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Their dreams turn to despair

On a pleasant afternoon in Amman, the genteel Jordanian capital, a petite Iraqi woman with carefully coiffed hair, heavy makeup and lots of gold jewelry sat in a classroom full of refugees heading to America, her face frozen in wide-eyed horror.

Her husband had disappeared in the war. Her request to settle in Jordan had been denied. Now an advisor from the International Organization for Migration was telling her no U.S. firm would recognize her law degree or her nearly two decades of experience.

In a month, the 51-year-old woman was due to leave for Portland, Ore. In the hushed room, she protested helplessly, “I am a lawyer. What else can I do?”

A few desks away, Anwer and Avan Shalchi, bound for Folsom, Calif., nervously took notes on how many bags they would be allowed to take on the plane (two apiece), how much cash they could bring into the United States ($10,000 duty free) and how much financial aid they could expect (only the first month’s rent would be guaranteed).

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Avan, 32, wondered how they could reduce their lives to so little. Her husband, Anwer, 37, worried about how they would afford medical costs for their youngest daughter, born prematurely, and for his diabetes and high cholesterol.

They too had hoped to last out the war in Jordan. But Iraq’s neighbor was handing out few residence permits, and they hadn’t wanted to keep working illegally.

In the year of waiting for their applications to resettle in America to be processed, both families had run through most of their savings. They had assumed that the U.S. would take care of them. The two-day class, just weeks before their departure last fall, was the first they had heard of how hard it might be to pursue the American dream.

There would be more rude surprises after they arrived.

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Under Saddam Hussein, the Shalchis had belonged to a privileged Baghdad elite. So too did the lawyer, who asked to be identified only as Shifa to protect relatives still in Iraq. Weekends were spent at clubs, where intellectual leaders and regime favorites would gossip around the pool and sip expensive whiskeys at the bar. Holidays were for touring the Middle East and Europe.

But privilege was no protection once the war started -- quite the opposite. As lawlessness took over the capital, prominent families were hunted down by kidnappers and religious extremists.

Two of Shifa’s brothers were shot to death in the streets. In May 2005, gunmen in a speeding car seized her husband as he left for work at an electronics import firm. Shifa watched from a window. It was the last time she saw him.

To pay a $150,000 ransom, she sold the new home they had been building. But she did not get her husband back. She spent months scouring police stations, hospitals and morgues, studying hundreds of pictures of corpses, battered, burned and riddled with drill holes.

“I even went to the trash dump to see if his body was there,” she said.

Shifa and her daughter Ann, now 25, fled the country after receiving an envelope with a single bullet tucked inside. Bandits chased the car they hired to take them to Jordan.

Anwer’s mother, a respected doctor, was on her way home from work in July 2005 when masked gunmen pistol-whipped her and shoved her into a car. The only reason they didn’t kill her, they told her, was because she had treated their wives and children.

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Anwer, who owned an Internet cafe and a luxury car parts business, borrowed money for the $30,000 ransom. To pay it back, he sold a car. While he was in court registering the ownership transfer, the kidnappers, who were watching him, called his cellphone.

“What are you doing there?” they demanded. “We will come after you.”

Within hours, the Shalchis too were speeding toward Jordan.

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Six years of war have produced an estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees. Jordan and other neighboring countries have been overwhelmed. Refugee advocates have long pressed the United States to take in a greater share.

This year, the U.S. has pledged to admit 17,000 Iraqis, a huge increase over the 202 permitted in 2006.

Some refugees felt ambivalent about moving to America. “The country that occupied my country ruined everything, and now I am going to live there?” Shifa said. “It’s humiliating.”

The timing of their arrival hasn’t helped. Shifa, Ann and the Shalchis flew to the United States last September, as major financial institutions were crashing and jobs vanishing.

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Still, the Shalchis have an advantage that most Iraqis lack: family in the country.

The Shalchis landed in New York on Sept. 11, when security was particularly intense. They sat on the floor in a holding area for five hours, before they were cleared to catch connecting flights.

But when the harrowing trip was over, Anwer’s aunt, a long-time California resident, was waiting at the Sacramento airport. She delivered them to the home she had found for them, a tidy apartment complex in a leafy part of Folsom.

Shifa and Ann arrived in Portland knowing no one. A local charity met them at the airport and found them an apartment in a poor, heavily immigrant neighborhood.

For refugees arriving in the U.S., the first few weeks are a whirlwind. They apply for Social Security numbers, food stamps and cash assistance; register for English classes; get health screenings; and start looking for a job. The government contracts with nonprofits including the New York-based International Rescue Committee, or IRC, to guide them through the process and toward independence.

But a recent IRC report suggests that the nearly 30-year-old system is failing new arrivals from Iraq by assuming that they quickly can become self-sufficient.

“It’s very much an up-by-your-bootstraps approach,” said Vice President Robert Carey. “I don’t disagree with that approach, but you need to give people an opportunity to get an adequate foothold.”

These days, the financial aid does not go far. Resettlement agencies receive State Department grants of $900 for each refugee, an amount that has gone up only $400 since 1975, according to the IRC. At least half of that is supposed to be used to procure and prepare an apartment -- to pay the deposit and first month’s rent, buy furniture and food. The rest is meant to cover the services the agency provides in the first month, such as doctor appointments and registering children for school.

Some refugees qualify for a program funded by the Department of Health and Human Services and a matching grant from a private aid agency. That program provides four to six months of additional financial and other help to those looking for work. But the program has funds to assist only about 30% of resettled refugees, the report says.

Because Anwer and Avan have children, they can get the same help available to needy American families through CalWORKS and Medi-Cal. They were granted $850 a month -- $130 less than the rent for their modest apartment.

The help is available for up to five years, but the amount will soon be reduced because of state budget cuts. Medi-Cal will no longer cover the parents’ dental and some other costs, a fact Avan discovered only after having two root canals. She will be on a mostly liquid diet until she can raise the money to replace the temporary fillings with crowns.

Refugees who do not qualify for any other help can apply for Refugee Cash Assistance and Refugee Medical Assistance. Shifa and Ann each were granted $350 a month plus medical coverage under this program. But the coverage lasts for only eight months. When the program was established in 1980, it was available for 36 months.

“People are being brought into the U.S. below the poverty level,” said the IRC’s Carey. “It’s hard to climb up when you are so far down.”

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Each morning, Avan sets out a typical Iraqi breakfast of flatbread, cheese and pickles. Although she has been in the U.S. for months, her watch remains on Iraqi time.

“When I look at my clock, I remember my family,” she said in halting English. “I think about where they are going now, what are they doing.”

Money remains a nagging worry. Anwer pores over job listings and has applied at several neighborhood grocery stores. But because of the economy, overqualified Americans are lining up for every vacancy.

Until last fall, about 80% of refugees assisted by the IRC found jobs within six months. Now it’s less than 50%, according to the group, which last year resettled 9,209 refugees from around the world.

The Iraqis are some of the most educated and skilled refugees to come here, aid workers say. Used to a middle-class life, many hope to work as doctors, lawyers or accountants. But recertification is costly and time-consuming. So they are advised to at first pursue more typical refugee work as shop attendants and cleaners.

Hoping to improve their odds for a good job, Anwer and Avan attend nightly English classes.

There are days when Avan is ready to give up and go back home, but Anwer gently reminds her why they are here.

“He tells me all the time, ‘Just think, your children are in safety now, don’t think about money,’ ” Avan said.

The eldest, Mouna, a bubbly 5-year-old with pale skin and dark eyes, was born in a bomb shelter as U.S.-led troops closed in on Baghdad in March 2003. When she first arrived in Folsom, Mouna would cry herself to sleep because she did not know the words to speak to her new classmates. Now she chats with ease.

Two-year-old Lana, born two months early in Jordan, is finally getting therapy to overcome developmental delays.

When the difficulties seem overwhelming, they turn to Anwer’s aunt, who moved to the U.S. with her husband in the 1980s and recently retired from Intel Corp.

She has shown them how to find cheap furniture online, helped them navigate the welfare system and introduced them to a small network of Iraqis.

“If I have a problem . . . I just go to [her] home and I feel safe and relaxed, because she explains everything to me,” Avan said. “If I had no relatives here, what would I do?”

Earlier this year, when Mouna’s kindergarten class line-danced to country music in the school show, three generations of Shalchis gathered to watch her stomp and twirl in a straw cowboy hat.

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On a chilly morning in Portland, Shifa and Ann cleared away the cups of hot, sugary tea with which they had steeled themselves for a hated chore: a trip to the grocery store.

Once they had glided through Baghdad’s best neighborhoods in a polished BMW, the air conditioner cranked up high. Now, hands stuffed in pockets, mother and daughter trudge past strip joints and used car lots advertising fire sales to catch two buses to the nearest supermarket. They pay with food stamps, then lug the bags home to the dingy apartment that smells of damp and mothballs.

There is only one bedroom. The walls are too thin to keep out neighbors’ quarrels. Once, they thought they heard a gunshot.

As a lawyer in Iraq, Shifa felt proud that she could help both her country and her daughter. Had they been able to stay, she feels sure she could have found Ann a good husband.

“Now I can’t help anyone,” she said, dabbing at tears with a Kleenex. “Not my country, my daughter or myself.”

At first, Shifa refused to interview at Target and Safeway.

“This was not our dream,” she told her caseworker at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, a Portland nonprofit. Instead, she used what remained of their savings to pay for English and computer classes at a community college.

She hoped she might find clerical work in a law office. Ann thought she could parlay her master’s degree in computer science into an information technology job.

Now, both women say they would take any job.

For the first time aid workers can remember, refugees are exhausting the available financial help without finding work. The State Department has announced plans to distribute $5 million in emergency housing assistance to refugees facing eviction. But only families that have been in the U.S. for 90 days or less will qualify.

Shifa and Ann received their last assistance checks in May. When the rent came due in June, Shifa reluctantly parted with a ring and two gold bracelets, among her last keepsakes from her husband. She got $2,000, enough for two more months. She has no idea how they will pay the August bills.

Shifa and Ann have talked about moving back to Jordan. But the prospect of returning with nothing terrifies them.

“Everything in my life was destroyed, even my dreams,” Ann said after mother and daughter labored over a meal that back home would have been cooked for them.

Shifa bowed her head over the table and sobbed.

Turning away, Ann continued: “I blame her. I’m sorry for that. . . . She always protect me. Why she can’t protect me this time?”

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Raja Abdulrahim contributed to this report.


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