Cindy Weber descends a stairwell in the Islamic Association of North Texas, in Richardson. “They say, ‘I’m not going to be that person who picks up trash.” 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 lowincome 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 READ MORE about the struggles of widows and single women who fled the Iraq War in this Refugee International article: tx1o.comirefwrn WATCH this PBS video on Iraqi refugees in America: www.txlo.com/refus MARCH 5, 2010 TI1E TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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