You may know Little Addis Ababa in Washington, D.C. or the Little Armenia of Los Angeles (otherwise known as the city of Glendale), but you probably haven’t thought of New Haven as a Little Baghdad. Over the last three years, however, approximately 180 Iraqis have arrived in New Haven—now considered an “Iraqi location” by the State Department—as the United States has finally begun to address the refugee crisis it helped create.
Will Hunting, an Iraqi refugee living in New Haven, waited a year and a half for his case to be processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) before he was invited to come to the US It was not his first time in the States—he studied at the University of Arkansas as a Fulbright Scholar from 2005 to 2007—but he, like most other arriving refugees, had never heard of New Haven. “I Googled ‘New Haven’ to read about New Haven and Yale, and I started some dreams about whether I would be happy here or not,” recalls Hunting.
Hunting is now employed as a caseworker, Arabic interpreter, and cultural advisor at New Haven’s Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, more commonly known by its acronym, IRIS. One of many non-profit resettlement organizations around the country, IRIS assists newly arrived refugees once the State Department assigns them to the New Haven area. The group provides airport pick-up services, health and employment advising, school registration and language classes, and referrals to the government’s public benefit programs. IRIS supports families as they work to become self-sufficient—a process that can take up to a year, and is only made harder by the fact that these families only receive $900 of federal support.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq left as many as two million Iraqi refugees living in the Middle East, and 2.7 million more remain displaced within their own country. Despite these alarming numbers, the US made no move to address the situation until 2006. The work was slow. Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act in January 2006 to provide for fifty special immigrant visas (SIVs) per year for Iraqis or Afghanis translators who aided US forces while in Iraq. From the beginning of the war to September 2007, despite Congressional hearings on the worsening predicament, the U.S. had approved only 2,371 Iraqi refugees for admission. “There was an embarrassing, shameful delay in the resettling of [Iraqi] refugees,” says Chris George, Executive Director of IRIS
Only in the last few years has the situation begun to amend itself. In January 2008, the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007 (the Kennedy Act) provided 5,000 SIVs per year for five years, and also initiated expansive refugee resettlement programs. By September of that year, the US announced it had admitted 13,823 Iraqi refugees, and by July 2009, twenty-thousand Iraqis had been allowed to enter the United States.
Now, there is a small, growing Iraqi community in New Haven. “People here take pride in the idea of ‘strength through diversity,’” George continued. “The Elm City ID Card, especially, sent a loud message that immigrants and refugees are welcome here.”
Yale students are doing what they can to help refugees. At the undergraduate level, the student group Reach Out has started a new initiative this fall to work with refugees through IRIS and shine a spotlight on New Haven’s growing international community. Additionally, two Yale Law School students, Becca Heller law ’10 and Jon Finer law ’09 founded the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) last summer. Inspired by Finer’s firsthand observations of the Iraqi refugee crisis while he was reporting in Jordan for the Washington Post, the organization quickly grew, and now boasts chapters at New York University Law School and UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law. Additionally, it has gained support among law students drawn to the refugee crisis as “a great injustice that we caused and weren’t doing anything about,” as IRAP Director of Direct Assistance Kate Brubacher law ’10 explained.
Still entirely student-run, IRAP has a three-pronged mission: to work directly in the Middle East resettling refugees, to advocate for refugees through United States policy reform, and to provide direct services to refugees here in New Haven as they adjust to American life. Since the New Haven-based IRIS has limited staff to address the needs of each newly-arrived Iraqi family, IRAP provides student volunteers to help refugees with a variety of services, from teaching individuals about tenant rights to tutoring English to personally accompanying men and women to job interviews around the city.
This year, IRAP is opening volunteer opportunities up to undergraduates as well. An IRAP undergraduate information meeting at the end of September lured a large number of interested Yalies to donate their time to the cause. IRAP hopes to convince student organizations on campus to sponsor individual families and to promote an awareness campaign on the Iraqi refugee crisis. Undergraduates will also have opportunities to work on policy teams that make recommendations to Washington. “You should simultaneously be a resource and an advocate,” encouraged Brubacher at the meeting. “The Law School is incredibly connected,” said Michael Boyce br ’11, who has worked with IRAP in their local legal assistance division during a semester abroad in Jordan. He currently helps lead the undergraduate branch of IRAP. “You’re not just sending things out into the ether. Your suggestions are heard. It’s amazing what you can accomplish,” Boyce said in reference to IRAP’s policy advocacy division.
The aid of the students involved is not lost on a struggling local community. Even before arriving in the United States, many Iraqi refugees have to put their lives on hold for several years while they muddle through the complicated application process. Unaware of the status of their petition, they subsist on very little income as a result of being forced to live in countries like Jordan, where it is illegal for refugees to work. Despite having surmounted incredible obstacles in order to arrive in the US, refugees do not see resettlement in New Haven as the light at the end of the tunnel. Rather, those arriving in the city face a host of new setbacks.
One problem arriving Iraqi refugees face in New Haven is the task of finding jobs that match their professional qualifications. As a particularly highly-educated group of refugees, Iraqis “come with qualifications that are not to be considered here, so they have to re-credentialize their degrees,” explained Hunting. “We think to ourselves, ‘We are a ready-to-go people. The United States didn’t spend a penny on our education — why not benefit from it by employing us in professional fields?’” A Baghdad oncologist Hunting worked with at IRIS, for example, could not find a medical job here, and now works in a meat service department. “Iraqis waiting to come to the U.S. in Jordan are convinced that they will get better jobs here than they actually will,” echoed Boyce. “They all plan on making $75,000 a year before they get here, but these kinds of opportunities don’t materialize.”
The struggle to find jobs is augmented by what Hunting calls the “general ignorance” of employers towards the refugee resettlement program. “People think that refugees have no paperwork,” he explained, “when in fact we are the most documented people.”
Finally, the culture shock New Haven poses to Iraqi refugees is significant. “We come from a patriarchy, a system where the man is the dominating character in the family,” explained Hunting. “Here, this is different. Women participate in decisions.” The implications of this culture gap are broad. For example, an elementary school may call the home of an Iraqi refugee family to arrange for a parent-teacher conference, only to be told by the husband that he will show up to the meeting, but that his wife — who should be kept at home — will not be present. In other instances, some Iraqi customs don’t translate into American society. “I always tell people,” says Hunting, “that if one Iraqi man puts his hands on the shoulders of another Iraqi man, they are not homosexuals. This is simply our custom.” Additionally, many facets of our everyday lives — ATM machines, credit cards, and mortgages — simply do not exist in Iraq, and must be explained to newly arrived refugees.
New Haven’s growing Iraqi refugee population brings the Iraq War home in the truest sense of the expression. “Iraqis are good people. Refugees are good people,” said Hunting. “They need chances, jobs — they need to feel somehow that life is better here for them.” With the privilege of living in a society that enables refugees to resettle comes the responsibility to accept and promote them as members of our society. If refugees arrive in New Haven only to feel that life here is a disappointment compared to the countries from which they fled, then the city has failed to live up to its name.