Tuesday marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, and since the U.S. started opening up its doors to Iraqi refugees in 2007, more have ended up in California than any other state – nearly 20,000.
Most go to El Cajon, near San Diego, but an increasing number of Iraqis are arriving in Orange County — some 1,600 a year — where the challenges once they arrive can be significant.
"I was rich. Now I am poor."
Four mornings a week, refugees crowd around a table in Anaheim to take a three-hour English as a second language class at Access California, an Orange County nonprofit.
There are students from all over, including Mexico and Eritrea. But the vast majority of students this agency handles – some 80 percent – are Iraqi.
One of the students is Suad Hatem, 77, who practices her English by telling the class she was born in Mosul in Northern Iraq.
“It is a beautiful city,” she says. “I love it very much.”
Hatem has been in Anaheim for a year. Her husband, Wajeeh Alameen, 80, joined her five months ago. He served in the Iraqi army before becoming an accountant.
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“When I was in school I looked at maps and dreamed of coming to America,” said Alameen.
Now that he and his wife and their two sons are here, they marvel at how clean and organized America is. They’re particularly impressed by American post offices and street lamps. Alameen marvels at their good fortune. His sons live in Irvine now, a long way from Mosul under Saddam Hussein.
“They tried to kill my sons, and now they are living in Irvine,” Alameen said with a laugh.
The couple tries to be upbeat, but it’s clear their transition has been far from storybook. Like many families, they couldn’t come all at once. They still have a son and daughter in Iraq and one daughter who ended up in Sudan. They lived in fear in Iraq, but it was a far more comfortable life. Here they share a cramped apartment with no furniture. They sleep on the floor.
“Everything I built step-by-step,” said Hatem. “I had a car, home, garden, everything. I was rich. And now I am poor.”
After our interview, Access California bought the couple a bed and furniture. They wept with joy when it arrived.
Iraqis often picture a red carpet being rolled out for them when they dream about their arrival in America. The reality of landing at LAX provides a rude awakening, according to Rida Hamida, a social worker who works with Iraqis at Access California.
“They’re expecting a Hollywood scene when what they really come to terms with is they come to [an] airport, there’s thousands of people walking around, nobody knows their name, they’re lost, they’re frustrated, and they don’t know the language,” said Hamida.
And as hard as it can be to adjust, Iraqis are often reluctant to talk about their struggles.
"A lot of times they are told, 'You’re so lucky to be here. How can you be ungrateful?' That would basically be telling the United States, 'No, thank you, for bringing me to this country,'" said Hamida.
Refugees get health care and cash assistance from Orange County after they arrive, about $300 a month for a single person. They also get a $1,100 stipend their first month. But after eight months, the checks stop coming. Ready or not, Hamida has to convince them to find a job here, even though it almost always pales to their jobs in Iraq.
“They have a Ph.D. and were a principal of a school of 2,000 students, and I’m trying to help them take an entry-level position as a customer service representative just to survive,” said Hamida.
Finding a better life
Hanna Gaznakh says he left his job as a radiologist in Iraq to settle in Anaheim with his son and wife two months ago. He says security where his family lived in Erbil in Northern Iraq was “not good.”
At 63, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to find any job, let alone be a radiologist again. But he hopes his son Yousif will be able to find a better life here.
Yousif Gaznakh is 19, and has lived close to half his life in war.
He says he saw a bomb explode at his school. For years after that, he couldn’t sleep, constantly awakened by nightmares of seeing people killed in front of him.
He pulls back his sleeve to show the shrapnel wounds in his forearm.
But Gaznakh says that his nightmares have stopped since he came to the U.S. He no longer lives in fear.
“I am in America now, and I have hope for a better life,” Gaznakh said.
He wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, and become a radiologist.
Do you know other Iraqi immigrant stories? Share them with us in the comments.