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Iraqi refugees flowing into U.S.

Watanabe is a Times staff writer.

For Ramiz Kamil, it was the car bomb that finally pushed him into his life’s most momentous decision: leaving his beloved Iraqi homeland for a new and uncertain life as a refugee in Southern California.

He and his family had endured growing travails since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. While Hussein’s overthrow and execution brought newfound freedom to the nation’s majority Muslims, their rise to power has resulted in growing persecution of Iraqi Christians like him, he said in a recent interview.

His wife shuttered her flower shop after an official from a Shia Muslim political party told her she could no longer sell Christmas trees or ornaments as she had every year under Hussein. The official also told her to buy a Koran and wear traditional Muslim clothing, including the head covering, Kamil said.

One of Kamil’s Muslim neighbors, who had greeted him with a hug every morning and shared coffee and domino games with him many evenings, began to chastise him for allowing his wife to work. “It’s not allowed in the Muslim tradition,” Kamil said the neighbor told him.

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The family had stopped attending Mass in 2005, after car bombs exploded simultaneously at six churches throughout Iraq, he said.

But the ultimate catalyst for his decision to flee was a 2006 car bomb that exploded near Kamil’s own vehicle and sent him to the hospital with head injuries.

“I thought, ‘Everything here is finished. I can’t even drive my own car safely anymore,’ ” said Kamil, 45.

Two weeks after the car bomb explosion, Kamil fled to Jordan with his family: wife Helen Gorgees, 40; daughter Nadia, 16; and son Rafid, 15. There they stayed until Oct. 17, when they were allowed into the United States as refugees and resettled near relatives in Panorama City.

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The Kamil family’s resettlement reflects a major increase this year in the number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the United States. After months of processing delays -- and widespread complaints by refugee advocates -- the U.S. government dramatically increased the number of Iraqi refugee admissions to more than 13,800 in the last fiscal year compared with 1,600 the previous year. This year’s current target is 17,000.

Refugees are defined as those unwilling or unable to return to their homelands because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. The United States admitted 48,217 refugees in 2007, the largest number in the world and an increase from the previous year but still well below the 100,000 admitted annually during the 1990s. California remained the nation’s largest resettlement state, accepting 14% of all refugees, according to U.S. government data.

William Wright, spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the government was able to increase the number of Iraqi refugees last year because aid agencies had finally gotten the system for processing them up and running. In the last year, 150 U.S. officials have been deployed to the Middle East to interview 23,000 Iraqi refugee applicants. The approval rate averages 70% to 80%, according to Lori Scialabba, the services’ associate director for refugee, asylum and international operations.

Challenges remain, including violence that forced U.S. officials to cancel some interviewing sessions in Lebanon, Yemen and Baghdad, Scialabba said. But she and Wright said they expect that approvals will continue to increase.

“A lot of people complained that the government wasn’t doing enough,” Wright said. “But the numbers bear out that we’ve come a long way in a couple of years and it will be a more robust pipeline for the immediate future.”

Kirk Johnson of the Iraqi List Project, a nonprofit organization that helps America’s Iraqi allies resettle here, urged the government to do even more. He said very few of the 1,500 Iraqi refugees on his list -- those who risked their lives working for the U.S. government, military and other agencies -- appear to have been among the 13,000 approved. He said many have been waiting as long as two years for resettlement, are running out of savings and are “increasingly desperate.”

“I’m looking at 100-plus pounds of documents that we have been giving them,” he said, referring to the government, “and wondering why they are not part of that” 13,000.

And the overall need for Iraqi refugee resettlement remains enormous. More than 3 million refugees have fled Iraq, and 1.5 million more have been displaced from their homes, according to Deborah Decker, community resource director of the Interfaith Refugee & Immigration Service in Los Angeles.

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In Los Angeles, she said, the worsening economy has made it even more difficult for many refugees to find jobs, affordable housing, English classes and job training opportunities.

“A year ago, most of our refugees were employed within six months of arrival,” Decker said. “Now people are in the food line even one year later and literally are hungry.”

On the Friday before Thanksgiving, the interfaith refugee service’s food donations -- which included 150 bags of fruit, vegetables, cranberries, rolls, mashed potatoes and a frozen turkey -- ran out before all those in line were served. Most of the refugees were Christians fleeing religious persecution in Iran and Iraq.

Decker said donations to the agency have declined significantly: by as much as half during the summer compared to the previous year. “Every charitable agency is screaming for funds now,” she said. “We’re all hurting.”

Such grim resettlement realities are already worrying Kamil and his family.

Although they are staying at a Panorama City motel, they know they must find their own place. But how to pay for it?

The government gave them a $1,700 “welcome check,” which they plan to use for their initial rent. In addition, they are receiving $800 in monthly welfare payments for eight months, along with food stamps. But Kamil knows he needs to find a job, and soon, to provide the furniture, car and other items needed for a stable life.

He speaks English, graduated in electrical engineering from the University of Technology in Baghdad and ran his own construction firm for 13 years. But so far he has not been able to find a job, even though he said he is willing to work entry-level jobs at a gas station or elsewhere. His wife, an experienced florist, is also eager to work.

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In fleeing Iraq, the family had to leave behind almost everything, including $35,000 worth of furniture, machinery, tools and supplies from his home and construction business. The adjustment to a new land, a foreign language and culture and unaccustomed financial uncertainty hasn’t been easy. His daughter, Nadia, is shocked by America’s sexually permissive youth culture, Kamil said.

But he is reminded of his blessings when he walks the streets here freely, when he can receive Communion and attend Mass regularly again, as he did on Sunday at St. Paul Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church.

“I lost everything,” Kamil said, “but I am alive.”

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis contributed to this report.


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