- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

HOUSTON (AP) - Ali Al Sudani did not know who wanted to kill him. In the chaos of southern Iraq in 2004, anyone could become a target: translators, journalists, teachers. Al Sudani even knew a barber who was assassinated. So when he started to receive anonymous threats, he knew he had to leave his job translating for the British army.

A mechanical engineer by training, Al Sudani signed up to translate for the British in Maysan, his hometown about 120 miles north of Basra. Locals working with coalition forces became targets for assassination. After several years translating for the British and for the Coalition Provisional Authority, Al Sudani took a translator job with a Czech nonprofit working in Maysan.

The nonprofit promoted him to project manager and transferred him to Jordan in 2008. There, he applied for a U.S. refugee visa. “The rest is history,” Al Sudani told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1LzhyYu), employing one of the English idioms he uses with gusto.

The American resettlement process assigned him to Houston, where he arrived in 2009. Every new refugee works with a local nonprofit that provides federally funded assistance for about six months; Al Sudani was matched up with Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston.

The United States takes the “lion’s share” of United Nations-referred refugees accepted for permanent resettlement. According to U.N. data, between 2010 and 2014, the U.S. alone resettled 71 percent of all refugees.

Out of every 1,000 resettled U.N. refugees, more than 700 come to America. Though all 50 states accept some refugees, 75 of those 700 find their way to Texas, according to U.S. State Department numbers. And more of those will come to the Houston area than to anywhere else in Texas: The state health services department reports that nearly 40 percent of Texas’ refugees land in Harris County.

This means that Harris County alone welcomes about 30 of every 1,000 refugees that the U.N. resettles anywhere in the world - more than any other American city, and more than most other nations. If Houston were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for refugee resettlement.

The number of refugees the United States takes in could swell even further in the next year after President Barack Obama said last week that the U.S. would take at least 10,000 Syrians displaced by the war in their country. This year, the U.S. accepted fewer than 2,000.

Al Sudani’s first days in Houston were not easy. He came here without any family members; he knew no one. He had no phone or Internet to keep him connected with people back in Iraq.

“You miss your family; you miss your friends; you feel lonely,” he said.

Without family or work to occupy his time, he felt aimless: “I don’t have a car; I’m not working - what am I going to do?” Though he spoke fluent English, he attended the language classes at his apartment complex. “I didn’t need them,” he said, “but I wanted to go and do something.”

The U.S. resettlement program emphasizes early employment; refugees over 18 are expected to start working within weeks of their arrival, even if they have poor English skills or little education. Al Sudani had fluent English and a university degree but knew the recession would make it hard to find work.

“I just wanted to get a job, even if it (was) in Burger King,” he said. “I knew it would be better than sitting at home.”

He got a job within two months but not in a fast food restaurant. Because of his language skills and his previous nonprofit experience, Interfaith Ministries hired him as a caseworker for the many Iraqis on their way.

Now, after several promotions, he supervises the organization’s refugee services department. He welcomes new arrivals to his adopted homeland.

After six years in America, Al Sudani sounds and acts like the quintessential American. He takes road trips. He shoots pool at Slick Willie’s. He likes country music; he first heard the genre in Iraq when he listened to Kenny Rogers, though he now finds Rogers “cheesy.” He recently took his girlfriend, a native Alabaman, on a weekend winery tour.

As he talked in a Persian restaurant near his home, Al Sudani sliced a roasted tomato on his plate. Iranian cuisine shares much in common with Iraqi food, he said, but he usually prefers Italian. He still lives in the same modest one-bedroom apartment that Interfaith Ministries arranged for him in 2009. He seems at home here, with sunglasses on his slightly gelled hair and some salt-and-pepper stubble on the weekend.

After the required five-year waiting period, he became a U.S. citizen in November. “Probably I’m not the huggiest person,” he said. But when he learned he had passed the citizenship test, “my eyes started to water. … It was a moment that some people wait their whole lives for.”

Al Sudani takes pride in his adopted homeland, partly because of its role in resettling refugees. “That’s why the U.S. is a great country,” Al Sudani said. “It’s not because we have the most powerful military … It’s because there’s no other country in the world that brings more refugees and welcomes them to their country.”

A trend stands out in Harris County refugee data. The vast majority of Houston’s refugees came from warm regions: Cuba, Iraq, Congo and Somalia. But the resettlement agencies don’t place people based on a preference for a hot, steamy climate.

“We don’t consider climate a major driver,” said Larry Bartlett, director of refugee admissions at the State Department, which oversees resettlement. But assigning refugees to cities in the United States does not fall to the State Department. Those decisions are made by a consortium of nine national non-governmental organizations.

In fact, Al Sudani said, some cold American cities host enormous groups of warm-region natives. Nearly 45,000 Iraqis live in Detroit and other parts of Michigan - more than in any other state, according to Census Bureau data assembled by the Migration Policy Institute. More East Africans live in Minnesota than in Texas; Minneapolis-St. Paul has a massive Somali population. “People, they adjust really quickly to their environment,” Al Sudani said.

Houston has been a major resettlement area for Vietnamese refugees and immigrants since the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. But since then, the city’s heavy in-flow of refugees has been defined by the absence of a predominant nationality.

“Oh, Houston is diverse,” Al Sudani said, ticking off major refugee communities: “Bosnians, Russian Jews, Afghanis, Iraqis, Congolese, Rwandese, Somalis, Iranian minorities, Burmese, Bhutanese.” Harris County welcomed refugees from 40 different countries in fiscal year 2014, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

In a 2012 press briefing, Bartlett said that the refugee resettlement process prioritizes family reunification. He explained in a recent telephone interview that refugees indicate on their application whether they have a relative or friend in the United States. It does not help their chances, but it can help decide their resettlement location.

“Over half of our refugees are joining family members or other U.S. ties,” Bartlett said. This statistic likely applies in Houston; many refugees are placed here to join family or friends already living in this cosmopolitan melting pot.

Ultimately, the nine national organizations propose a number for each city each year, he said. Houston welcomes more refugees than any other American city because its nonprofit sector has the capacity to assist them.

The organizations consult with local refugee services agencies and elected officials to decide that number. Houston has a significant resettlement infrastructure: six of the nine national organizations operate in Houston, where they partner with five local refugee services agencies. “It’s a very successful site,” Bartlett said.

The single most important factor in Houston’s ability to absorb all of the new refugee arrivals appears to be its vibrant, growing economy.

“The focus of refugee resettlement in the United States is early employment,” said Sara Kauffman, Houston area director for Refugee Services of Texas. “We have a pretty fast economy, a lot of jobs available. People can get started working pretty quickly.”

One of her clients found himself a job at a car dealership within two weeks of arriving.

Al Sudani summed it up best: Houston, he says, “has a welcoming environment, affordable cost of living, great economy. It’s a melting pot for different cultures. If you put all of these factors together, it’s a perfect destination for refugees.”

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

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