Iraqi Refugees in the United States - In Dire Straits

07/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Alaa Naji

Every day the violence was getting worse in Baghdad. Every day we saw death, destruction and suffering. It all touches a place in your soul that you want to keep pure, but you cannot. My husband and I knew we were in danger and decided it was time to flee. But three days before we were to escape to Jordan with our two small children, my husband, who worked for the UN, was killed in a bomb attack.

I was 28 at the time and numb with grief. How do you tell your 3 and 4-year-old children that their dad will not be coming home tonight or ever again? I knew I had to pick up the pieces and search for a job to support my kids. It was extremely dangerous to go out, but I did find work as a translator for the US Army. It was a good job, even though it was risky, and I thought I was doing my part to help rebuild my country. But the terrorists were everywhere. They threatened to kill me if I did not quit my job with the Americans.

This time, I had no choice. My children and I fled to Amman. And there, I joined many Iraqi refugee war widows who also felt scared, unsafe and uncertain about the future as we struggled, as single mothers, to provide for our children.

When the United States opened its door to Iraqi refugees, I was praying that we would be given the opportunity to come here and start a new life, a safe life. Last year, our chance finally came and we were resettled to Georgia, a place where people are so helpful and quick to smile.

I knew life was not going to be easy at the beginning, but I also knew that the only way that my family could begin again was to find a job as soon as possible. I could not rely on government assistance, because there was so little available.

Even though my background was working for international organizations, I started searching everywhere for a job. I was willing to do anything. I sent my resume to shops, groceries, schools and community organizations. And eventually, with determination and God's grace, I found a job as a case manager at the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta, helping other newly arrived refugees to get on their feet.

I realize now how lucky I am to have found this job. Most other refugees who arrived when the economy was going bad are struggling to survive. The government program that brings refugees here does offer financial assistance, and Iraqi refugees are grateful for it. But it is usually not enough to cover rent and other basic necessities and it expires within months of their arrival. The program works when we can find jobs for refugees fast. As you can imagine, the program is not working very well now.

Today, many Iraqi refugees, even highly qualified professionals, are losing their benefits before they are able to find jobs. Case by case, organizations like mine are doing everything we can to help with rent and utilities, but we can only do so much, and for so long, with private donations. Many refugees now face eviction.

Iraqi refugees always tell me that they are thankful to be in a place where they are safe. But they never dreamed that they would be struggling to survive here in America. They never imagined they could be homeless in the country that invited them here and offered them shelter. They thought that the country that was involved in the violence that destroyed their land, their homes and their loved ones would provide better care.

Many people say that now is not the time for America to bring in more Iraqi refugees. I tell them that Iraqi refugees cannot wait for the economy to improve. Resettlement is saving their lives. If the United States doesn't help and protect them, especially the ones targeted for assisting Americans in Iraq, who will?

Alaa Naji is a case manager with the International Rescue Committee. This week, she helped launch a new IRC report, "Iraqi Refugees in the United States: In Dire Straits," which calls for an overhaul of the US refugee resettlement system.

She has a Bachelor's Degree in English literature from Baghdad University and a Master's Degree in Arabic-English translation. She has worked for the World Health Organization in Iraq and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jordan.