Story Publication logo December 31, 2008


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An exodus of more than 2 million Iraqis is reshaping the Middle East -- with ominous implications...

From left, Jenan, Zahra and Issam, who came to Baltimore in August, work with Sara Bedford, their case manager at the International Rescue Committee, in a follow-up meeting over employment. (Baltimore Sun photo by Chiaki Kawajiri / December 23, 2008)

It's not that Muhammad Shumri imagined building a new life in Baltimore would be easy. But he didn't expect it to be so hard.

The 48-year-old physician was a high-ranking official in the Iraqi Ministry of Health when a photograph that placed him at a meeting with U.S. officials was stolen from his computer. Soon he was receiving anonymous threats warning him to stop working with the Americans.

He moved his wife and five children out of Iraq, traveled alone to the United States and requested asylum. He planned to get a job, find a place to live and send for his family.

"I thought, 'I am a doctor, they know me, I worked with them, I can get a job, they will help me,'" Shumri says in the Reservoir Hill house where he rents a room. "I didn't think I would have the same job. But maybe I would take a job as a physician or teach at a university.

"I was shocked when I got here."

That reaction is common among the 202 Iraqis who have settled in Maryland since the 2003 invasion. Professionals who made up their country's elite - doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers - are struggling with an unfamiliar culture, an expensive economy and a bureaucracy that doesn't recognize their credentials.

Shumri, who says he was working toward becoming the Iraqi minister of health, has burned through his savings to pay for a test preparation course for the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination. The few hours he works each week as a medical interpreter at Johns Hopkins Hospital do not cover the cost of living in Baltimore. He has not seen his wife or children, who have yet to clear security checks to follow him to the United States, in more than two years.

Amel Zelic, a resettlement case manager with the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore, says his job description includes managing expectations.

"You have to … make sure the client really understands what is available and what is real," Zelic says. Among the Iraqi immigrants, he said, "we have what used to be a very stable middle class. So you will definitely see more expectations, high expectations."

Since Saddam Hussein seized power in 1979, Iraqis have endured the Iran- Iraq War of the 1980s, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the longest and widest-ranging international embargo in history through the 1990s, and the U.S.-led invasion and occupation.

In a survey of 754 Iraqi refugees commissioned this year by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, every respondent reported experiencing some form of trauma. The Arab American Center for Economic and Social Services in Michigan, the state that has received the second-largest number of Iraqis in the past two years, has found elevated incidences of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Iraqis who have settled in Maryland face the additional challenge of isolation. Long-standing Arab-American communities in Dearborn, Mich., Southern California and Northern Virginia can offer newly arrived Iraqis the support of well-developed networks that include mosques and churches, schools and businesses. Maryland has no comparable Iraqi or Arab presence.

The International Rescue Committee, one of three agencies resettling Iraqis in the state, has steered clients to an apartment complex in Northeast Baltimore to encourage community. Still, Zena Jalal says she is lonely.

The 27-year-old physician was working in a Baghdad hospital when members of the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr began pushing her to steal drugs. A colleague who had refused similar pressure had been killed; Jalal opened her mail one day to find an envelope containing a bullet.

So began a two-year odyssey from Baghdad to Baltimore. First, Jalal made her way to Jordan, where she worked illegally in a private clinic until an inspector from the Ministry of Health threatened to send her back to Iraq. She landed in the United States with her mother and sister in July.

Now she misses shopping in Baghdad, her friends back home and the evenings she spent with them in the open-air cafes that are an institution in the Iraqi capital. With little money and no car, she has been unable to explore Baltimore.

"I knew that there would be a difficult period," she says. "But I thought there would be fun. There is nothing here for fun."

A general practitioner in Iraq, Jalal is taking classes at Baltimore City Community College so she can work as a pharmacy technician while she studies for her licensing exam. Her 29-year-old sister, Sausan, a biologist, has found a job as a cashier; their widowed mother is not working.

"We used to live rich," says May Jalal, 57, a retired attorney whose husband was a cardiologist. "We find it difficult to live in this situation."

The International Rescue Committee attempts to ease the transition. Caseworkers such as Zelic pick up new arrivals at the airport and take them to a furnished apartment stocked with a first night of culturally appropriate food. They also help the refugees get Social Security cards, enroll children in school and get immunizations, and offer classes in English, job skills training and career guidance.

Foreigners admitted to the United States as refugees are eligible for a cash stipend during their first eight months, and may avail themselves of other government support.

Zelic describes his Iraqi clients as unusually motivated.

"The kids want to go to school right away," he says. "People want to learn English. They want to work. They really, really don't like to be helped. … They want to be, as they say, 'strong on their legs.'"

Not everyone has found life in the United States difficult. Faisal grew up listening to Voice of America; he has read Time and Newsweek all his life. An engineer who worked as an interpreter and adviser to U.S. commanders and diplomats after the invasion, he arrived in Baltimore with his wife and their two children in May.

"I am fully aware about the life, culture and politics of the United States," says the 62-year-old, who asks that has last name be withheld. "Within two or three hours, I felt at home. I assimilated."

Faisal had requested resettlement near Washington so he could find work with the government or a contractor as a linguist giving cultural and political advice on Iraq. He says he is disappointed by the level of violence that has engulfed his homeland.

"This is not our tradition," he says. "Sunnis and Shiites lived together for centuries. We never thought we could jump on our neighbor. This is not Iraq, and these are not Iraqis.

"How are they going to correct it? I don't know. I'll be glad to help."

He blames much of the violence in Iraq since the invasion on a failure by Americans and Iraqis to understand each other. He wants to pursue graduate study in political science - a step toward involving himself in formulating policy in the Middle East.

For now, he is working as a loan counselor with a local nonprofit organization. His two sons have enrolled in public schools in Northeast Baltimore and joined a Boy Scout troop. His wife, a pediatrician, is working as a medical interpreter at Johns Hopkins while preparing to take the licensing exam.

"We are a typical American family," he says. He blames the high expectations of his countrymen on Saddam Hussein.

"He gave the impression that Iraq was the center of the universe," he says. "So many Iraqis believe this. They have never been abroad before. They have been successful in their worlds. They thought it would be easy."

Shumri, who had visited the United States before settling here, didn't imagine it would be easy to start a new life. But he believes regulations make it unnecessarily difficult.

"I have known of three physicians, one of them a family physician and the other are general practitioners," he says.

"They are not working. There are also engineers. Nobody can find a job. I will not say he will work like he was in Iraq now, but just some job like technician on a computer, for example.

"Even for physicians, if they gave them a position like a physician's assistant or a nurse, it's OK now. We accept it. But even that, they cannot get.

"Do you imagine how difficult it is for the people? Everything is obstacles here."

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