Seeking refuge

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Walking south from 235 Nicoll St., brightly colored houses with linoleum panels line the sidewalk. Bees pollinate pastel hydrangeas. The houses look recently painted; the gardens, well maintained. In the crystalline days of late summer, there is an idyllic beauty that surrounds the red-brick refuge of the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) building and its neighborhood.

This area is one that undergraduates associate with visits to East Rock Park and with professors and graduate students who make their homes in New Haven’s brand of suburban bliss. Few know that the East Rock area is also the nucleus of New Haven’s refugee community, a population of some 901 households in the surrounding area, most of whom were resettled by IRIS, a local nonprofit that assists refugees in the process of beginning their new lives in New Haven.

In 2010, 185 new refugee arrivals were welcomed to New Haven by IRIS, and seven new babies were born to recently resettled refugee families. 114 of these arrivals were Iraqi, constituting 62% of the total incoming refugee population.

But there is another group to be considered. Yale Law professor Stephen Wizner supervises the Immigration Legal Services (ILS) clinic, a collaboration between the Yale Law School and Department of Psychiatry, which assists clients from dangerous regions of the world gain legal status in the United States. He said he was surprised that most incoming refugees hail from Iraq because the ILS deals mainly with clients from West Africa.

His surprise may simply be due to terminology.

His clients have fled their home countries in the same way IRIS’ Iraqi clients have, but they arrive in the United States without a refugee visa — this means they don’t count towards the statistics of refugee arrivals. Officially, these immigrants are known as “asylum seekers.”

The ILS has been paramount in shaping this population in New Haven, attracting asylum seekers in need of legal assistance as they petition to gain refugee status.

“New Haven’s asylum-seeking community has grown monumentally in the last ten years, in particular due to the [ILS] Clinic, one of the few very prominent asylum clinics in the United States,” said Bandy Lee MED ’94 DIV ’95, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine who instructs and supervises the psychiatric side of ILS.

While New Haven has been criticized by some as a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants, the city is supportive of immigrants of another kind; it has become a locus for refugees and asylum seekers, in part due to the advocacy and assistance of those within the Yale community. Although Yale has not had a direct affect on the number of Iraqi refugees in the city, University organizations, including Iraqi Refugee Assistance Program (IRAP) and the Yale Refugee Project (YRP), certainly ease the transition.

A STRONG COMMUNITY

Ever since the United States Senate passed the “Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act” in 2007 in response to the huge number of refugees created by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and ensuing chaos, Iraqis have constituted the largest group of refugee arrivals. Due to the substantial local resources that make it well-suited to an Arabic-speaking population, New Haven has become a particular haven for Iraqi refugees.

“There’s a significant community here, which makes it easier for Iraqi refugees to feel comfortable and become accustomed to the area,” Shahla Naimi ’12, former director of the Yale Refugee Project, said. “It’s helpful to see people who have been here for two or three years, who have been through the things they have been through, and come through it successfully.”

Once a refugee has been accepted for resettlement into the United States, the National Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) assigns the incoming individual or family to an NGO such as IRIS. These organizations play a large role in determining the demographic makeup of a community’s refugee population because they send yearly requests to the PRM based on the resources and community in place.

“It’s a critical mass calculus,” Director of the Yale Refugee Project Max Budokovitch ’12 explained. “Once one organization is established [that addresses a specific refugee community], the government takes note as they’re looking at various resettlement sites and decide to place more members of that community in the area, and as a result more groups start to establish.”

One such organization, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Program (IRAP), was started by students of the Yale Law School in 2008 to provide legal assistance to Iraqis seeking admission as refugees to the United States. Within New Haven, it also provides direct services to local refugees in collaboration with IRIS.

The Yale Refugee Project (YRP), which began as the undergraduate branch of IRAP and became its own organization in spring 2010, attracts many Arabic language students and students with Middle Eastern backgrounds.

“The group began with 15 members — basically, Arabic students interested in Iraqis,” said Michael Boyce ’11, one of the group’s two co-founders. Boyce, a modern Middle Eastern studies major, also studied Arabic at Yale.

The group has expanded since its foundation and now includes approximately 25 active volunteers and seven board members. While their primary service is tutoring, the group is also a vehicle for fostering one-on-one relationships between refugees and Yale students.

YRP’s other co-founder, Saned Raouf ’10, said he felt a personal connection to the cause as an Iraqi-American. He said his first-hand cultural understanding, something many other IRAP members did not possess, was incredibly helpful in communicating with the refugees.

“I lived in Iraq for five years as a child and witnessed a lot of injustice that I wanted to solve but didn’t have the power to do so,” Raouf said. “IRAP presented a great opportunity to help those who have suffered through Iraq’s darkest era.”

The YRP now assists refugees of all backgrounds, although they still work primarily with Iraqis, a reflection of the population in New Haven.

FROM THE GROUND UP

Amaar Al-Hayder, an administrator at the MacMillan Center’s Council on Middle East Studies, was among the first one thousand refugees to be resettled to the United States under the “Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act.” He arrived in New Haven directly from Baghdad in November 2008 with his wife, who was pregnant with their daughter at the time, and their 3-year-old son.

So far, the story of the Al-Hayder family in America has been a happy one. Their case was deferred from IRIS to the Unitarian Universalist Church — “angels,” as Al-Hayder characterized them. The Unitarian Universalists were able to support the family generously, even providing them with a car.

Al-Hayder stressed that his English language skills were also essential in settling his family into this new environment. But the rest of their success he attributes to luck and the great people they met.

But at the heart of Al-Hayder’s success lies a “can-do” attitude — a desire, more than willingness, to rebuild a prosperous life for his family after having to give up everything and start from scratch.

“In the first days, I went from shop to shop asking for a job. I wanted to do anything. I told Chris, [the director of IRIS], ‘Give me a broom and I’ll clean the whole place,’” Al-Hayder recalled.

He eventually landed a part-time job teaching Iraqi Arabic, receiving only $1,000 over a three-month period. Although his salary only covered four hours per week, Al-Hayder worked 12 — because he loved it.

He was eventually able to find his job with the MacMillan Center in part through a reference that a former student of his wrote for him. He began in a temporary position in March 2009 and has been working as a permanent employee since October of that year.

But not all refugees are so successful in their first years in the United States. Fawaz Alwash, an Iraqi refugee also employed at Yale, relocated from Hartford to Connecticut within a few weeks of his arrival, due to a less-than-welcoming reception. He was placed in a dangerous area, and two murders occurred on his street during the first week.

In New Haven, he faced further difficulties in his early days. He lost the financial support of his resettlement agency after leaving Hartford and said he felt very disoriented arriving in New Haven.

Like Al-Hayder, Alwash was fluent in English upon arrival, though he said other factors made the transition difficult.

“Language is key, but it isn’t everything. Orientation was the main problem for me,” Alwash said, citing initial differences and dependencies ranging from adjustments to traffic regulations and nonsmoking rules, to the very basics of finding a supermarket. “In the first months you are totally dependent. I went to IRIS every day.”

Alwash has been employed by the Yale University Library since January 2011, but his position is temporary and is nonrenewable after one year. This was the first full-time job he has found since arriving in October 2009 and is currently hoping to receive the qualifications necessary to become a civil engineer, a position he held in Iraq.

He will need to apply to master’s programs or take certain engineering exams, which are only offered once every six months. Although IRIS offers employment assistance, this mainly applies to entry-level positions, and they do not have the resources to assist clients in seeking professional jobs.

The average wage earned by IRIS clients in 2010 was $11.16 an hour, placing it significantly higher than Connecticut’s minimum wage of $7.65, but this does not compare to the salary that a well-educated and professionally trained refugee is likely to have earned in his or her home country.

THOSE STILL SEEKING

But for another population, the most basic of orientation resources offered by IRIS that ease the transition to American life are not available.

“It’s often quite a shock to immigrate to this culture,” ILS psychiatric coordinator Bandy Lee explained. Her clients, mainly hailing from West Africa, come from a more group-oriented background and often have difficulties with the culture of individualism in America.

“They come from a background where no one starves until the whole village starves; you share everything,” she said. “When you’re out on the streets [in New Haven], no one will show a particular interest in whether you’ve had a meal that day or whether you’re having difficulties paying for your house or whether you’re sad or lonely. Because this is not a culture to interact among strangers.”

Upon arriving, asylum seekers must fight to remain in the United States by proving they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group — not an easy task.

Asylum seekers face very tough and often arbitrary odds — only 30 percent of national asylum cases ending successfully. Post-traumatic stress is often a large roadblock in these cases.

“Often when individuals have undergone great trauma, they don’t remember things they’re supposed to, and they react in an erratic way,” Lee said. “They often react in an exaggerated way, or they react with numbness and detachment, which is not expected of someone who has undergone trauma and loss.”

The ILS refers most of its clients for psychiatric consultation, and the files compiled by the forensic psychiatrists often prove pivotal in the court ruling.

Psychiatric symptoms, language and cultural barriers make it more difficult for asylum seekers to come forward with a compelling case, Lee explained. Even their idioms and modes of expression are very different and need to be translated into terms that are comprehensible to law students and judges.

The process is very difficult and often drawn out: If her case is not granted in the first round, an asylum seeker enters into a process of appeals, going through various court systems that take up the case anew. If asylum is not granted, the seeker is ultimately “ordered removed” and must either depart or choose to live in the United States as an illegal immigrant with rights that are drastically reduced. Good legal representation is thus crucial.

The ILS has a 98 percent success rate for its clients, over three times the national acceptance rate.

As Lee put it: “Clients who submit applications on their own aren’t as skilled in compiling a case.”

As a result, an asylum-seeking community has grown up around New Haven as individuals migrate from other states and cities to be represented by the ILS.

THE YEARS TO COME

But the refugee community — by definition a population of those displaced by the social climates within a nation— is ever changing. The population that existed in 1995 in New Haven was certainly not the one that it is today, and it is not the one that it will be in five years’ time.

Since refugee arrivals began picking up again towards the end of July, IRIS has received few Iraqi clients. Most new arrivals have been Eritrean and Congolese.

“The reason for the recent change in our client demographic is the adjustments that have been made to security screenings overseas. We’ve been told that this will slow down the processing of Iraqi refugees, so we’re looking to diversify our caseload,” said Kelly Hebrank, health and wellness coordinator for IRIS.

She said that IRIS is looking to resettle more Burmese and Bhutanese refugees, who represent the next biggest populations of refugee arrivals after Iraqis.

But IRIS has received few Burmese and Bhutanese clients thus far because New Haven currently lacks the social framework to support these communities. In order to become a good site for resettlement, IRIS will need to reach out to speakers of Burmese and Dzongka, the national language of Bhutan, and will need to receive multiple family arrivals within a short time period so as to establish a community.

“If they only send us one family every four months, it’s very difficult for that family since there isn’t a community in place for them,” Hebrank explained.

IRAP and ILS too must consider the possibility of a shifting refugee population on the global scale in years to come.

“While our current work is primarily with Iraqi refugees, the model IRAP has developed is helpful to any refugee seeking resettlement in the United States. IRAP has started to work with refugees from other countries,” Sirine Shebaya LAW ’12, a coordinator of the Yale Law School division of IRAP, wrote in an email.

Although this expansion has been very limited thus far, Shebaya wrote that expanding to other populations is certainly a possibility for the future. And with the heightened security that faces Iraqi refugees at the moment, IRAP may be able to help the most clients by refocusing on other populations.

Whatever the demographic composition of refugees in coming years, there will always be more in need of a new home. Many clients of the ILS who are successful in gaining an asylee visa must wait many years until they are able to bring their children over from their home countries. Others have extended families who have fled to neighboring countries and are seeking to gain entry into the United States.

For Al-Hayder, the issue of Iraqi resettlement is still paramount. His father and one of his sisters are still living in Baghdad. His brother and mother have moved to Amman and are trying to gain refugee visas from there. Al-Hayder has tried to assist them in this process by finding his brother a job with a company based in the United States (his brother-in-law and sister were able to resettle in New Haven last year by a similar means). He has not seen the rest of his family since 2008.

While he waits for their arrival, he communicates with his family via Skype and tries to retain a sense of connection to his cultural origins, despite the 6,000-mile distance.

“My family gave me this heritage,” he said. “I don’t want my son to go out in the world without my having given him something. I want it to be his choice.”

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