- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Her mansion in Iraq was bombed, her medical career and future in her beloved country dashed the day she found a white envelope on her car windshield. Inside was a single bullet. Wassan Yassin was marked for death.

She knew she had to flee. She eventually landed in America, far from where her life was threatened, her sister was shot and her co-worker kidnapped. Her new Florida surroundings offered a haven from the horrors of war.

But there is no perfect ending. Not yet, at least.

Ms. Yassin’s first year here has been marked by frustrating - even humiliating - experiences: a small apartment in a crime-scarred area of Jacksonville; food stamps. And no job, even though she’s a gynecologist who also morphed into a construction company executive during the war.

Saif Alnasseri, a 31-year-old wartime translator and journalist, has fared better. A former pharmacist at a large Iraq hospital, he now is a pharmacist’s assistant in a New Jersey drugstore. Life in America has been a trade-off: His job supervising dozens of workers, his comfortable home and lush garden in Baghdad are gone, but he has something else - security.

“We are safe here, and this is very important to us,” Mr. Alnasseri says. “But there are a lot of things I spent years building in Baghdad. … I was very well-known in my neighborhood. They called me doctor. I had a lot of people who respected me. Here I’m starting from the beginning. From zero.”

“Every day I say, ‘OK, I made the right decision,’ ” he adds. “After two hours, I say, ‘Did I really?’ ”

For thousands of Iraqis, resettling in America has been an agonizing transition filled with questions, doubts - and, sometimes, despair.

Many Iraqis have discovered that gold-plated resumes have opened few doors in a nation reeling from its worst economic decline since the Great Depression. Stories abound of Iraqi professionals doing menial jobs - a doctor flipping burgers, a druggist washing dishes.

Iraqis also have struggled to navigate a confusing bureaucracy and an overburdened social service system that has sometimes run of out money to help provide their basic needs.

“Everything is kind of conspiring to make it a particularly difficult time for them,” says Bob Carey, a vice president of the International Rescue Committee, a refugee assistance agency. “There’s the declining economy, the conditions from which they come, the conditions in which they arrive, the fact they’re often highly skilled professionals with sometimes high expectations.”

“It is,” he says, “the perfect storm.”

Only a trickle of some 2 million Iraqi refugees have resettled in America since the war began. Most have poured into Syria, Jordan or other neighboring countries.

About 38,000 Iraqis have come to the United States in the past three fiscal years, compared with just hundreds in the three prior years. The overwhelming majority are refugees; others received special immigrant visas, awarded to translators or those who’ve worked with the U.S. government or contractors.

Advocacy groups and some lawmakers have long accused the U.S. government of being too slow to respond to the Iraqi refugee crisis, imperiling those who had been targeted for working with Americans. Some of the delays were blamed on the many layers of security clearance.

But things have improved. After Capitol Hill hearings, a new law making it easier for American-affiliated Iraqis to move here and the appointment of a State Department adviser to deal with the issue, the pace of admissions has picked up dramatically since 2007. The Obama administration this past summer also named a coordinator of Iraqi refugee efforts.

Even so, only 20 percent of at least 20,000 Iraqis with American ties who’ve applied have arrived in the United States since 2003, according to an April report by Human Rights First. Some wait more than a year in other countries, unable to work. “It has the potential to put them in this cruel psychological limbo,” says Ruthie Epstein, the report’s chief author.

Almost every refugee has a story of terror in Iraq, followed by struggle in America.

Consider Sameer Oro, a food and beverage manager for a U.S. Army contractor who later opened a store selling liquor near a Baghdad hotel. In 2005, he recounts, he was kidnapped, blindfolded, stuffed in a car trunk, a knife held to his throat. He was freed after seven days when his wife raised $35,000, selling their car and gold.

Last year, Mr. Oro moved with his family to California, where his brother lives. At first, he says, his $1,350 monthly government aid (along with food stamps) was enough, but then the payments shrank. Now he has to borrow about $400 a month from his niece.

“We are not coming here to start suffering again,” laments the 57-year-old former airline flight service director, who is unemployed.

Iraqis who arrive with Hollywood-inspired visions of their new homeland quickly face a sobering reality.

“I was told when you go to America, there are organizations that will … cover your rent until you find a job … that it would be like a dream, it will be a paradise,” says Mohammed Yousuf, a 39-year-old former translator living near Washington.

Instead, he says, the resettlement agency placed him in an unaffordable $1,700-a-month apartment. He moved but says he now has bed bugs in the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife and their four children.

Friends have generously helped out, but he says, “I thought someone would help me find a job. That’s what I need.”

Mustafa al-Waeli has an advanced degree in software engineering, but that hasn’t provided steady work for him in Louisville, Ky. But it’s not just the lack of money that troubles him.

It’s the “cultural shock,” he says. “We’re used to seeing America through Hollywood movies. It’s nothing like that. It’s very tough. It’s a hard life.”

In Iraq, Mr. al-Waeli says, he could always turn to a relative or a friend in times of need. “Here we have nobody to depend on,” he adds. And yet, he doesn’t regret moving here.

“I know the American dream is available,” he says. “I know I need to work hard to get it. This is my country now. I will never leave it. It’s the land of opportunity. I don’t care where I was born. I care where I can live in peace.”

There are, of course, Iraqis who’ve overcome the obstacles.

For some, it’s luck or perseverance. For others, it’s support from family in America, an established Iraqi community - two of the largest are around San Diego and Dearborn, Mich. - or friendships forged in the line of fire.

When Mohammed al-Mumayiz arrived in Nashville, Tenn., last year from Jordan, the former translator leaned on a wide network of soldiers from Iraq.

“It was scary in a way,” he acknowledges. “But you have to learn the system. You have to know the way things are done. … You have to dig your heels in and say, ‘This is going to work.’ ”

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