural Center, an organization that assists refugees in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania area and runs the food pantry Jafer visited.

Many who come from other countries have spent years in refugee camps, where conditions can be squalid, Marlowe said. By contrast, she noted, "the Iraqis come with laptops, asking, 'Where is the Internet connection?' "

Some angle to get placed in Northern Virginia, especially those who worked with American agencies in Iraq. "They hope it can help them get a job with the government," said Mark Sloan, associate director for processing operations with the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, which has helped place more than 450 Iraqis in Northern Virginia.

But, he said, it usually doesn't. Aside from expedited green cards for those with special immigration visas, all refugees to the United States are eligible for the same benefits, regardless of the circumstances they fled.

To bridge the gap between starry-eyed expectations and the grimmer reality, U.S. consular officials abroad now offer cultural orientation sessions to prepare refugees for life in America.

The sessions emphasize "the challenging economic environment and the difficulty many educated and highly skilled refugees face in finding employment in the same professions they worked in at home," said Beth Schlachter, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. "But it's often very difficult for people to apply what they hear to their own situations, and people sometimes arrive with unrealistic expectations."

Often, it is harder on men, Marlowe said: "Not to be a chauvinist, but women are more, 'If this is what I have to do, this is what I have to do,' while the men say, 'This is who I was - now you're telling me to be this?' They were providers, and this is who they were before. So they feel less a man."

'We were shocked'

Jafer is better off than many. She arrived speaking English, and her medical degree allowed her to find a job assisting an Iraqi doctor here. She says she is grateful to have work. But. "It's still hard," she said, "for a physician with 18 years' experience to work as a medical assistant like high school-educated people."

Recertification to work as a doctor here would require her to do an internship and residency, she said, but with a full-time job and three children to support, she has no time.

Rent eats up three-fifths of her $2,000 monthly income, and expenses like electricity, water and medical insurance consume the rest.

"We had heard so much about America," she said. "We thought that the life would be easy, easy, easy. But when we came here and faced the reality, we were shocked."

Now, she said, family members in Iraq send her money to help her out.

News of the difficulties refugees face in America seems to be spreading, said Derek Maxfield, associate director of migration and refugee services at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington.

"The high expectation among Iraqi refugees has really declined in the past year," he said. "It was more of an issue among the first wave of Iraqi refugees, but we attribute the more-realistic expectations of the more-recent arrivals to the natural process of refugees relaying their experiences to their communities in exile throughout the Middle East and back home in Iraq."

But the expectations can run deep. Jafer said she feels that the U.S. government owes Iraqis more - more money, more months of support. But she is also in search of something less tangible: a sense of dignity. She ticks off the Iraqi friends in similar situations to hers, including an MBA who now restocks shelves at Wal-Mart.

Three families she knows of have returned to Iraq. Risking death there, they said, was better than barely surviving in America.

If security were to improve in Iraq, she said she, too, would go back.

Her neighbor Jalal Salman, 52, also pines for his homeland. A civil engineer who owned a kitchenware factory and a plumbing supply store in Baghdad, he and his family fled Iraq in 2006 after four of his employees were kidnapped and never heard from again.

After two years in Jordan, the family arrived here, where Salman worked in construction until a work accident incapacitated him.

Now, he drives a taxi, sometimes earning just $10 in a day after paying the cab company's overhead. "When you come to America," he quipped, "you say, 'U.S.A. - You Start Again.' "

Salman has had a hard time convincing friends in Iraq how tough life is here. "They say, 'Can you buy a car and send it to me?' " he said. "They think there is money coming from the sky in America."

But, like many refugees, Salman says his sacrifices are worth it for his two children, Northern Virginia Community College students who work at McDonald's to help support the family. "I know I have no future here - I lost everything in my country," he said. "But the life in America, for my son and daughter it's better."

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