Back to mobile

Building Little Baghdad

An Iraqi refugee community sprouts up in Dallas-Fort Worth.
by Published on
photos by Jen Reel
The Haji Family

On a rainy January night, Amira Matsuda shuffles to the front door of her opulent home in Plano and invites me in for dinner. A wealthy and established woman in her mid-50s, Matsuda spends every day driving around the Dallas-Fort Worth area in her black Lexus SUV visiting Iraqi refugee families, sipping Arabic coffee and listening to their problems. In one of the country’s largest Iraqi refugee communities, it seems that she knows everyone, and everyone knows her. Officially, she’s director of the Iraqi American Association of North Texas. Unofficially, she has a full-time, unpaid job as roving ambassador and problem-solver for the Metroplex’s fledgling Little Baghdad.

The United States has offered refuge to tens of thousands of Iraqis. And that’s about all the country, or the state of Texas, has offered. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, established Muslims are working hard to keep refugees from falling through the cracks. Their efforts are attracting growing numbers of Iraqis to the area. “I think there’s a lot more coming because they know we’re providing this assistance,” says Aisha Waheed, refugee coordinator at the American Islamic center of Dallas. “There are very few cities that provide the continuous work that we do.”

Matsuda, who heads the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation and helped form the Iraqi association in late 2008, is one of many pillars of this emerging community’s structure. The five-year-old foundation has doled out more than $60,000 since its inception. The association does not have outside funding; its members reach into their own pockets. “on a personal level,” Matsuda says, “we take [Iraqi refugees] shopping to cover their basic needs, pay some of their utility bills, rent, collect donated furniture from our community, and distribute it to those who need it.” Matsuda also provides legal advice, translations and help finding employment.

“It’s not only the financial help” that matters, Matsuda says. “People [might] sleep without any food that night, but they want to hear someone’s voice checking in onthem and seeing how they are doing.” She is helping at least 150 Iraqi households in the Metroplex. Matsuda receives calls, she says, “at all hours.”

In glasses, a beige turtleneck, and a long, fitted skirt, Matsuda has a bookish, yet polished, air as she stands at her granite kitchen counter making dolma and sheesh kebab. She was never a refugee, but she understands what it’s like to move to a new country, to not speak the language, to not know anyone. Born and raised in Iraq, she married a Japanese businessman and moved to Japan before settling in Texas 23 years ago. Helping people, she says, makes her “sleep happy.”

Matsuda can sleep happy for a long time to come. In the past year, Texas saw an 85-percent increase in all official refugee arrivals. “We’re still reeling from it all,” says caitriona Lyons, the Texas State Refugee Program coordinator. National voluntary agencies have redirected refugees to Texas who otherwise might have gone to Michigan, a popular destination, or other economically troubled states. Between 2006 and 2009, 2,822 Iraqis officially resettled in Texas. Thousands more are on the way.

Smiling broadly, Muhammad Haji opens the door to his second-story apartment northeast of downtown Dallas. A gargantuan, donated television playing cartoons takes up most of the living room. Haji’s three kids scramble up from the carpet and start talking all at once, in perfect English—they’ve picked up the language in just a year. Haji’s wife, Payman, brings out tiny cups of Arabic coffee.

The Haji parents’ English is limited, so Matsuda helps me translate, filling in the gaps with her own knowledge of the family. Like millions of others, the Hajis fled Iraq during the “sectarian violence”—Iraqis call it the civil war. They landed in Turkey in early 2007 and stayed for a year. Haji says they were well–treated, but Turkey will not absorb refugees; Iraqis must go to a third country or return home. When the U.N. asked where the family would like to go, Haji put down the United States as his first choice. “I needed to see it,” he says.

In January 2008, the family resettled in Milwaukee, but the Hajis felt isolated—and cold. They came to Dallas looking for a larger Iraqi community as well as warmer climes. They assumed refugee assistance would follow them, but “secondary migration” cuts those services off 31 days after arrival. When the family reached Dallas, Haji says, Refugee Services of Texas, a nonprofit agency, said it would find them an apartment within three days. The Hajis stayed with another Iraqi family. Three days passed, then 10, then 18. Their hosts called Refugee Services and said it wasn’t their job to take care of the Hajis.

For a week longer, the Hajis moved from house to house, but they finally wore out all welcomes. The family found themselves on the street, sitting at a gas station with nowhere to go. Haji called Refugee Services from the pay phone: “Help us, or I will call the police,” he said. The group finally found them an apartment— albeit in a complex with, the Hajis say, heroin and marijuana deals going down next door. carol Roxburgh, the CEO of Refugee Services of North Texas, says that the Hajis were not officially transferred from their agency in Milwaukee to Dallas, so they “broke their contract” and were not eligible for housing. Given the circumstances, Roxburgh says, “We went above and beyond to help them the best we could without any funding.”

In Iraq, the Hajis did not live a high-class lifestyle.

Muhammad was a barber. But there was more social security there, he says, at least before the war. He is stunned by the indifference with which he was met in the United States. In Turkey, “Everyone helped,” he says. In America, “You come to my country as a refugee,” he says, speaking in English, wanting to make sure he’s understood, and “after one month, I don’t help you.

After you go to the road, to gas station, you don’t understand. … For me, [when I] have a problem here, you don’t look [out] for me. He’s different, I’m different.” In Muslim countries, he ways, “when I have a problem,” people are “brothers.”

Muhammad at least has Matsuda, whom he calls his “big sister.” She won’t say what she has given to the Hajis, citing a Muslim maxim: “Not even the left hand can know what the right hand gives to charity.”

The Hajis have needed plenty of help. After a year in Dallas, Muhammad only has found part-time work in a kitchen, and Payman picks up babysitting shifts here and there.

Matsuda has heard stories like the Hajis’ scores of times. “Many organizations were very unacceptable in how they treated Iraqi families here,” Matsuda says. But blame for the plight of families like the Hajis cannot be placed solely on the backs of local or state agencies. The policies, the source of the problem, are made in Washington.

Before 2008, there was barely a trickle of Iraqi refugees into the United States. only 202 people out of the millions who flowed across Iraq’s borders during the civil conflicts of 2006, had been allowed to resettle here.

Meanwhile, Iraqis working for the U.S. military and defense contractors were under threat. In response, congress passed Sen. Ted Kennedy’s Refugee crisis in Iraq Act. The act created more slots for Iraqis in danger because of U.S. affiliations. Many come straight from Baghdad, others from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. In 2009, about 19,000 resettled in America.

About the same number is expected this year.

At the same time we’re inviting more Iraqis to resettle, government support for political refugees has dwindled. In 1980, refugees received three years of assistance. over time, cash assistance from the government has been whittled down to eight months maximum. In the current downturn, the time refugees go without income has widened. The Texas Department of Health and Human Services reports that, on average, refugees take five to six months to find employment in Texas. Waheed, the Islamic center’s refugee coordinator, says that in Dallas, most Iraqis wait at least a year.

Most adult Iraqi refugees come to the United States with professional degrees. Many are engineers, doctors, teachers, pharmacists. Jobs available to them here are low-skilled and low-paying.

Matsuda says that taking entry-level jobs is a point of shame for many Iraqis. Some turn them down.

“They say, ‘I’m not going to be that person who picks up trash.’”

Most of the time, says Waheed, the best jobs she can find for Iraqis are as cooks, dishwashers, or janitors. “When you tell them that, they ask, ‘How can we do work like that?’ In their homes, they had maids.” Here, says Nadine Padusseau, the refugeeresettlement director for caritas of Austin, “those who come from a lower economic class do better.”

All Iraqi refugees have one thing in common: They endured life in wartime. In 2008, the U.N. refugee agency found that among 754 Iraqi refugees in Syria, every person had experienced at least one traumatic event before fleeing. Eighty percent reported witnessing a shooting. Sixty-eight percent said they’d been interrogated, harassed, or received death threats from militias or other groups.

Every Iraqi family Waheed works with in Dallas has suffered something, she says: legs or arms lost in bomb blasts, histories of rape, burnings, not to mention grief, anger and depression. “I’ve never seen one healthy Iraqi family,” she says, “not one.”

In a cramped, second-story apartment in a low-income Arlington development, Intsar Hassan is immobilized, her bandaged leg propped up on an ottoman. As Amira Matsuda enters, she tells Hassan a man is there, a Syrian filmmaker Hassan wasn’t expecting.

Hassan covers her skin and hair in one swift, habitual motion. As visitors pour in, Matsuda hands Hassan some Iraqi bread, and her face beams; the bread has become available only recently, when an Iraqi refugee started working at a Dallas bakery.

In 1998, Hassan worked at Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior and was vocally critical of Saddam’s regime.

As she left work one day, someone barreled up the road with a forklift and intentionally ran over her. She has been disabled ever since. In 2006, things got worse.

Hassan’s home was bombed, and two brothers were killed, forcing her to leave Iraq. She resettled in Chicago, but went to stay with a distant relative in Louisiana who supported her until her disability checks came through.

Then, since she knew Iraqis in Dallas, she relocated to Texas. She had depended on her relative for long enough, she says.

The day before Matsuda’s visit, Hassan had long-awaited surgery on her warped leg. This was not improving her spirits, or her view of the treatment she’s received in the United States. “Why do they bring us here,” she asks, “if they cannot follow through on their promises?”

The truth is, Hassan says, she never wanted to come here. When Hassan was handed a form by the U.N. and asked to rank the countries where she could be resettled, she picked Sweden first, then Australia.

She had heard horror stories about inadequate help, poor medical care, and inhumane treatment in the United States. She said the U.N. reassured her that things had changed. “Don’t worry,” she remembers being told. “You’ll be taken care of.”

Not quite, she says. Since she arrived in the United States, Hassan’s family has had to send her $5,000, she says, to pay her bills. Last year, her disability check went up $30 a month. She didn’t know she needed to inform the leasing office about the increase; when the apartment managers found out a year later, they said she owed $800 in back rent. Hassan faced possible eviction until Matsuda’s group raised the funds.

Hassan says she was sent home yesterday from the hospital after surgery, just barely awake from anesthesia. Medicare wouldn’t pay for a longer stay. When she got home, a woman from Matsuda’s organization had to carry her on her back up the stairs to the apartment. The woman stayed all night. choking back tears, Hassan says it’s humiliating to be carried upstairs on someone’s back.

“I bring my medical reports to show the leasing office that I need to be on the first floor,” she says, “but it’s no use.” A new wheelchair sits in the corner, still sealed in plastic. Hassan’s apartment is too small to use it, and she cannot carry it up and down the stairs anyway.

Behind a black metal gate in one of Dallas’ rougher neighborhoods, the American Islamic center doesn’t look like much—an anonymous building with beige vinyl siding and no sign. Yet it’s the hub of the emerging, still largely invisible, Little Baghdad.

The center is one of the few places in Dallas where Muslim refugees find financial help and something arguably more important: a sense that they’re not on this strange journey alone.

Nearly all the Iraqi families interviewed for this story say they feel isolated in America. Neighbors don’t say hello or “welcome.” A post-9/11 distrust, they believe, lingers. Iraqis often feel feared here.

Not in the center. In the foyer, shoes are scattered in piles that lead to a prayer room. It’s Friday afternoon, and the khutbah, or sermon, begins soon. Kids play on the carpet inside as folks chat on the back patio with the center’s director, Cindy Weber.

Yasein Ibrahim, a portly man, stands on crutches. In 2006, he was on top of a Baghdad building when a bomb exploded nearby. He fell two stories, landing on his hip.

His wife Fozia has since been the provider for the family of seven. She’s found no steady employment since the family arrived in Dallas 15 months ago. They receive $650 per month from catholic charities of Dallas. That barely covers their rent. For other necessities, they come to Weber and the center. “No one truly believes until he likes for his brother what he likes for himself,” Weber says, reciting an Islamic maxim that guides her work. Giving to the poor is one of the five pillars of Islam.

It is called zakat, the giving of alms. All Muslims—there are over 30,000 in the Metroplex—must give at least 2.5 percent of their wealth to the poor each year.

“The highest people in Islam are the most needy,” says refugee coordinator Waheed, who works with Weber at the center. “We call those people miskeen. When we do a good act, it brings them toward us.”

Through the center, the Muslim community offers rental assistance, furniture donations, even cars. From food drives, they are able to buy groceries for 20 families each week. The center has a free weekend school, English classes and a prayer room.

Though the center can make the difference between being homeless or housed for some, Weber says she sometimes feels ashamed to tell Iraqi refugees what she can help them with. That’s especially true, she says, for those who risked their lives for this country—some of the approximately 100,000 Iraqis who worked for the United States. “It’s like our troops coming back,” she says, “and what do we have to offer them? It’s almost embarrassing that there’s hardly anything we can do for them.”

“These charitable organizations bring these guys over and say this is your I-94, this is your work authorization, now go out and find a job,” says Army 1st Sgt. Eric clemens of Dallas, who was deployed to Iraq five times. “That’s got to be very intimidating.” If any American understands how intimidating Texas can b
for an Iraqi refugee, it’s Clemens.

In 2003, Clemens was Stationed in Baghdad’s Medical city, a hospital complex. “The Army was given standing orders not to treat any civilian,” he recalls. one day a man came to the unit’s gate carrying a wounded little girl, and Clemens didn’t think twice. He had his medics treat her. The man carrying the girl was named Saad. The girl, Noor, was Saad’s niece.

The next day, Saad reappeared. He told Clemens he was willing to work to repay the medical treatment.

Clemens said that wasn’t necessary, but he offered Saad a job as an interpreter. Saad, it turned out, had been a computer engineer before the war. He spoke fluent English and French. As part of his job, Saad accompanied Clemens when he went off base. Unlike the soldiers, Saad and fellow interpreters had no helmets, vests, or weapons. “I’m walking along trying to dodge IEDs and stuff like that,” says Clemens, “and at least I’ve got a one-inch thick bulletproof plate on my chest, where he’s got a jacket.” After work, Clemens would go back to a secure Army base, while Saad and his family went home to their neighborhood, where they would eventually be targeted as collaborators.

All the former interpreters interviewed for this story had “cover jobs” in Iraq—no one, sometimes not even family members, could know whom they really worked for. But with five members of Saad’s family working for the Americans, word got out fast. Insurgents started with drive-by shootings and then launched hand grenades. Saad’s family began moving from one home to the next, night after night. Clemens sent security patrols to the areas where the family was saying, but he says, “It was like putting a Band-Aid on a broken dam.” During a drive-by, Saad’s sister-in-law was shot and killed.

“So I rotate back to Germany,” Clemens says, “and I make a promise: If it takes me a year, if it takes me two years, if it takes me three years, I will do what I can to get the family out.”

It took five years. Saad received refugee status and arrived in Dallas in June 2009. His brothers, Raad and Haider, followed soon after. They were placed in what Clemens calls “the worst apartment complex in Dallas.” After a few weeks, the apartment was robbed. Saad’s passport and $1,700 in savings were stolen. Not long after, the apartment was burglarized again. Because the brothers couldn’t pay their bills, the electricity was cut off.

By December, Clemens was so appalled by their situation that he told the three men to move in with him and his wife until they could get on their feet. “He’s always trying to keep me safe,” Saad says. Clemens bought the brothers a car so they could look for jobs.

On a sunny January day, Clemens, Raad, and Saad are sitting in the sergeant’s living room in a tidy new development in the Dallas suburbs. The room is decorated in a medieval theme, and Clemens is perched in a gothic armchair he calls his “throne.” The Iraqi men are dressed similarly: crisp blue jeans, sporty jackets, ball caps.

Saad says he’s tried looking for a job, but has had trouble figuring out how to go about it. He was at a loss when he was advised, “Look at Monster.com.”

With degrees in computer engineering, English, and French, he came to the United States expecting to find a job in one of his fields. No luck so far. “What I need is just a chance to work, to survive, to rent an apartment, so I will be able to bring the rest of my family here from Iraq,” he says.

Raad arrived in October. Three months later, he was waiting for his work permit, which he needs before he can start job-hunting legally. His cash assistance, $445 a month, is about to be cut off. Meanwhile, he says, he worries about his 8-year-old daughter back in Iraq.

Clemens says his reason for helping the men is simple: “It’s the right thing to do.” In his case, “Religion plays nothing into this,” he says. As for his wife’s opinion of having three Iraqi men move in with them, Clemens pats the arms of his “throne” as a reminder of where he is seated.

So far, he says he’s spent more than $20,000 helping the brothers: sending money to Iraq after their home was bombed, bringing them under his wing in Dallas and housing them while trying to help them find jobs. “But this isn’t my job,” Clemens says. His savings are depleted, and two more relatives are on their way to America.

Saad and Raad listen to their host, their eyes fixed on the rug. “This is snowballing into a much bigger monster than I can handle,” Clemens says.

Little Baghdad is still largely invisible, spread out across slum apartment buildings and middle-class developments. While Dallas will never have an Iraqi community as sizable as Little Saigon in Houston, a community will emerge. And one of its anchors will probably be Salah al Bagdadi.

At Zituna World Foods in Richardson, Salah emerges from behind a counter of pastries in a tall, white baker’s toque. He was a reform activist during Saddam’s regime, and when his life was threatened, he left Iraq and lived in Yemen and Jordan. When his permit ran out in Jordan, he says he was put in a small prison cell with 30 others for 33 days. In 2008, he was offered resettlement to the United States. He hesitated. He imagined marauders drinking in the streets and the corruption of his daughters.

Salah had little choice but to come anyway. For four months, he didn’t get his Social Security card and could not look for work. That bad patch is over, but things are hardly comfortable. “There is a certain standard I refuse to live under,” Salah says. “If I have extra money, I buy whatever I can for the house … to keep my dignity.” His wife, Haifa, is working as a hairdresser, and his daughter is a cashier in the salon.

With three wage-earners, the family is able to scrape by. When he talks to his brother back home, Salah tells him it’s not that bad in the United States.

It took seven months, but Salah found a job doing the work he loves. He once owned pastry shops in Iraq and Yemen. Now he’s showing off the boilers and ovens in the back of the Arabic grocery where he works.

Though he’s only been here two months, the growing Iraqi community has started buying up his flatbread and pastries. It won’t be long before they need a bakery of their own.