As U.S. troops are preparing to return to the United States, millions of Iraqis continue to endure hardship both as displaced persons within Iraq and as refugees in surrounding countries. But even Iraqi refugees in the United States face harsh pitfalls. Since the war’s mass displacements began in February 2006, barely 30,000 Iraqis have been admitted to the United States, and few of these were admitted prior to August 2008. Now, because of the sharp economic downturn, nonprofit resettlement agencies are finding it increasingly difficult to help them find jobs. Many face eviction and homelessness.
The title of a recent report by the International Rescue Committee tells the grim story: In Dire Straits. The report focuses on two cities, Atlanta, Ga., and Phoenix, Ariz., which were chosen by the I.R.C. because the relatively high numbers of Iraqi cases in those cities, as an I.R.C. spokesperson told America, have been significantly affected by the economic crisis. The I.R.C. plans to settle approximately 230 Iraqi refugees in Atlanta in 2009 and an equivalent number in Phoenix. But resettlement has become increasingly difficult, because all refugees are expected to find employment within a few months of their arrival in a city.
The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration provides a reception grant of $900 per refugee upon arrival at their destination—an amount meant to cover immediate necessities like security deposits on rental housing, food and other immediate needs for the first month. But this falls far short of actual needs, especially with housing costs varying widely by city and state. In a strange reversal of roles, better-off relatives in Iraq sometimes send assistance to loved ones in the United States.
Individual states in which the refugees resettle provide some public assistance, but the amount varies widely from state to state—an inequity in itself. The average for a family of four nationwide is $575 per month, but in some states the amount can be as low as $309—which adds to the precariousness of the refugees’ lives. Medicaid, which is generally included, is crucial because many arrive in poor physical and mental health. But Medicaid does not cover all medical needs, such as those of trauma victims. The trauma can make it more difficult for them to begin work in their new country. In addition, a number have serious medical problems or physical disabilities that can undermine their immediate employability.
Widows face especially harsh struggles. Most are from traditional backgrounds in which the wife or mother was not expected to be the primary breadwinner in their families. But the requirement to find employment quickly applies to them as well as to men. Male relatives attempting to join them face additional security checks and therefore longer delays in being reunited. And yet family reunification is one of the strongest indicators of resettlement success. The I.R.C. report tells the story of a widow living alone in Phoenix. Like others who have received eviction notices, she has nowhere to go, and homeless shelters are full. The waiting list for subsidized housing is two years.
The most immediate need is for increased federal assistance in the form of cash and better access to medical treatment. Also needed is a leveling of the widely disparate amounts individual states offer for refugee resettlement. The I.R.C. urges that Congress provide $97 million in supplemental funds for the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services to cover emergency rent payments for refugees at risk of eviction. This past spring the State Department released $5 million in emergency rent stipends to assist those facing eviction, but such modest steps are mere stopgaps. The entire refugee resettlement program needs to be reinvented.
The United States has agreed to admit 17,000 Iraqis in fiscal year 2009 (October 2008 to September 2009), a shamefully small number, given that many Iraqis have even risked their lives working for the U.S. military and government and for American companies in various capacities—for example, as interpreters. Whether that number will be reached remains to be seen, although so far the U.S. government is on track and resettlement groups are optimistic. As of June 30, 2009, 13,537 had been received. Roughly a third are Christians, still a targeted group in Iraq. Some four million refugees in all have fled their homes because of a war for which the United States bears primary responsibility.
The least we can do is to better share the load with Iraq’s neighbors and provide adequately for those Iraqis who manage to arrive here as traumatized refugees. The voluntary resettlement agencies that care for them are increasingly overburdened as the recession continues and unemployment climbs.