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Despite humble jobs, Iraqi refugees here cherish their freedom

| Monday, July 11, 2011

The castoffs reach from floor to ceiling in a basement storage room at Samir AlQass Ishaq's Castle Shannon apartment.

A fix-it man, the Iraqi refugee gives second lives to things Americans throw out. When he found an LCD television with a broken cord awaiting curbside trash pickup, he was so astonished, he took a picture that he sent to friends in Iraq. Then he took the TV home, repaired it and put it in his living room.

AlQass Ishaq, 39, has recovered five vacuum cleaners, a video recorder, a treadmill, fans, a freezer and enough coins from streets to half fill a two-quart jar.

"I'm rich," he said, sitting in his living room next to his wife and their sons, ages 10 and 5. "I have my family. I have my freedom. I can go anywhere, and no one will follow me. I will not be killed."

AlQass Ishaq cried as he talked about murdered friends, bombings and death threats in Iraq. A Christian who speaks English, he worked as a security guard for the International Committee of the Red Cross. That made him and his family targets of insurgents. The United Nations, and then the United States, granted the family refugee status last year.

They join a growing number of Iraqis approved to come to the United States -- from fewer than 100 in 2004 to more than 18,000 in each of the past two years. Nearly 1,000 resettled in Pennsylvania. Most have located in Philadelphia, Erie and Lancaster counties, though 108 live in Allegheny County. More are on the way.

The State Department gave more than $2 billion to relief agencies helping Iraqis in the Middle East. The government pays $1,800 for every refugee who comes to this country: $1,100 goes to each person and $700 to the assisting agency.

On Wednesday, the Senate's Homeland Security Committee plans to consider Iraqi refugees and their treatment. Lawmakers will hear about two refugees in Kentucky who were arrested in May and charged with attempting to send cash and weapons to terrorists in Iraq.

Few Iraqis in the United States pose a threat, said Haider Ala Hamoudi, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who often travels to Iraq to help establish a legal system there. Even among people who worked with Saddam Hussein's government, he said, most did so to survive.

Many resettled Iraqis resent what they lost. Although the U.S. invasion toppled a dictator, the ensuing violence from their nation's upheaval cost many people everything they had.

"You do see a professional class that was present, and is present within Iraq, who are frustrated by having to live in circumstances that are very different with less societal respect and pay," Ala Hamoudi said.

Here, Iraqis with professional experience often find it hard to obtain jobs that match their abilities, said Norm-Anne Rothermel, Pennsylvania's state refugee coordinator. Like prior generations of immigrants, many of these people have unique skills and advanced degrees but lack certifications to work here.

"A lot of Iraqis are reluctant to take entry-level jobs like we get for other refugees," Rothermel said, "and it's quite understandable."

Forced to flee

In Baghdad, AlQass Ishaq worked in a shop fixing electronic equipment. He said he stood in the street that hopeful moment when U.S. troops arrived in the capital, waving to the Americans as Iraqi women nearby threw roses.

After the government fell, AlQass Ishaq said insurgents accused him of helping the invaders because of his security work for the Red Cross. They blew up the shop where he worked. They left a death threat in his garden. They tried to abduct his wife.

"They knew my work; they knew my home; they knew my wife," AlQass Ishaq said. "So what am I waiting for• We saw ourselves surrounded by death."

They left their two-level house -- with three bathrooms, a large garden and three-car garage -- and moved among family and friends for three months, plotting an escape. They hired a car for the 17-hour drive to Syria, where relatives had rented an apartment.

They found safety in Syria, but also despair because the country prohibits refugees from working. When their savings ran out, AlQass Ishaq returned alone to Baghdad, so he could work and send money to his wife and sons.

He was threatened again. Someone left an envelope with his name on the outside. Inside were a bullet and a piece of paper on which the word "traitor" appeared to be written in blood.

AlQass Ishaq hid in a Syrian Orthodox church. He called his U.N. contact, who agreed to help him leave Iraq.

Unable to contact his family, AlQass Ishaq left Baghdad on his own, flying with refugees to Jordan and then New York. From there, he came to Pittsburgh, where his in-laws settled as immigrants in 2007. A resettlement agency, the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Pittsburgh, rented him an apartment.

AlQass Ishaq arrived in August; his wife, Siba, and their sons came in January. Their airport reunion, he said, was like their wedding: Her parents and two friends waited with him for his family's arrival. Now they're helping the family adapt to life here.

American help

Americans tend to oversimplify the complaints of Iraqi refugees, said Khadra Mohammed, executive director of the Pittsburgh Refugee Center, which contracts with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. Everyone has a hierarchy of needs: food, shelter and schooling for children, she said.

Relating the concerns of a typical Iraqi refugee, she said: "'I don't care about Saddam Hussein. I used to get up every day, and my kids would go to school. Now I get up, and I don't have anything to eat.'"

Refugees must spend an initial government resettlement and replacement grant in the first 90 days. Then they receive cash assistance similar to welfare -- $497 a month for a family of four. They're eligible for food stamps and other government assistance.

Unlike other immigrants, refugees can work in the United States without getting a green card. Their situation dictates how long they receive financial help.

The transition can be difficult, said Leslie Aizenman, director of refugee services with the Jewish family agency.

"They're starting at rock bottom," Aizenman said. "If you're an engineer from Iraq, or anywhere, you need to get re-credentialed here. When is that supposed to happen if you're working to put bread on the table?"

Starting over

AlQass Ishaq dreams of opening a fix-it shop, but he knows Americans often think it easier to replace a broken TV or appliance. Last month, he took a maintenance job at an Oakland hotel.

As hard as it is to move forward, he cannot think of going back.

"I don't feel homesick because I suffered there in Iraq," he said. "I suffered a lot."

Experts say time helps refugees adjust. For some Iraqis, that could mean months or years. For others, it could take a generation.

"Try to imagine if you and your children were forced to pick up and go to another country with nothing but the clothes on your back," Rothermel said.

Siba AlQass Ishaq , 37, said she's eager to make a life here after her family's harrowing experiences. They lost so much. She has only one wedding photo from their life in Iraq.

Yet she serves visitors to their apartment ice cream with fruit cocktail in pretty glasses she found at a yard sale. Her parents in Bridgeville watch the boys while she attends English classes and looks for a data entry or retail job.

"You just have to follow the rules, and you can make something here," she said.

Additional Information:

How to help

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services is seeking volunteer mentors to help Iraqi refugees connect with Americans working in their field and start the process of getting them certified to work here.

The county needs people who work in engineering, computer science and health care to mentor the first class of 12 Iraqis.

To volunteer, call 412-350-5835.

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