<\body> Stories in America: Iraqi Refugees Living in the Bay Area

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Iraqi Refugees Living in the Bay Area

Friday, June 20th, is World Refugee Day. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the number of refugees and internally displaced people swelled to 67 million last year. A record 11.4 million people were driven from their home countries last year alone, and another 26 million were displaced within their own countries.

Afghanistan and Iraq are the two leading countries of origin for cross-border refugees. Afghans made up 27 percent of the total refugee population, with almost 3.1 million living in Iran and Pakistan. Iraqis were the second largest group, with 2.3 million living outside the country. Of those, 2 million live in Jordan and Syria.

According to Amnesty International, the international community is evading its responsibility towards refugees from Iraq by promoting a false picture of the security situation in Iraq when the country is neither safe nor suitable for return.

In its new report, Rhetoric and Reality: The Iraqi Refugee Crisis, which is based on recent research and interviews with Iraqi refugees, the organization said that the world’s richest states are failing to provide the necessary assistance to Iraqi refugees, most of whom are plunged in despair and hurtling towards destitution.

We're marking World Refugee Day by speaking to two Iraqis who recently arrived in the Bay Area. The show airs from 11 am - noon PST.

Here's an article written by Ali, a recent Iraqi arrival:
I woke up one Sunday morning because my cell phone was ringing. The voice on the line had a Jordanian accent, and told me my period of waiting had ended. It was an employee from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) telling me my flight to the U.S. was scheduled in ten days. I was so sleepy when I answered the call, but was now wide awake. My feelings of happiness were so great that it woke my roommates. Even though I hadn’t made a sound, they must have felt a sort of wordless spiritual connection. Although my roommates asked if something was wrong, I told them nothing. I didn’t tell anyone about the call - not even my family - for at least a few days.

In spite of my happiness, I began to think about my last ten days in Iraq. I don’t know why. Maybe because I found myself waiting yet again - just as I was still waiting for a safe morning to dawn in my country. My family sacrificed everything. We sold our house and furniture, spending all our money searching for a new home where we could be safe. We would often settle into a neighborhood, renting a house for only a few months before things became so dangerous that we were forced to move again.

These last days in Iraq were the worst of my life. We had no furniture and owned only the clothes on our backs. During the night, militias attacked our neighborhood, killing and stealing (We were constantly afraid that the militias would attack our neighborhood). Every family would designate one man to keep watch at night in case of attacks. During those days, I stayed awake through the night and slept only a few hours during the day. I was protecting my family. Each night I kept sentry between the gate, door and window. Our door had 5 locks, which I checked every hour. The last house my family lived in before I left was also dangerous. However, it had the advantage of being in the middle of the neighborhood, rather than the end. This position gave us time to prepare or escape if militia or terrorists attacked.

Despite any precautions, I was not reassured. We never felt safe. I found myself waiting for my flight to the U.S. in the same
way I waited for the safety each new morning would bring, ending the darkness of night. I would fly to the U.S., to my new future, and rebuild what was destroyed in my life. I would reclaim my days and nights, sleeping and waking with the setting and rising of the sun. I would put my feet on solid ground after years in quicksand. I would have a car, a wife, and a house with a backyard and BBQ. I would go out at night and walk the streets without fear of killing, kidnapping, bombs, or the restrain of curfew.

It is a great responsibility to write about the situation in Iraq, about what has happened and is still happening. Because the situation is so complicated, I am afraid my words will not be enough to explain things. I’m afraid I’m not capable enough to speak about what’s going on, but I know that every Iraqi wants to talk about our misery and our sadness. I saw this in Jordan when I was working with journalists. I witnessed Iraqi refugees overcome by emotion. They wanted to speak, yet many of them just cried into the microphone. They had so much to say, so many feelings and emotions that they struggled to express in words, just as I struggle to write this story. Iraqis want me to tell their story, so it is a story I must write. I owe them that much.

They will envy me because each of them wants to tell the world what has happened. In Iraq, you can’t trust anyone: neighbors, cousins, or people in the street. When you walk next to a car, you pray that it doesn’t contain a bomb. Neighbors and friends once gathered at night in Iraq to talk, eat, and play games. You can’t do that anymore because of the curfew. You have to cut ties with cousins because they are from a different denomination of Islam (Shi’a or Sunni). We are simply waiting to die. Since the war began with Iran in 1980, we Iraqis spend our lives waiting to die. But things have changed for me. Now I am in the U.S.


At 7/22/2008 4:55 PM, Anonymous Helen said...

I know of an Iraqi woman who is new to SF. Can anyone please tell me how to help her? I would like to find a place for her to go to where she feels safe and where there are resources for her to start her life over ALONE here in the Bay area. Thank you.. I will check this blog frequently.

At 8/19/2008 11:26 PM, Blogger Julie said...

Hi Helen,

I would like to help in any way I can. Please email me juliejoannini@yahoo.com

At 8/28/2008 5:53 PM, Anonymous Nicole said...

Hi Helen and Julie,

I will be sponsoring my Iraqi colleague who was just approved to resettle here to the Bay Area. I too am trying to find other Iraqi refugees who have settled here that may be able to support my colleague as he makes this transition. Reading the story above is like listening to my colleague's story. Any help making contacts would be greatly appreciated. I will check this blog frequently as well. Thanks. Nicole

At 11/07/2008 4:27 PM, Anonymous Mary Ellen Solon said...

Hi Helen, Julie, and Nicole,

My name is Mary Ellen and I work for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice and peace organization. I am working in conjunction with another woman, who is an Iraqi Refugee herself, in order to develop a community program for recently arrived Iraqi refugees. Our hope is to help individuals and families find communities and community resources that make them feel safe, secure, involved, and If you would like more information please contact us at mesolon@afsc.org. National and Bay Area organizations that are heading up resettlement work include International Rescue Committee, Catholic Charities, and Upwardly Global, so check them out online.

Mary Ellen Solon
Emergency and Material Assistance Program Associate
American Friends Service Committee
San Francisco, CA
415.565.0201 x27

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