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Insane Asylum

Iraqi Refugees Living in Baltimore Say International Rescue Committee Didn't Live Up to Its Promises

Christopher Myers
Dr. Nasir Al Khalidi

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 11/5/2008

This month 15 refugee families from Iraq, most with children, face the loss of their rental assistance. Without jobs, transportation or English-language skills, some fear they will be evicted and left homeless.

The families, which have been in Baltimore since August and September, say they were promised eight months of assistance, including food stamps, rent, and utilities, along with language and job-training and placement assistance. But in October they learned that their rental assistance would end after only two months, and some have outstanding utility bills of hundreds of dollars, according to Dr. Nasir Al Khalidi, an Iraqi-American who has been helping the refugees. "Some of them say return us to die in Iraq--it would be better to die in Iraq than die of starvation in America," Al Khalidi says. "Can you believe that?"

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nonprofit U.S. State Department contractor that resettles refugees from around the world, says Iraqi refugees often have unrealistic expectations, but that things work out. "We've never had a refugee evicted from an apartment," says Kay Bellor, the IRC's vice president for resettlement.

The number of Iraqi refugees coming to the United States has grown exponentially. Under pressure from governments, international human-rights groups, and the International Rescue Committee itself, the United States accepted about 14,000 Iraqi refugees last year--about 10 times as many as it did in 2006. The IRC's Baltimore office opened in 1999 and has resettled about 400 refugees each year from around the world, according to its web site. That's nearly half of the 866 refugees who arrived here in the past year, according to Ed Lin, the state refugee coordinator at the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

The State Department provides $850 in cash assistance for each refugee, but the resettlement agencies take up to half of that for administration and other services, leaving just $425 per head.

Al Khalidi, who is better known as Dr. Ali in Baltimore's Iraqi community, began sounding the alarm about the situation in early October. As he tells it, the 15 families, which range in size from nine people to singles, fled Iraq this year because of threats to their lives and sometimes severe injuries. While in Turkey, Jordan, and Syria, U.S. officials told them that the United States would provide a place to live, food, clothing, and life's necessities, including schooling and medical services, for eight months. "But when they came here they say just food stamps for eight months," Al Khalidi says. "And two months of rent and BGE. After that you have to sponsor yourself."

The shock has caused stress for some of the refugees, Al Khalidi says. On Oct. 23 he introduced a reporter to one family, which did not want its name published because, according to Al Khalidi, they feared retribution from the government. The man is a 46-year-old ophthalmologist with a wife, adult daughter, and 6-year-old son. They live in a two-bedroom apartment in a complex on Gunther Avenue and Goodnow Road. A piece of plywood affixed to the broken mailbox in the hallway is tagged Goodnow Lords. The wife offers candies from a small bowl and hot chocolate as a Seinfeld rerun plays on the television. Dr. Ali translates the man's story.

In March of 2007, the man says, he was working in his shop in Baghdad when four armed, masked men burst in and demanded medical attention. "I understood they are terrorist," the man says. Two had bullet wounds.

The ophthalmologist ended up fleeing down a flight of stairs as the intruders shot at him. He says they missed him, but a bullet hit a woman who was climbing the stairs.

The man says he soon found himself in a car chase, terrorists shooting at his vehicle as he sped off with his family inside. He says he ended up flipping the car. The accident broke the man's shoulder and two vertebrae in his son's neck.

The boy, playing on the carpet in front of the television, looks up at the mention of his name. "Yes," he says amiably, pointing to his throat and smiling.

While in a Baghdad hospital the man says he received death threats from the terrorists, who continued calling even after he moved to another house. "I don't know how they got the phone number where I am. They started calling me, threatening," he says. The terrorists took over his family's former home, he says.

Last November, the family left for Turkey. They stayed there eight months in a one-bedroom apartment, the man says. The family arrived in Baltimore on Aug. 8, 2008. The man says the family has a case manager from the IRC's Baltimore office, named Jacob. "When I met Mr. Jacob, he told me they will sponsor me only three months," says the man. "We left the country with few money. We believed their promise--they will sponsor us, give us everything" for eight months.

The news got worse. "Yesterday, my rent is finished," he says. "They called from IRC and said I have to renew the lease and pay my own way. I have no job, no money." The monthly rent is $717.

The family says it has no money even for bus fare to reach English-language classes at Baltimore City Community College downtown. The man says he has been asked by the aid agency to repay airfare totaling $2,400 for the family. He retrieves a bill from Baltimore Gas and Electric totaling $370.90, which arrived on Oct. 18, the same day the family received a $138 phone bill.

A woman who answered the telephone at the International Rescue Committee's Baltimore office referred a reporter to Bellor, IRC's resettlement vice president, who is based in New York City. While unfamiliar with the specifics of the Baltimore families, Bellor acknowledges that many Iraqi refugees feel swindled by the resettlement process.

"The story is the same as you'll find in other places," Bellor says. "What they expected and what they encountered were different."

Bellor says Iraqis tend to be harder to please than, say, Burmese refugees, in part because many Iraqis had professional careers and middle-class lives before the war. "What often happens," she says, is "a job is found for them. They're like, 'What? I have to go make beds in a hotel?' Some of them refuse these jobs."

Claims by the refugees that they have not been offered jobs is "probably not accurate," Bellor says.

Another issue is the complexity of the refugee-aid programs. There are several elements, and different refugees are eligible for different parts of the program. The amount of assistance available also varies by state, Bellor says, so it's not surprising that an aid worker in Jordan or Turkey would be unfamiliar with the details of the aid available in Baltimore. The aid available for families with children, she says, is little more than the existing welfare benefit, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The family interviewed for this article says they received $440 in cash, total, since their arrival, plus two months of rent. They showed an application for help with their utilities, but it was not complete.

Lin, the state refugee coordinator for the past 20 years, repeats the eight-month promise. "Self-sufficiency is the goal, and eight months is a really short term," he says. But eight months is misleading, because the aid is not based on months of need but on cash available from the government and matching sources. "We're not promising eight months of rent. We say they'll pay a certain amount toward the rent up front," Lin explains. Eight months is "the goal and it's also the limit."

Bellor says that IRC is doing what it can with the resources it has. "I think the U.S. refugee program could use a serious review," she says. "The amount of money that's available for refugees hasn't kept pace with income and cost of living."

That a person from a war-ravaged country could flee to the United States, wounded, with no English language skills, and be given only two or three months to find a job that could support his or her family seems a lot to ask, Bellor says. "You may have a refugee who hasn't been working for 20 years because they've been in a refugee camp, or they fled the country," she says. "And we tell them they have less time to find a job than someone who's on unemployment."

Back in the ophthalmologist's apartment, the boy gets up and runs down the hall after a toy car. But his run is a palsied stumble, the result of his broken neck, the family says. His mother says the boy is the family's first priority.

"They promise us, first week in U.S. they will treat him," she says. "He is a child. They give him appointment, February 17, 2009. The doctor will see him."

The ophthalmologist says he met with his IRC case manager when he first arrived, to see about his son's medical condition. "He said you have to rely on yourself," the man says. "You have to take him to the hospital yourself."

Those wishing to help these Iraqi Refugee families may contact Dr. Ali at nasirkh83@yahoo.com or Suhair al Khatib of the An-Nur Foundation at mta88@comcast.net

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