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Refugee Services in Iowa

posted on February 25, 2010 at 5:46 PM


In the last year's time, more than 900 refugees have resettled in Iowa.  But the flow of new arrivals will soon slow as three Iowa agencies offering refugee services will reduce or eliminate those services. 

This would end an era where Iowa stood out nationally in its commitment to helping refugees that dates back to 1975.  That was the year when Governor Robert Ray established a task force to help resettle more than 1,000 refugees from Southeast Asia, following the Vietnam War. In the past 35 years some 30,000 refugees have been resettled in Iowa.

Since then, refugees from many countries have made Iowa their new home.  In recent years, according to the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services, the majority resettling here are Burmese, Bhutanese, Somali, Eritrean and Iraqi.

The sounds of Arabian style music and aromas of middle-eastern cooking help create a familiar oasis in the midst of a cold Iowa winter for these Iraqi refugees.  Although they come from the same homeland most of them met for the first time in Des Moines.  They ended up in Iowa after fleeing the hardships and dangers of an unstable regime and war.

Amar Mahmud:  Three days after the U.S. Army got in Baghdad I worked with the marines there and then with the army as a local interpreter.  Many of my friends, interpreters, got killed and especially my best friend got killed.  So I thought I'm going to be next. 

Amar Mahmud also agreed to work as an interpreter for us, as most of the group speaks little English. 

Mohammed Younis: It's really hard to live here with no English.

These men, and some of their immediate families, came to Des Moines with the help of Lutheran Services in Iowa and on average have been here about eight months.  Several of the men worked as musicians in Iraq and have formed a band they hope can perform professionally.  They call themselves The Peace Band which reflects their philosophical goals.

Abass Hamid: We came here with our sadness of these things that happened to us over there, but here we're to be happy and we're trying to change our life here and we will make you happy with this band.

Khodor Almajidi: He's saying that the recent image of the Arabians or Islams or the Eastern people is bad image now like we are terrorists so, we're trying to give a better image with this band.  We are against all the terrorists and extremist ideas.  Against the war too.

Khodor Almajidi played with the Iraqi Orchestra in Baghdad for three years. 

Khodor Almajidi: He's saying that I'm a musician but I'm going to accept any -- anything that makes money for to live. It's not easy to find a job here.

Khodor says the greatest challenge he faces coming here is the language barrier.  He is taking an ESL class at DMACC, so he can more easily apply for jobs.  Many of the others took a job in a meatpacking plant where English is not required.  But a full time job leaves little time to learn a new language.

Ali Almajidi: I will sacrifice everything for my family, for my children to grow up, grow up here decently, but the, income now is not enough for my family.

In addition to feeling trapped in a job that does not provide enough income, Ali says the repetitive physical work is affecting his health ... and his music.

Ali Almajidi: My hand now is not normal.  He can't do more than this.  So, really affect my ability to play the music.

Frustration with work affects most of the musicians, including Amar Mahmud who is proficient in English.  He was a skilled pipe welder in Iraq but now works sorting mail for a Des Moines company.  He can't get a job in his trained profession without going back to school.

Amar Mahmud: I'm doing now the DMACC welding.  I know all those things that they were, but I have to be certified.  

Amar says it will take about a year to become certified.  There is help for new arrivals to cover basic needs like food, rental assistance, and health care for a limited time.  They are also given tools to promote self sufficiency including help with language skills and finding a job.  But the refugees say they are still struggling.  Affordable health care is a problem for several of them, including Mohammed Younis.  

Mohammed Younis: He's saying that I'm now trying to get my wife to the hospital but she, there's no medicaid.  My, my work, my job doesn't cover.  So, where, where should -- where should I go?

Marilyn Hansen, is a volunteer for Lutheran Services in Iowa.  She spends up to 40-hours a week helping many refugee families and understands their frustration.

Marilyn Hansen: It breaks my heart because they have come from such tragic circumstances and they have such high hopes when they come to America . . . and even though they're not around bullets all the time it's still is very devastating to them, especially for the men, that they feel that they can't support their families.

Tags: Catholics charity immigration Iowa Iraq Iraq war refugees