Iraq refugees in U.S. supported widely by Christian aid groups

The focus of American foreign policy and the rooting out of terrorism is shifting to Afghanistan. Yet as involvement in Iraq begins to decrease a significant issue persists over how to address the large numbers of Iraqi refugees who continue to seek a new life in the U.S. The State Department has designated 10 aid organizations as administrators of resettlement efforts – not just Iraqis – four of which have overtly Christian ties in World Relief, Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Since the 2003 invasion roughly 2 million Iraqis have left their homeland for economic and safety issues, some out of fear of reprisals for helping American or other international forces within the country after the rapid fall of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Neighboring Jordan and Syria have been the most popular destinations. According to an article in the Feb. 14th edition of the Christian magazine World, the U.S. has removed some red tape from the process in response to international pressure. In 2006, only 1,600 Iraqis were resettled. In 2008 that number jumped to 13,800 and about 17,000 are expected by the end of this year. The process of application through the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and the State Department to the time Iraqis’ set foot on U.S. soil can take anywhere from six months to a year or longer. Due to the sheer number of applicants, the number who does make it to the U.S. is still very limited. “Because of 9/11, the interview process is very stringent,” explained Mark Kadel, a World Relief affiliate director who oversees the agency’s efforts in and around High Point, N.C. “It’s a lot like winning lottery for many of the refugees. At the same time we’ve seen improvement in the process of getting here, there is still a tremendous demand.” A number of factors separate Iraqi refugees from other nationalities seeking a new home in the U.S. Perhaps the most obvious distinction is the role Iraqis played and continue to play in assisting the U.S. military and private contractors in the day-to-day process of rebuilding the country. “We have heard of death threats of all different varieties,” Kadel said. “Many Iraqi families have lost a family member through murder or attacks of different kinds.” Another key factor is that Iraqis tend to be more well-educated and attuned to American culture than refugees from many other parts of the world. “Most Iraqis arrive with cell phones with international lines they can call home with,” Kadel said. “What we’re talking about is completely different from people who have entered the country illegally. These people are legal to work in the U.S. the second they step off plane. After one year they can apply for a green card after one year and for citizenship at five years. … Their general skill set is higher than refugees from elsewhere. “They already know about money and checking accounts and how to catch the bus. A lot of them know at least some English. Through no fault of their own many were trained professionals in Iraq and were used to a certain standard of living and now have to look at entry level positions in their field.” Both Kadel and Carol Foulke, an information specialist with Church World Service (CWS) in New York, explained it’s not uncommon in the medical field for a doctor with a degree from Baghdad University and experience as a physician to end up working in a doctor’s office or at a low-skill hospital job. Even finding basic retail-related jobs can be challenging because of experience that does not match up with applying for such a position. Since many Iraqis who first arrived in the U.S. with a huge gap between expectations and reality, resettlement agencies have developed a checklist of items to be covered with new refugees before they enter the U.S. This spells out realistic expectations for employment, the amount of change which needs to take place and how self-sufficiency needs to be the ultimate goal. “We stress the first year will be a big cultural adjustment,” Foulke said. “There will be challenges out there you’ll have to meet and it may not always be what other people have led you to believe. Any part of a resettlement plan has short, medium and long-term goals. “We try to be very realistic in explaining, for example, the way you get ahead probably will be to work during the day and go to school at night to work toward reaccreditation in your profession or to increase English proficiency.” Another barrier to gainful employment is the recession. With unemployment figures around or above 10 percent in most states, finding even basic employment right now can be especially difficult. “It is taking longer for all new arrivals to get jobs,” Foulke said. “However, our affiliates are telling us employment is beginning to pick up again.” The real backbone of support then becomes the churches and ministries CWS and World Relief partner with to make the resettlement get off the ground. This can be anything and everything, from helping to pay rent and buy food to transportation and clothing. Since the overwhelming majority of incoming Iraqis are Muslims, this gives local Christian communities unique opportunities to live out they’re faith. “This is truly a case a of friendship evangelism,” Kadel said. It is by no means a recruitment or conversion drive, both Kadel and Foulke stressed. The opportunity lies in blessing others and being blessed by their presence in return. Funds can flow from church to church or denomination to denomination involved freely covering needed expenses of the refugees. “Each of our 33 resettlement affiliates has a designated sponsorship coordinator, who cultivates congregational involvement with refugees,” Foulke explained. “A church, synagogue, mosque or other faith community may co-sponsor, and many co-sponsor repeatedly, or may take discrete tasks such as assembling welcome baskets with bathroom and/or kitchen supplies or help set up apartments for several arriving families. “Our colleagues, the staff and volunteers at our local affiliates, are great and work very hard and effectively to be sure new refugee arrivals get all their core services and then some. Congregational involvement adds so much to that. It’s a supportive circle that helps new arrivals get acculturated to their new communities faster, learn English faster, find jobs faster, get the kids enrolled in school and take them on outings and so forth. It also transforms the congregation.” Links: Church World Service resettlement basics: http://www.churchworldservice.org/site/PageServer?pagename=action_what_assist_resources_aegis World Relief: http://community.wr.org/immigrantservices

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