Bomb blasts, torture and years of exile had all but ruined the Azeez family of Iraq. So the news sounded promising: Their refugee application had been approved. Abdul, his wife, Haifaa, and their four adult children were coming to America.
The family of Mandeans, a persecuted religious minority in Iraq, had left behind almost everything in their Baghdad home but planned to create a new life in El Cajon.
One year later, Abdul, 49, fiddles with worry beads as he paces in his two-bedroom town house. His three sons scour the streets competing for jobs with Mexican immigrants. Haifaa, 49, bends her brittle, bomb-shattered back to light rose-scented candles and prays.
Abdul, once a wealthy merchant who owned jewelry stores in Iraq, was counting on government support to resettle, but the eight months of payments have run out. The family members still lack work, as do many Iraqi refugees they encounter around town.
“Why are they bringing Iraqis here? There are no jobs,” Azeez said.
Similar accounts of fading immigrant dreams are increasingly common in this San Diego suburb, where thousands of Iraqi refugees crowd apartment complexes, welfare lines and English-language schools, their appreciation for the United States tested by the specter of poverty.
Unlike previous waves of refugees from wars and other conflicts, the Iraqis’ displacement has landed them in an economic desert. Gone are many of the jobs and generous government benefits that lifted earlier generations of immigrants up the economic ladder.
Refugees like the Azeez family resort to selling off jewelry and family heirlooms to pay the rent. Others borrow or live off money sent from relatives in Iraq. Families double up in tiny apartments. A handful have given up and returned to the Middle East.
“They’re on a natural high when people get here. They are grateful,” said Michael McKay, head of the Catholic Charities office in San Diego. “But after a few months, it’s kind of a crash. Things are tough.”
A refugee existence came unexpectedly for many. Saddam Hussein’s ouster and execution lifted hopes that Iraq -- flush with oil profits -- would join the ranks of modern Arab states, minting millionaires and sprouting gleaming skylines. Instead, sectarian violence broke out in 2006, fueling attacks against ethnic and religious groups, many of whose members fled to Syria or Jordan. The U.S. government, inundated with immigration requests, dramatically increased the number of Iraqi refugee admissions in 2008.
Since then U.S. communities with large Iraqi populations have been flooded with refugees. In El Cajon, where about one-quarter of the population of 96,000 has Iraqi ancestry, an estimated 7,000 Iraqis arrived last year. A similar surge is expected this year, straining resources and schools in the city believed to have the second-largest number of Iraqis in the country, most of them Chaldean Christians.
On Main Street, which is dotted with signs in Arabic and kebab eateries, cafes are jammed with retired or unemployed Iraqi men sipping strong black tea. Refugees using food stamps buy fresh koboz bread and dates at storefront markets and get in line for donated mattresses at St. Peter’s Church. There are waiting lists for English classes, and some refugees have been referred to homeless shelters.
Nearly half of the kindergartners in the local school district are refugees.
Last month, hundreds of immigrants tried to squeeze into a three-room social services agency to meet with Iraqi government officials. Police had to disperse angry crowd members who had gathered to get their Iraqi government documents processed.
Joseph Ziauddin, president of the East County Refugee Center, spends his days shuttling car-less widows to work, finding people jobs and translating police calls. Every morning, he wakes to dozens of phone messages from people asking for assistance.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Ziauddin, who runs one of a handful of social service agencies for Iraqis in the city. “People are in need. They need help, and there’s not enough.”
The tales of trauma and struggle spill out from women in veils, middle-aged men playing dominoes and children who sleep in clothesline-strung bedrooms. The refugees have been interviewed extensively by U.S. authorities abroad who have determined that their fears of persecution back home are credible.
A white-haired man stands in a welfare line, jobless in a new country after having been kidnapped and losing his chicken farm in Iraq to Muslim militants. A burly man in a cafe who had worked as a security guard for foreign media left Baghdad after receiving an envelope with five bullets inside, meant for each member of his family.
Many refugees are doctors, engineers and other educated professionals who feel humiliated taking jobs as busboys or waiters or landscapers -- when they can even land such work.
An estimated 80% of the refugees are jobless, according to community leaders and social service agencies. Ziauddin, a former engineer who worked as a busboy when he first arrived in the U.S. 12 years go, encourages countrymen to start at the bottom if necessary.
“We have to humble ourselves and forget who we were there,” Ziauddin said.
Jwan Sulaiman hasn’t forgotten her privileged past but has come to terms with the future. An anesthesiologist in Baghdad, the petite mother of two left after militants killed her nephew and she narrowly avoided a car bomb.
Unable to work here as a doctor, she was jobless for a year before finding employment as an interpreter. Sulaiman, 48, lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her 15-year-old daughter.
The apartment could fit in the living room of her three-story house in Baghdad, but at least now she doesn’t see body parts on her way to work, or wear a head scarf in public as many women are forced to in Iraq. The San Diego area is safe, and that in itself is a blessing, she said.
“If I can’t go to heaven later on,” she said, “I am living it now.”
The Azeez family members aren’t so willing to embrace their new country.
In Baghdad, Azeez owned a jewelry manufacturing plant and four stores. The family’s six-bedroom home featured a large, country-club-like garden. They had servants and drivers, and vacationed at a popular lake resort nearby.
When sectarian tensions boiled over, Mandeans like the Azeezes were especially vulnerable. An ancient religion whose adherents consider John the Baptist their prophet, its members can’t carry weapons. Because of their pacifist ways and relative wealth -- many Mandeans are goldsmiths or merchants -- they became easy targets.
Azeez’s daughter was snatched on her way to school in 2005, the abductors forcing him to pay a $25,000 ransom. A few months later, hooded gunmen broke into the house and tortured Azeez with a hot poker.
The family fled to Syria and opened a small market. After two years, U.S. officials approved their refugee application. It was a lifeline. Muslims had burned down their home in Iraq.
In El Cajon, their modest town house is furnished with donated mattresses, blankets and secondhand tables.
When Azeez isn’t home pacing in his socks and flip-flops, he’s calling on social service agencies for medical attention for his wife. Back in Iraq, her spine was injured when a bomb exploded at a marketplace where she had gone shopping.
She has trouble walking now and needs surgery to repair the brace in her back, which was implanted by doctors in Jordan. “Not happy. Everyday sit in home,” Haifaa Azeez said in broken English.
During the family’s first eight months in the United States, each member received the $450 in monthly government support distributed to all refugees. The family’s only government support now is $750 in food stamps. By selling off pieces of gold they were able to take from Abdul’s business, they barely make their $1,150 rent.
The job hunt is bleak. On a recent day, Rami, their youngest son, looked for work at an upscale shopping center. Employees at various stores directed him to long lines at customer service departments.
Each of Rami’s finished applications reads the same.
Available start date? “Any time.”
Full or part time? “All of the time.”
“They say they’ll call back, but they never do,” said Rami, who is in his early 20s.
In bleak moments, family members wonder why they came to the United States. They had options, including Sweden and Australia. They’ve considered returning to Syria, where at least they understand the language and there is a small Mandean community.
For now, the family worships alone on Sundays. Haifaa covers her head with a veil while she reads from their holy book. She prays for good health and acceptance in her adopted home.
“I will love this country,” she said, “when my children get jobs and we get a normal life.”