By DIANA NGUYEN
BALTIMORE (May 4, 2010)—In February 2006, Sawsan Al-Sayyab walked outside her home in Baghdad to find the streets covered in debris, burning mosques polluting the air with smoke and ash, and her roof crumbling above her head.
A violent conflict between Sunni and Shia militias had ravaged the neighborhood after the holy Shia al-Askari mosque was bombed, prompting retaliations, despite the fact that no group claimed responsibility. The violence rippled through the area leaving several hundred bodies in its wake.
Al-Sayyab, 52, and tens of thousands of others fled Iraq and took refuge in nearby Jordan. Most hoped to return home after the violence subsided. But returning to Iraq was not an option for Al-Sayyab, an educated, progressive woman who worked for a non-profit humanitarian organization. She believed she would be targeted and likely killed as so many of her friends were.
"I never left the country after all these years of wars and embargoes," said Al-Sayyab, who eventually resettled in Baltimore. "I didn't want to leave even in 2006, but when there's a certain moment when your life is in danger, you have to step up."
Although Iraqis make up only 2.5 percent of refugees and asylum-seekers in Maryland, in the past decade, Iraqi refugee resettlement in Maryland has gone from almost non-existent to leading other countries in the number of refugees entering the state.
Fueling the surge is sectarian violence within Iraq and the ongoing Iraq War, which started in 2003 as a search for weapons of mass destruction and Al-Qaeda insurgents.
From 2000 to 2007, there was an average of 19 new Iraqi refugees a year resettling in Maryland—.15 percent of all new arrivals in that time period.
In 2007, 1.9 percent of new Maryland refugees and asylees were Iraqi. By 2009, Iraqis made up one in six new refugees, or 16.8 percent, the largest group of new refugees from 45 countries, according to a database maintained by the Maryland Office of Refugees and Asylees.
These numbers don't include cases where the country is unknown.
From 1990 to 2006, more than 33,000 Iraqis were resettled across the nation, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. To date, about 1,000 Iraqis have resettled in Maryland.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines a refugee as a person who lives outside their home country and cannot or is unwilling to return due to persecution or fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. Asylees are immigrants who have already made their way into the United States by their own means and seek asylum for reasons similar to those of refugees.
Resettlement is the last resort for refugees. And unless they have family or friends already living in the United States, refugees have no say in where their next home will be.
"For most refugees, they would prefer to be repatriated. They don't want to be in a refugee camp. They may not necessarily want to be resettled. They really just want to go home," said Jessica Li of the International Rescue Committee, a resettlement and relief organization.
Most refugees, especially the educated and skilled, find the resettlement process very difficult. They often start their new lives working in minimum-wage or entry-level jobs in service and manufacturing industries because their English is poor or their education level is not recognized in the United States.
"Some professionals, especially Iraqis, are highly educated professionals—engineers, doctors—but their credentials are not valued here," said Fikremariam Worku, rescue committee program manager. "To ask an Iraqi refugee with a doctorate to work at McDonald's is extremely difficult for the person. Even for a refugee, himself, who is prepared to do it, when he actually does it, there's an identity crisis."
In 2007, refugee wages averaged $9.33 an hour based on 1,020 employment caseloads, according to MORA records.
"Often, it's a bittersweet experience. For some of the Iraqis and Bhutanese with very high-level educations and, maybe, some professional experience, it's rare that they can translate that experience into a comparable job - at least not right away," said Martin Ford, MORA associate director.
This is where resettlement centers can help new arrivals adapt to American life, providing classes to help immigrants translate their experience into new skills.
At the Baltimore Resettlement Center, the International Rescue Committee offers services to refugees and asylees to help prepare them for economic independence, including providing English classes and employment and welfare services. They also help refugees learn basic life skills and adapt to local culture.
The IRC is the largest resettlement agency in Maryland, serving more than 90 percent of the state's refugees and asylees.
Since 2007, the IRC Baltimore branch has resettled 237 Iraqi refugees, including Al-Sayyab.
However, there are more refugees than resources.
The collapse of Saddam Hussein's government displaced an estimated 1.2 million Iraqis, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees. After the 2006 Samarra mosque bombing and continual warfare, an estimated 1.5 million more people were displaced.
Only about 1 percent of those displaced globally are granted entry to the United States, Ford said.
A recent increase in federal funds to the resettlement program is very much appreciated and will help refugees better settle into American life, Worku said, but there's still not enough money to go around.
In fiscal 2007, Maryland received about $2.5 million in cash and medical assistance funds from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. In fiscal 2008, the funds doubled to $5.3 million.
Most of MORA's fiscal 2011 $8.1 million budget will be spent on refugee services and cash assistance.
IRC clients receive about $900 a month in direct services, money for rent, food, furniture and household supplies—a vast difference from the $425 clients received a few years ago.
Although the funds and services can help, dealing with the emotional transition still can be daunting.
Al-Sayyab, who now works as an IRC administrative assistant, tries to help new Iraqi refugees adjust to American life using her own experiences.
"I miss the city of my childhood, the places I used to go," she said. "I don't think the city I know is there anymore. This is one of those worrying things. It's not only for me but for all refugees, I think. You don't belong (here), but then you have to start making your life in this new place because whatever you have in your dreams, it's not there anymore."
Al-Sayyab, a former pharmacist, said she's too old to go back to school again to get a certified degree in pharmacy. Instead, she would rather do humanitarian work. She was forced from her home for a reason: She feared persecution because of her beliefs. Now safe in Nottingham, she has a voice and will continue to fight to be heard, she said.
"I think one of my main reasons for leaving is that I wanted to do some change or be able to speak out loudly," she said. "That's why I really still advocate for Iraq, for a democracy in Iraq, for refugees, for whatever is related to the country because I'd like to see the change that we all hope to see there."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.