NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Ali Abdullah, a 42-year-old security guard, left his native Iraq in 2009 after receiving death threats for working with U.S. companies. He was relocated through a U.S. government resettlement initiative and lived in Colorado and Texas before landing a job in 2011 at a New Haven-area supermarket.
In Connecticut, Abdullah met and married another Iraqi refugee, who resettled in New Haven last July through the same program. Without an established Iraqi community in the area, they struggled on their own to adjust to life in the U.S.
But when Abdullah’s mother-in-law and two brothers-in-law were transferred to Connecticut this month, Abdullah and his wife were here to receive them. They provided a place to stay, traditional Iraqi meals and guidance on how to find a job and take the city bus.
“They don’t know anyone in any other state,” Abdullah said. “We’re here, so we welcomed them and will take care of their needs.”
A city with a long tradition of welcoming immigrants, New Haven hosts a burgeoning population of Iraqi refugees. Hardly any Arab immigrants lived in the area before the U.S. began a large-scale resettlement program in 2007, but the number of Iraqi refugees has grown to about 400 as they move to be with family or friends.
While there’s no “Little Iraq” neighborhood in the city, the nonprofit organization Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services has helped establish an Iraqi community here, resettling most of New Haven’s Iraqi refugees on behalf of the U.S. Department of State.
The government tries to place refugees in the same geographic area as relatives or friends already living in the country. Without U.S. ties, refugees can find themselves in places like New Haven, where they don’t know anyone and few people speak their native language.
IRIS helps refugees access health care and other government assistance, enroll their children in school, learn English and find work. But with a $1.2 million annual budget and hundreds of refugees from around the world arriving annually, the organization can provide each refugee with core services for only a few months.
“It’s a very American-style social assistance program. A lot is expected of them,” said Chris George, executive director of IRIS.
During a recent home visit by a case manager from IRIS, Abdullah’s brother-in-law said he was grateful to have the support of relatives who know how things work in the U.S. Twenty-three-year-old Ahmed, wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt that clung to his spindly frame, said he wants to learn English, get a U.S. driver’s license and find a good job.
“Our ambitions are to work, to live a normal life, to live just like any ordinary citizen,” he said.
Abdullah is already helping Ahmed and his 19-year-old brother, Ali, achieve those goals. He’s enrolling them in English classes at a nearby learning center and connecting them with possible job leads. The young men are sleeping on couches in Abdullah’s living room until they can move into another apartment down the block with their mother.
George said the growing community of Iraqis will continue to ease the transition for new arrivals.
“We would like for them to really have the best of both worlds,” he said. “A strong, well-funded refugee resettlement agency that welcomes them … and an established community of their similar nationality, speak their language, who can also help them acculturate and get around and figure out how to live here.”
For some new arrivals, it is still a struggle.
Noof Roomi, a 26-year-old woman from the city of Basra, was resettled in New Haven in December 2011 with her daughters, ages 4 and 6. She says she feels safer in Connecticut than she did in Iraq but struggles to balance the responsibilities of a single mother to earn a living and raise her children, without any relatives to help ease those burdens.
Roomi found work early on as a housekeeper in a hospital but lost her job because of budget cuts and now relies on a monthly payment from the state Department of Social Services. She spends her mornings learning English at IRIS and her afternoons looking for work.
“I need to have my family around me,” she said. Her four brothers and sisters fled from Iraq to neighboring Syria years ago and now their resettlement cases have been postponed indefinitely because of the civil war in Syria.
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