Salt Lake City: More unemployed Iraqi professionals

From sea to shining sea we have reported on Iraqi refugees brought to the US with high expectations of life here that are soon dashed.  Utah now becomes our 15th state where Iraqis are not finding employment (see this post on North Carolina for the list of the 14 others, so far).

From the Salt Lake Tribune (The Tribune has done some of the best reporting I’ve seen on refugees anywhere in the US, here, in October 2008):

In Iraq, he was a wealthy man at the “top of the pyramid,” dressing in suits provided by the government because he taught at Baghdad University’s dental college.

Then the war began. One day, he received a letter saying he was no longer welcome in Iraq and had to leave. If he did not, the letter advised, he should pray more and ask God for forgiveness or he and his daughter would die.

So he and his family are now refugees in America, a place he calls “the land of chances.”

But opportunities elude him.

“Do you know what I’ve become?” Al Berqdar said. “Weak, poor, diseased.”

Poverty shock

Al Berqdar is among thousands of academics and doctors who fled Iraq during the war. Threats, attacks and attempted kidnappings forced educated, middle class professionals to abandon their homes. Their departure has drained the country, observers say, of citizens critical to Iraq’s stability.

Those who moved to Jordan or other countries typically discovered they weren’t allowed to work. So they joined the thousands looking for a new homeland, many of whom are coming to the United States.

Iraqis are the “ideal” refugee, some officials in Utah say, with backgrounds far different than the thousands of uneducated refugees who arrive after years and even generations spent waiting in camps.

But once here, Iraqis’ college degrees and licenses usually are not recognized. A dentist can’t assume his new job will involve teeth. An expert pilot will probably have to prove he can fly a plane.

Employed at low-paying jobs, their standard of living plunges.

And, what is almost never reported is how many Americans at the lower rungs of our society are being booted out of the low-paying jobs so an Iraqi doctor can clean motel rooms.

Guess who one of the resettlement agencies is here in Utah—one of the richest of the federal contractors, the International Rescue Committee!   Their CEO makes over $300,000  a year and they got $88 million (2005, so who knows how much it is now) from the American taxpayer.   You would think they could afford to give this family some decent blankets.

Al Berqdar, the unemployed periodontist, held up a thin green blanket. Given to his family by resettlement officials when they first arrived, it is too short for his adult son to use. They could never wash out the stains.

As we followed the Iraqi refugee issue over the last year and a half, it was pretty obvious that NGO’s were using reporters, like Matthew Lee at AP, to beat the drum for millions of Iraqis to be resettled in the West.  But, Iraqis weren’t lining up in droves to apply to come here initially.  So, were these NGO’s lying to them about the great life they would have in America to get them to sign up?

Magical America and soon-to-be magical President Obama.

Before coming to the United States, Al Zubaidy asked what her future would be like as a refugee. “You’re going to have a magic life,” an interpreter in Jordan told her.

Now Al Zubaidy, who says she pulled out one of her own teeth with a knife due to poor insurance coverage through Utah’s Medicaid, feels lied to. She and other Iraqi refugees struggle to find the significant medical care they need, some grappling with the recent trauma of war.

She has a message for incoming President Barack Obama. “I have the feeling he’ll change life for Americans,” she said. “We refugees need help too from him.”

Some Iraqis want to go home.   Al Zubaidy is one of them:

But she repeatedly says she wants to leave the U.S.

A large number of Iraqi refugees have asked Catholic Community Services, a refugee resettlement agency in Utah, what kind of assistance there would be if they wanted to go home.

“We keep advising them not to go back,” said Aden Batar, the CCS resettlement director, citing potential safety issues and the loss of their refugee status.

“It will take time before they come to the level where they accept a basic life or basic jobs,” he said. “That’s our job.”

Reform needed:

Here is my suggestion for refugees wanting to go home.  How about if the resettlement agency is required to pay (out of their own pocket, not the taxpayers’) the unhappy refugee’s airfare home (or elsewhere) if they leave the US.  That then puts some competition into this federal contracting.   If contractor NGO’s are responsible, truly responsible, for the refugees’ adjustment to America or the NGO has to admit that their refugees want to leave, it might help the federal government better sort out the incompetent agency.    It might then assure that Mr. Al Berqdar gets a decent blanket.

And, by the way, if they do choose to go home to Iraq I guess that demonstrates they weren’t in such danger afterall.

Postscript:   We brought just over 13,000 Iraqis to the US in the last fiscal year.  Human Rights First wants to bring 60,000 over the next two years and Refugees International is urging Obama to allow over 100,000 to compete for jobs in the US in this fiscal year.

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