Yalies gather to talk with Iraqi refugees

Students from Yale College and Yale Law School help Iraqi refugees transition to life in the United States.
Students from Yale College and Yale Law School help Iraqi refugees transition to life in the United States. Photo by Zoe Gorman.

Twenty-five Yale students gathered with about 20 Iraqi refugees in the Kasbah Gardens Café on Howe Street on Saturday and bonded over Iraqi food. At the two-hour event, held by the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, they discussed topics ranging from bronze sculptures made by an Iraqi refugee to snowboarding.

At the event, Yale Law School students and undergraduates began pairing up with Iraqi refugees who are now living in New Haven and whom they will be helping to find a job and adjust the community in the coming year. IRAP, which helps about 30 Iraqi families per year, recruited 13 new students and eight Iraqi families at the event. Rebecca Heller LAW ’10 and Jonathan Finer LAW ’09 started the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project in spring 2008 and opened the program to undergraduates this fall.

Twenty-five Yale students and about 20 Iraqi refugees met over Iraqi food at the Kasbah Gardens Café on Saturday.
Twenty-five Yale students and about 20 Iraqi refugees met over Iraqi food at the Kasbah Gardens Café on Saturday.

“A party like this means so much for [the refugees],” said Michael Boyce ’11, co-director of the Yale College IRAP. “It makes us seem much more accessible.”

Three IRAP members said they were happy with the turnout given the cold weather, which Boyce said he imagines is “frightening” for someone accustomed to the warm Middle East. Most of the Iraqis were men in their twenties who could brave the cold weather. Only three women were present.

IRAP has three branches — direct services, legal assistance and policy advocacy — that help Iraqi refugees come to the United States and adjust when they get here. The direct service branch pairs students with Iraqi refugees to facilitate their transition to New Haven, said Director Kate Brubacher DIV ’07 LAW ’10. The legal assistance branch helps Iraqi refugees in the Middle East get their immigration paperwork ready, and the policy branch advocates in the American, Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian capitals to speed up the immigration process and increase the number of refugees the United States accepts, said Sirine Shebaya LAW ’12, a directed services co-coordinator.

Victoria Rogers ’12 said she and another Yale student were paired last semester with a young Iraqi man whom they help with everything from career to relationship advice.

Boyce said, among other things, the language barrier makes it difficult for refugees to find jobs — sometimes he wonders if it is a good idea to bring refugees to the United States. However, he added that almost all the refugees he meets say their lives are better in the United States.

Husain, who works with IRAP and declined to give his first name because he was concerned for the safety of his family in Iraq, said there are many refugees in New Haven who want the students’ help and many people in Iraq who want to come to the United States.

One refugee, Ali Hannoun, said he had been searching for a job since his arrival in the U.S. in June 2009. Waiting for responses to 12 job applications, he has been living for two months without a stipend from the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, a New Haven-based non profit organization that supports refugees living in New Haven and, when they enter the country, gives them stipends which last between two and six months, Brubacher said.

Hannoun said he would be willing to take any job and is thinking of setting up a food cart. In Iraq, he worked as a mechanic.

Saned Raouf ’10, who is on IRAP’s the supervisory committee, said the group wants to hold English classes for Iraqi refugees through Yale’s Language Exchange coordinators. Boyce said IRAP has applied for a $20,000 grant from the Council on Middle Eastern Studies at the MacMillan Center to hold the program, which would also provide tutoring for Iraqi refugees’ children in subjects like math.

“It’s about thinking about others rather than yourself,” said Clemantine Wamariya ’13, who is a member of IRAP. “People still have dreams among all the things that happen.”

One young refugee, who was a certified doctor in Iraq and said he wished to remain anonymous to protect his family back in Iraq, said he is currently unemployed because his Iraqi medical degree is not valid in America until he takes a medical license exam, which will cost $750. He said he hopes to do internal medicine, but his test score will determine what kind of medicine he is allowed to practice.

Refugees must apply to immigrate through the United Nationals High Commissioner for Refugees, undergoing several interviews with lawyers and with the International Organization of Migration as well as with officials from the destination country.

IRAP plans to hold one to two more events this year, including a barbecue on Old Campus and possibly a hookah-smoking event.

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