Plight of Iraqi refugees is now front and center

The Washington Post has discovered an Iraqi refugee with a sad story — and better yet, one that can be used to bash George W. Bush! Now maybe these poor people will get some attention, because their plight is all Bush’s fault. Whatever it takes.

For Once-Celebrated Iraqi, Life in U.S. One of Lost Hope is the headline, and the story is about one of the Iraqi men who had had a hand cut off by Saddam Hussein and were brought to America to be fitted with artificial hands. I remember reading about these men and seeing their pictures. It was a heartwarming story. The Post’s current story begins:

The walls of the little brick house in Fairfax County where Nazaar Joodi lives with his family are adorned with framed photos from his first visit to this country. Here he is shaking hands with Colin Powell. There he is embracing Paul D. Wolfowitz. And, clasping Joodi by the arm, a grinning George W. Bush offers his “Best Wishes.”

Oh, Wolfowitz, the evil neo-con. Now we know something bad is coming.

It really is a sad story, but it is not so different from the many stories we’ve posted about Iraqi refugees in the United States. The difference is that Joodi had been semi-famous here, and expected better treatment based on the high-level people he had met. Now he can’t pay the rent and is facing taking his family to a homeless shelter.

But this is the Washington Post, which sometimes really reports on the news. And the reporter, Brigid Schulte, comes up with a few facts about Iraqi refugees in general which we can only hope will lead to some actual investigation.

The struggle of newly arrived refugees in the United States has always been difficult. But now, with a refugee system that hasn’t changed in 30 years, a failing economy and an influx of thousands of Iraqi refugees, advocates say many Iraqis are being resettled into institutional poverty. In the past, a lone refugee with mental illness would wind up homeless every few years, they said. Now, a “staggering” number of recent refugees — one-third of them Iraqi — are at risk, like Joodi, of being evicted.

“We’re actually giving orientation services to Iraqi refugees on how to access homeless services. I’ve been doing this work for over 25 years, and I’ve never seen a situation like this,” said Robert Carey, a vice president at the International Rescue Committee.

Every year, Carey’s agency helps about 4,000 refugees find work with the goal of becoming self-sufficient within six months of arriving. In recent years, almost three-fourths were. But in the last quarter of 2008, only half were self-sufficient.

I don’t expect an investigation of the refugee agencies; it’s just a good thing that a reporter is focusing on the Iraqi refugees. She goes on to write about our moral obligation to the Iraqis and how few refugees we accepted.

“We have an obligation to Iraqi refugees, because many in the United States, if not most, were persecuted because of their associations with the United States. . . . So many of these people did put their lives in danger on behalf of America. I think there was an expectation that, as a result, they would be taken care of,” Carey said.

Instead, they’re given $450 from the U.S. State Department and help from a resettlement agency. The amount of aid varies by state and agency.

“Many Iraqi refugees are having a tough time now. And some have a feeling that because they’re Iraqi, the U.S. government owes them more. But the U.S. program treats refugees all the same,” said Pary Karadaghi, executive director of Kurdish Human Rights Watch, a Northern Virginia-based group that helps more than 1,000 Iraqi, Afghan and other refugees every year.

She said she knows Iraqi translators who worked for the U.S. government and can’t find jobs. Middle-class professionals consider themselves lucky to be bagging groceries at Giant or working the night shift at McDonald’s. A coroner works part time at T.J. Maxx. And the former Iraqi health minister has a job at Wegmans.

“The ones who don’t think America owes them anything are the ones who do best,” Karadaghi said.

I’ve got to say something about the “America owes them” idea. This is said again and again, and I’ve said it myself. The story is that we went into Iraq and caused all this violence which drove millions of people to become refugees. Thousands of Iraqis helped us, and therefore we should take care of them, if not all the displaced millions.

But the real story is that Iraq was living under a monstrous regime. It was Saddam Hussein who cut off this man’s hand for money trading. It was Saddam who fed people into industrial shredders and had rape rooms for his henchmen to satisfy their sadistic lusts. Under Saddam people disappeared into prison or death for no reason except opposing him. He killed hundreds of thousands of his own people. Life was a nightmare for ordinary Iraqis.

So in helping us, these Iraqis were working for the good of their own country. They weren’t helping America; they were helping Iraq, and many were getting paid. Did they do it so they could get a visa to come to America? No, they expected a better life.

Instead, they got, for a while, sectarian violence, which often but not always focused on those who had worked for Americans. So we need to make it up to them by bringing them here. 

But we corrected our mistake and quelled the violence. Whether that will last is another story, now that our enemies see that President Obama does not intend to secure peace in Iraq. But there is no better insurance for Iraq than to have its people there in the country to fight back against whatever comes along. It is their country.

Mr. Joodi is wondering whether he should go back to Iraq. Many other Iraqis who came to America are wondering that too. For many of them the answer is probably yes, they should. They will be better off and their country will be better off. Which ones could successfully stay here? I repeat the quote from Pary Karadaghi:

“The ones who don’t think America owes them anything are the ones who do best.”