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Iraqis in El Cajon: A Glimpse at U.S. Refugee Policy

The United States has received 35,000 of the estimated 2 million refugees who fled Iraq since this country went to war there seven years ago. The top resettlement city has been El Cajon, Calif., a suburb of San Diego, so I traveled there this month to see how the Iraqi refugees were faring in the schools there. My story was published today at edweek.org.

The Iraqi parents I interviewed were generally happy about their children's experience in U.S. schools. Some Iraqi students were thrilled for the chance to attend a regular public school. Rani, a 16-year-old Iraqi boy who had come to the United States via Syria told me he had missed 4 1/2 years of school in that country. "In Syria, no school for Iraqi people," he said. There, he had worked, serving coffee and tea at a tattoo shop. (See the article I wrote for Education Week in 2008, "The Lost Years," about Iraqi refugee students in Jordan.)

The two school districts in El Cajon have made a lot of changes in a short amount of time to accommodate the refugees. For example, the Cajon Valley Union School District created newcomer centers, or separate classes, for refugees. Grossmont Union High School District has expanded classes for English-language learners who are teenagers. The district is enrolling a steady stream of 16- and 17-year-olds who don't have any high school credits, which is a challenge.

I heard some grumbling from a representative of a local social-service organization that the schools weren't doing their job in helping Iraqi parents navigate the school registration process because they didn't translate the forms in the registration packet into Arabic. An official from the K-8 district told me that district has translated registration forms into Arabic. The high school district hasn't translated the forms, but a district official told me it plans to do so by next fall. The district just hired a full-time Arabic-English translator. In the meantime, at least one high school has a bilingual Iraqi who works part time as a parent liaison and one of her jobs is to help Iraqi parents register their children for school.

What really struck me, though, during my visit was how most of the Iraqi refugees are living in poverty and, after their eight months' worth of federal benefits for refugees run out, find themselves on welfare. (Update: I just got a clarification from Sana Hardina, the advocacy officer for the International Rescue Committee, one of the resettlement agencies, who says some refugee families are put on welfare in states if they are immediately eligible rather than receive the eight months' worth of assistance targeted for refugees. Typically immigrants can't receive welfare payments, she said, but refugees are the exception because they are considered particularly vulnerable. She says California has the most generous rate for the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program at $721 per month for a family of three.)

I interviewed three Iraqi men who all spoke English fluently, who have been in this country for at least eight months (added in an update to this post), and are using welfare checks to support their families. Among them was a former captain of an oil tankard (who finally got a job in El Cajon for $8 per hour in a pizza place), a man who was a translator in the U.S. Embassy in Iraq for two years, and a man who ran mess halls for U.S. soldiers and contractors in Baghdad. The man who was a translator had also been a physics teacher in Iraq, so he's trying to get his educational transcripts evaluated to see what he has to do to get certified to teach in the United States. He had to borrow money from friends in Iraq to pay the fee for the evaluation. He said the family has spent all its savings.

Three recent reports on Iraqi resettlement nationally speak to these larger issues of whether U.S. refugee policy enables Iraqis to become self-sufficient.

The entry-level jobs that refugees usually land in this country are scarce and more competitive in the current slow economy, according to a report put out this month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The report says Iraqis tend to have high levels of education, but have struggled to find work.

Two other reports are critical of U.S. refugee-resettlement policy, saying the nation isn't providing enough assistance to help refugees get on their feet financially.

A 2009 report by Georgetown Law students says that "the United States is opening its gates to refugees and simply forgetting about them after they have arrived." The report says refugee assistance should be increased from eight to 18 months. It says a stronger emphasis should be placed on the core barriers to self-sufficiency and integration, including lack of English-language skills, lack of transportation, and lack of opportunities for education and recertification. Some Iraqi refugees have ended up homeless in the United States, the report says.

The federal program doesn't meet the basic needs of today's refugees and requires urgent reform, contended a report by the International Rescue Committee, also released in 2009. The IRC is one of the organizations that has helped to resettle some of the 5,000 refugees from Iraq who moved to El Cajon in the last few years.

I asked the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which both have a hand in refugee policy, for a response to the criticism.

State Department officials agreed with the report by Georgetown Law students that "additional assistance is needed to help refugees bridge the gap until they are self-sufficient," said Beth Schlachter, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. She said that on Jan. 1, 2010, the State Department doubled the amount of money it gives to each refugee from $900 to $1,800 for the first 30-90 days in the United States. But she said Health and Human Services is responsible for the eight months' worth of support that follows. That department hasn't yet responded to inquiries I made yesterday on this matter.

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