An Iraqi refugee shared his story with the New Haven community Thursday evening at an event held at the New Haven Museum and Historical Society on Whitney Avenue.
At the talk titled, “Iraqi Refugee Resettlement in New Haven,” members of the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services organization, a New Haven-based non-profit that aids refugees, discussed the difficulties refugees face resettling in America.
“We are part of that noble, historic, proud American program, welcoming persecuted people to this country so that they can live in security and enjoy the liberty, the democracy and the opportunity that this country offers them,” said IRIS Executive Director Chris George.
IRIS helps refugees, whom the U.S. government invites into the country, to start new lives, George said. Every year, 50 Iraqi immigrants arrive at Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport, he said, adding that Iraqis are New Haven’s largest immigrant group.
“You are going to witness the birth of Iraqi life here,” said Hussain, an Iraqi immigrant and IRIS caseworker who said he did not wish to disclose his full name out of concern for the safety of his family members living in Iraq.
For most of the hour-long event, Hussain talked about the hardships many Iraqi refugees face, such as unemployment and culture shock. He said Iraqi refugees have many fears — from not knowing the language, to not understanding the law, to not trusting the people around them in the same hospitable, generous way that neighbors do in Iraqi culture.
Hussain said one of the biggest difficulties refugees face is finding a job because they cannot provide records of past employment or letters of recommendation. In Iraq, he said, people looking for employment will offer to work free for a trial period to prove their competence. But in America, most employers require records Iraqi refugees don’t have access to. So even doctors and professionals often end up as janitors, he explained.
Now employed by IRIS as a translator and case worker, Hussain has a degree in comparative literature from the University of Arkansas. After receiving his degree, Hussain returned to the Middle East to rescue his family, George said. He explained that Hussain then stayed in Syria for a year and a half before his family was selected to immigrate to the United States.
Hussain said most refugees come to the United States with no knowledge of American culture and the children are often in school with native English speakers shortly after they arrive. Often, he said, people verbally insult Iraqi refugees.
“In our culture, we have to retaliate [to insults],” Hussain said. “But [the IRIS] has to tell all people here not to retaliate — to ignore [insults], to learn, to just be patient.”
George said the U.S. government invites between 40,000 and 70,000 refugees into the country every year. The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security screen the refugees, who receive a one-time payment of $900, he said. Resettlement agencies like IRIS help refugees find houses and jobs, enroll children in schools and adults in English language programs and provide them with a warm, culturally appropriate meal within two hours of arrival, George said.
Hussain said Iraqi refugees, after seeing their lives and property destroyed, rarely return to live in Iraq though they may travel to the Middle East to visit friends and relatives.
New Haven could not be a more appropriate name for a place that is a safe haven for refugees, George said. He said there are 250 Iraqi refugees living in the Greater New Haven region who enliven the community with cultural spectacles like Iraqi wedding parades.
The IRIS began in 1982 as the Interfaith Refugee Ministry under the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, but changed its name, George said, to send a more inclusive message.
Because the snowstorm may have impeded prospective audience members from attending, IRIS Executive Director Chris George said the museum will hold another talk March 11.