Iraqi refugees find life in Southern California hard but better By Marisa Agha
fresnobee EL CAJON
– Loud voices speaking Arabic fill the church parking lot on a rainy Friday night. The crowd, made up of men and women, old and young, hovers over a man with a list.
They laugh, smoke and worry.
Khudur Noaman has stood in line for nearly two hours. His purpose is simple: a mattress. Noaman was among at least 100 Iraqi refugees waiting for a free mattress at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon.
Noaman, 63, arrived in the United States two months ago with his wife and 25-year-old son. He does not speak English, and had been sleeping on the floor until about two weeks ago when he found a mattress on the street. Noaman explains, through another Iraqi refugee who translates, that his life in Baghdad became scary after his store was bombed. The family waited in Syria for five years before they were able to enter the United States. "Here, life is hard," he says through an interpreter, but still better than in Iraq.
El Cajon, about 15 miles east of San Diego, has become home to the second-largest Iraqi population in the United States, after Detroit, since the U.S. government began resettling Iraqis here in 2007. Just four years ago, Spanish was the dominant language in store windows along Main Street. Now, Arabic words advertise markets specializing in Middle Eastern meats and pastries, and restaurant signs beckon with the words "Babylon," "Ali Baba" and "kebab," prompting locals to dub the area "Little Baghdad."
Special to The Bee - Iraqi refugee Khudur Noaman, 63, shown with his wife at their El Cajon apartment, arrived in the United States two months ago. “Here, life is hard,” he said through an interpreter, but better than in Iraq.
Overcoming language and cultural barriers has brought difficulties for thousands of refugees struggling to find employment, housing and a better life in the midst of an economic downturn.
May Ablhd, 26, dreams of going to college and becoming an elementary school teacher. For now, though, she wants to ensure her family can survive. She and her mother, a nurse, and her disabled father came to El Cajon five months ago. The family left Iraq in 2007 and waited three years in Syria. For two months, Ablhd has walked to school from their apartment for five hours of English classes four days a week. She has been looking for work since she got here, but with no luck.
"I want to learn English fast because I want to work," Ablhd said. "The life here very hard because no job." Though she says that she feels safer here than in Iraq, she is "scared" about the future.
Robert J. Moser, deputy director of Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego, estimates that about 300 Iraqis arrive in San Diego each month. About 4,200 Iraqis arrived in San Diego County in the last year, he said. Most are Chaldean Catholics, a minority in Iraq, and most do not arrive directly from Iraq but come from countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. Many come to El Cajon because relatives are here already.
Moser, who has worked with Vietnamese, Cambodian and Soviet refugees for three decades, said a challenge is that the Iraqis are well-educated and cannot find equally meaningful work in the United States.
"That's hard. That loss of value and role that they played in their native cultures. It's difficult for them to take a job in a hotel or an assembly line," Moser said.
Refugees qualify for government aid for the first eight months in the United States. After that, paying rent and finding a job can prove elusive.
There is an ongoing tension for Iraqi immigrants between economic security and physical security, Moser said. Ultimately, most decide they are physically safer here.
El Cajon's Cajon Valley Union School District, which serves children in kindergarten through eighth grade, has hired more teachers to help Iraqi children learn English. "The need is huge," said Izela Jacobo, the district's English Learners Program coordinator.
Those forging a new life in a different culture also must confront the mental toll.
Many refugees have lost a family member through violence, and those memories linger, said the Rev. Michael Bazzi, pastor at St. Peter's. "It's haunting them daily – how they left."
And fear of being without basic comforts wears on them.
"They were dreaming about paradise in America, and they don't have mattresses to sleep on," Bazzi said.