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Seeking the American Dream in Tough Times

Although the economy is in a slump, America is still a sanctuary to 30 to 50 thousand of the world's refugees each year, according to the U.S. State Department. To smooth the transition, the Internati

Although the economy is in a slump, America is still a sanctuary to 30 to 50 thousand of the world's refugees each year, according to the U.S. State Department. To smooth the transition, the  International Rescue Committee  provides limited financial support to newly arriving refugees and asylees from around the world. But, at a time when many San Diego residents are struggling to make ends meet, how do recent immigrants get by? SDSU Backpack Journalist Steven Bartholow has the story.

Sammer Rezqo is 20 years old and an Iraqi refuge living in San Diego with his parents and two younger siblings. He says they left Bahgdad last year to escape violence.

Rezqo: We left because of terrorists threatened my father. Everyone is leaving Iraq because it is not  secure.


The United Nations helped the Rezqos relocate to San Diego, where they had other family members who had fled Iraq earlier. After that, the IRC assisted with money, education and finding jobs. But the program, which is funded by taxpayers and private donations, gives the same monthly stipend to all refugees, no mater where they relocate: $800 per family and $360 per individual, for three months.

While that amount might be enough to get by in Idaho, where the cost of living is about $24,000 a year, in San Diego a person needs to earn nearly $34,000 annually just to make ends meet, according to the latest economic report released by the San Diego Workforce Partnership.

The amount of aid the IRC can give and how it is distributed is set by the federal government, according to IRC job developer Jelena Cingel. For the first 90 days of resettlement, the IRC contracts with the Department of State to provide essential services to the refugees.

Last year, the non-profit organization reported that it helped 6,900 people resettle in 26 different U.S. cities at a total cost of nearly $200 million. While the IRC depends on donations from foundations and support from individuals, those contributions may dwindle this year because Americans have less wealth, Cingel said.

Getting money for refugees is just part of the struggle in the current economy, however. Complicating matters further, refugee families in higher cost of living areas, like San Diego, have begun living together, often in violation of California housing codes. The IRC is also having a more difficult time helping the immigrants get jobs as the competition becomes more intense, Cingel said.


Cingel: When I started working here two years ago, the refugees were hard to employ, however, now it is becoming close to impossible. Also, with the food and gas expenses it is becoming a bit more difficult to make it for them.

As for the Rezqo family, Sammer and his parents have both found work and the younger children are enrolled in school. Sammer credits the IRC with helping them learn English and therefore becoming more employable.

Sammer said his family has not really felt the effects of the economic decline, yet. Having just recently settled in San Diego, they haven't had time to notice inflation and don't have many investments that could lose value. In addition to the IRC and their relatives in San Diego, Rezqo said his family has received support and friendship from the local Iraqi Christian community.

They have no plans to leave the area any time soon. To them, the American economic downturn is nothing compared to the terror they fled.

Rezqo: "My family is in a good situation now, happy to be safe and settled again."