News Release

“I’m a Nation to Myself:” Iraqi Refugees in the United States


Ten years after U.S. forces cemented their victory over Iraq by toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square on April 9, 2003, Iraqis continue to flee their country, adding to the estimated 4 million displaced by the war and occupation. The Progressive magazine has a new report on the largest community of Iraqi refugees in the United States who’ve fled as a result of the U.S. war and occupation.

ARUN GUPTA, @arunindy
Author of the piece, Gupta co-founded The Indypendent newspaper and The Occupied Wall Street Journal. He is a regular contributor to The Progressive, Truthout, In These Times and The Guardian. He recently travelled to El Cajon, California, a bedroom community east of San Diego, where more than 12,000 Iraqis have arrived since 2008, after the government relaxed restrictions. He writes, “Many Iraqis in El Cajon worked for the U.S. government in Iraq and fled with their families after their lives were threatened. In return they expected a warm welcome and a decent standard of living when they arrived. Instead they were in for a rude awakening. Their meager monthly stipend means they get the worst apartments in El Cajon, a city with a 23 percent poverty rate, and have to rely on donations for furniture. Almost all are traumatized from the violence they experienced, but they are told to get jobs right away or they will lose their benefits. With 11 percent unemployment in the city they take jobs no one else will—fast food, housecleaning, parking-lot attendants. Many are doctors, accounts and engineers.

Social workers say, “You look at their faces. They are so proud of their degrees and their experience, and then they are told to clean sixteen hotel rooms a day. The refugees need more aid, more educational programs, cultural orientation and time to recover and adjust.” Gupta adds, “Of Iraqi adults who’ve arrived since 2009, 67 percent are unemployed. In a time of austerity many Iraqis are nearing the four-year limit of welfare assistance, and worry they will wind up homeless, living on the sidewalk.”

A thirty-seven-old-year computer engineer living in Berkeley, Hassan served as a fixer in Baghdad for journalists like Naomi Klein, Dahr Jamail, and Christian Parenti before escaping mortal danger in 2005. He said single male refugees in the Bay Area wind up in West Oakland, “famous for violent history, because it’s poor, and the rent is cheaper.” Hassan, who has taken so many refugees under his wing that his apartment was dubbed “the Iraqi Embassy,” says they are packed “three to four people per one-bedroom apartment. They get four months assistance, then are switched to a program that just covers their rent and $200 a month for food stamps.”