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Refugees Families Build New Lives In San Diego

Refugees Families Build New Lives In San Diego
Who are the refugees resettling in San Diego County? We'll hear the story of a Palestinian family who fled a refugee camp in Iraq to start a new life in El Cajon.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. As legislators in Washington propose expanding the landmark Refugee Protection Act, it's up to humanitarian groups to handle the complicated job of helping refugee families build new lives in America. In recent years, many people fleeing from wars and persecution in Africa have been relocated here in San Diego in the City Heights neighborhood. And in the East County, El Cajon has been the number one destination for Iraqis coming to America. Within these broad populations, there are subsets of refugees, and we'll hear specifically about the Palestinian families that have recently been relocated from Iraq to San Diego's East County. I’d like to introduce my guests. Robert Montgomery is regional resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee. And, Bob, welcome to These Days.

ROBERT MONTGOMERY (Regional Resettlement Director, International Rescue Committee): Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Nasser Barghouti is with the San Diego Chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. And good morning, Nasser. Welcome to These Days.


NASSER BARGHOUTI (Member, American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee): Good morning to you. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Andy Trimlett is a producer here at KPBS. Hi, Andy.

ANDY TRIMLETT (Producer, KPBS): Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks for being here. We’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you know people who have resettled in your community? Tell us about them. Or if you’re a refugee who now calls San Diego home, call us with your questions and your comments, 1-888-895-5727. Bob Montgomery, what’s the – if you could give us a sort of brief history of refugee resettlement in San Diego.

MONTGOMERY: I’d be happy to. It began in 1975 when the Vietnamese refugees started to come after the fall of Saigon in April of ’75. They were spread – about 140,000 came to the United States with about 30,000 to 40,000 ending up at Camp Pendleton right up the road here from us in San Diego. So the group in Camp Pendleton started to be resettled outside of the camps. At that time you needed an American sponsor. IRC and other voluntary agencies were at the camps helping people come out. And so due to the proximity many of the refugees, the southeast Asian refugees, primarily Vietnamese, started coming to San Diego. After that, we started seeing East Africans, Ethiopeans, Eritreans, ultimately Somalis and Sudanese. From the former Soviet Union, we saw a lot of refugees after the fall of communism in the late eighties. We saw lots of people from South Asia and the near East, including Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq and, of course, I know we’re going to talk more today about refugees from Iraq. So San Diego has been a prime destination.


CAVANAUGH: Why is that?

MONTGOMERY: Well, I think mainly because of the initial wave of refugees that came from southeast Asian. Many services and religious institutions and things of that nature grew up in San Diego. We have a well-oiled machine here in San Diego that helps refugees, a lot of resources available for them here. And some for the same reasons that Americans like San Diego, is the beautiful weather. They’re – often reminds them of home and the communities, the existing refugee communities that are here that make them feel more welcome and also serve as a resource for them.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both, Bob and Nasser Barghouti, if I may, how has the refugee community here in San Diego been shaped or changed by the war in Iraq? Nasser, tell us.

BARGHOUTI: I think the war in Iraq has been really a fundamental turning point for refugees because so many of them had to leave Iraq. As you know, the war in Iraq has resulted in millions of refugees. Most of them wound up in Syria and Jordan, the neighboring countries to Iraq. But many thousands have also wound up in Europe and now in the United States. The – I think there are thousands of Iraqi refugees of all different ethnicities here in San Diego due to the war in Iraq. So there’s been a flood. I mean, if you go to El Cajon, there’s now Little Baghdad and, you know, areas that are predominantly Iraqi, the same way that the war in Somalia resulted in a lot of Somali refugees coming here. But the war in Iraq is a bigger proportion than that. And most recently is with the Palestinian refugees that were settled in Iraq and now had to come here. So that has changed things fundamentally for them.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, Bob, do we know how many refugees from Iraq San Diego has resettled?

MONTGOMERY: Well, since 2007, which is the new wave of refugees from Iraq, I’d say we’re pushing about 10,000 refugees. As Nasser said, many of them are from different ethnic groups. We have religious minorities like the Chaldeans and the Syrians and the Mandaeans, of course now, some Palestinians as well. So but we’ve had waves of Iraqi refugees coming since the early eighties, certainly after the first Gulf war we saw a lot of Shias coming to San Diego, being resettled here in the United States. So there’s a history of Iraqi refugees coming to San Diego and that’s why I think we see the large numbers now because the community has been very supportive. The Chaldean community, there’s two churches in the east county, they have stepped up and done a wonderful job as well as the community itself. And so I think there’s – also there’s stores, the churches, the service agencies that are – have evolved with this new wave. And so it’s a good place for them to come to get their first – their start in rebuilding their life here in the United States.

CAVANAUGH: Andy Trimlett is here. He’s KPBS producer. And the reason you’re here, Andy, is because you reported on a family of Iraqi refugees living now in El Cajon. Tell me about the Abu Al-Nasab family.

TRIMLETT: Well, Jamal and Nedal are the mother and father of the family and they have three of their children living there. They have been living here for a few months. They just got here. And the – But their story goes back to Iraq and, like we’ve been talking about, they’re – they were born in Iraq but they’re not actually Iraqi at all. They’ve never held Iraqi citizenship; they’re Palestinian. They were born to Palestinian refugees who left – lost their homes in 1948 and ended up in refugee camps in Iraq. And Jamal and Nedal both spent their entire lives living as refugees in Iraq. The first part of their lives, they spent in these refugee camps. Jamal told me that they had 3 bathrooms for 250 people. Cut to the invasion, the American war, and basically chaos surrounded them. They saw horrible, horrible violence. They were living in the heart of Baghdad so in the initial part of the war, bombs were falling all around them. Jamal was actually hit and had two broken ribs.

CAVANAUGH: And, Andy, we saw during the – as the Iraq war sort of developed, as the years went by, there was such chaos within Iraq that peop – there were factions. People fell into factions, Shias and Sunnis, and these – this family that you reported on found themselves basically without friends, being attacked from all sides.

TRIMLETT: Exactly. And what ended up happening, the thing that finally made them break and decide they had to go was that their son Ahmad was kidnapped and tortured. They eventually got him back after they paid a very large ransom. But they decided to move to a refugee camp that was on the border of Iraq and Syria and this place is literally a desert. There’s nothing around it. And they lived there for three years in absolutely horrible conditions. And they could not leave because they’d never had Iraqi passports; they didn’t have any passports so they had no documentation to let them go. But finally very recently, they were given permission to come to the U.S. and that’s where they are now.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know, Andy, in your report, you spoke with the head of the family, Jamal. And he wept as he told you about the hardships that he’d suffered when he was – he and his family were in Iraq. Tell us a little bit more about that because the story is really sort of hard for people in America, I think, to really understand that people do go through these things.

TRIMLETT: Absolutely. It was painful to watch it, just him talk about everything he went through. But the – his son was kidnapped. He saw horrible violence. He talked about carrying his wounded brother through the streets and then finding his nephew, who had just lost his leg and part of his hand, just – it was constant violence, rocket attacks and kidnappings that they had to deal with on a practically daily basis. And then on top of that, after they go to the refugee camp, having to live in a place where the closest hospital is two hours away. There are scorpions walking around, there are snakes, there – you know, they live on rations. It floods and so all the tents get completely flooded out. It’s – it was – it’s a really painful life that he had to go through.

CAVANAUGH: And then the transition, coming from that, coming from a world of violence and deprivation, into the middle of San Diego, El Cajon, what kind of transition is that for a family?

TRIMLETT: It’s a huge one. On one side, they’re incredibly grateful. Jamal literally waxed poetic about how coming to America brought color to his life and he had – everything up until then was black and white. But on the flip side, it’s a completely different culture. They don’t speak the language. And they’re getting assistance from the U.S. government for the first few months of their – the first six months, I believe, of their time here but after that is off, they’re very nervous about what’s going to happen next. They do have some good news to report. Their son Ahmad found a job at a deli up in Mira Mesa, so that’s going to help them move on but it’s not going to pay the rent and feed a family of five. So they – It’s a – It’s bittersweet.

CAVANAUGH: Bob Montgomery, how does the IRC deal with people who come to the United States with stories like that?

MONTGOMERY: Well, unfortunately, most refugees have stories like that. It’s a very familiar tale. One of the responsibilities we have is orientation to the United States and to help people transition from the life in the refugee camp to life here in the United States. As Andy said, it’s a very difficult one and people often suffered great trauma before they came to the United States, and that’s an issue. Unfortunately, for the refugees that are coming now, they’re also facing a new challenge, which is the most difficult economic situation this country’s seen in many, many years. So people who want to be productive, people who want to get jobs, are often denied that ability early on. Now, let me correct one thing that Andy said.


MONTGOMERY: They actually get government assistance for the first 8 months. After that, if they are qualified for other public assistance programs like TANF or in California it’s called CalWORKS, they could still get some assistance. But these people don’t want public assistance. They want to work and they want their families to be productive and that’s the challenge that we face now as all Americans do, is the job market is extremely poor but refugees have no choice. They have to come. They are in harm’s way. And we’re – IRC’s job is to help them to find those jobs, to make that transition through orientation and refer them to services for like emotional assistance if, indeed, they need it. So we’re here to support and to be that bridge to their new life in the United States.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about refugees resettling in the United States, actually here in San Diego. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call. Pat’s calling us from Rolando. Good morning, Pat, and welcome to These Days.

PAT (Caller, Rolando): Yes, hello. I’m – I teach English as a second language at Grossmont College and we’re scratching our heads because we’re pretty tapped out in East County for being able to offer English. I was able to work in the refugee camps with the Vietnamese wave where we offered English and cultural orientation there before the refugees arrived. But here, they’re coming with, some of them, little English, many of them little English, and not much awareness of the culture and all the culture shock and PTSD that you’ve been talking about. And yet, because of the economy of the city and the state, we’re pretty much not – we’re not finding resources to offer enough English and culture and job training for these refugees and we are being very strongly impacted. So my real focused question is what’s the most efficient place to look for funding, preferably federal funding, to help the local community meet the needs of these refugees?

CAVANAUGH: Before we answer that question, Pat, let me ask you, at Grossmont College are the students that you’re dealing with actual college students or are they coming specifically to learn English?

PAT: Both, and there are some who are – who need more English than they have to be able to be successful in the general ed college level courses. There are some in ESL courses but we can’t offer enough ESL. So because they need to be doing something productive to get their public assistance, they need to be in school or in a job or in job training and they get financial aid by going to the college, some of them are just moving in and taking math and Arabic and anything they can find in order to make a living somehow.


PAT: And so it’s not really appropriate. They should be getting the English they need at the right level and the cultural orientation and then moving into job training.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for your call, Pat. I appreciate it. And Bob or Nasser, any suggestions about funding for more English classes?

MONTGOMERY: Well, Pat brings up a question or – and describes a situation that we’re well aware of. There’s too few resources for the refugees that we’re resettling and certainly the education system’s been impacted, the healthcare system’s been impacted, even law enforcement has been impacted. I would say that there’s a freshman Congressman from Detroit. His name’s Gary Peters. He’s got a bill that’s not been introduced yet that does address many of these issues and would provide additional federal funding for education, which would be both for adults and for children. We certainly, at IRC, support these types of bills which will add resources to what we need. In El Cajon, there’s a dearth of availability of free ESL classes. IRC’s response is to open two small classes ourselves out there but it’s a stopgap and Pat’s right, we need much more resources to get people the basic English that they need, the orientation that they need, the job skills that they need so they can be productive.

CAVANAUGH: I have to take a short break and when we return, we will continue taking your calls and talking about refugee families resettled in San Diego. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And we’re talking about refugee families in San Diego and most specifically the Iraqi refugees who have moved to San Diego’s east county. My guests are Robert Montgomery with the International Rescue Committee, Nasser Barghouti with the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and KPBS producer Andy Trimlett. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Nasser, how does your organization, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, how does that help with the resettlement of the Iraqi community in San Diego?

BARGHOUTI: Actually, not directly. We are part of an organization that’s local here in San Diego that’s called San Diego Palestinian Refugee Support Committee. And it’s formed of individuals and several Arab-American organizations with the purpose of helping the Palestinian refugees from Iraq settle. As have been mentioned, the U.S. government does provide some assistance for about 8 months but even that assistance in the form of welfare and food stamps does not go far enough to help a family of four live in San Diego. As we know, this is a very expensive city, unfortunately. And so what we’ve done is collect funds from the community and have local San Diego community families sponsor each refugee family.


BARGHOUTI: And they would help them with buying furniture, settling them in addition to the help they get from the IRC and other organizations, and also socially helping them. I just got a call last night, for example, from the family that I’m helping, asking me, the guy has found a job and he got his first paycheck and he didn’t know anything about taxes in the U.S. And he said they took one-third of my money. What am I supposed to do? So I have to call him…

CAVANAUGH: A lot of people feel that way.

BARGHOUTI: Yeah, exactly. And he said, well, then with the amount of money, I’m going to make less than what I was getting on welfare, and so is that worth it for me to have a job like that? And there are solutions to these problems. But they need a lot of help, I mean, many of these have been really traumatized and so the social network is a crucial aspect. And having a Palestinian or an Arab-American family help them with all aspects including, you know, they don’t speak English, many of them…


BARGHOUTI: …and they’re learning and so on.

CAVANAUGH: And I would imagine that the survival skills one needs to adapt is a camp surrounded by hundreds of people with limited facilities is slightly different than the kind of survival skills you need to survive in a community like El Cajon. What kind of cultural gap is there that you encounter, Nasser, with these families?

BARGHOUTI: So many of these families actually used to live in Baghdad.


BARGHOUTI: And so they were used to a much better life, if you will.


BARGHOUTI: And Iraq is a very rich, diverse country with many, many different ethnicities. There’s a lot of intermarriage and a lot of coexistence of communities that have been going on for thousands of years, very old country. And all that basically was completely destroyed because of many reasons, from the first Gulf war, the second war and then finally the country erupted into enormous violence and led to chaos where all the social fabric was basically destroyed. And that left people to fall into factions and polarized, sort of what happened in Yugoslavia. We’ve seen that in many places around the world. And that happened in Iraq. And because of that, they have been living in the past few years in a traumatic situation that’s not really what they were used to before. Now when they came here, the first thing they’ve noticed, of course, is how rich this country is and so on but they’ve also noticed how complicated everything is here. We have a lot of structures and regulations and so on. So finding a job, for example, in Iraq, before the war, somebody would just go around and hear somebody is hiring a mechanic, they go interview, and they have the job within, you know, an hour. Here, they have to fill out an application, go through backgrounds checks and so on, and they had no idea how to do these…

CAVANAUGH: Red tape.

BARGHOUTI: Red tape. It’s just a much more structured society that we have…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, right.

BARGHOUTI: …here, and they’re not used to that. So accommodating their lives to that has been a challenge, I would say.

CAVANAUGH: A number of people want to join our conversation. Let’s hear from Esala in Spring Valley. Good morning, Esala. Welcome to These Days. Esala, are you with us?

ESALA (Caller, Spring Valley): Can you hear me?

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Oh, now I can.

ESALA: Okay. I have a question regarding the students at the middle school level. I’m PTA president for middle school in Spring Valley and I’m trying to reach out to our Iraqi community. It’s very small but, nonetheless, it’s there. And, for instance, I’m getting ready to put out the newsletter with all the information for the beginning of the year. And I’m trying, on my own, to figure out how can I reach out to them? And one of the things that I was thinking is to translate my newsletter, just the way we translate it to Spanish, to Iraqi but I don’t know if it’s effective. I don’t have anybody to ask. You know, somebody who has experience. Maybe there’s something else I should rather be doing not just translating the newsletter.

CAVANAUGH: Got you, Esala. What would you recommend for Esala, Nasser?

BARGHOUTI: Maybe she could contact us, we could provide the contact information after the show, and we will put her in touch. I think translating the newsletter to Arabic would be a very good start, and then we’ll go from there to see if it’s useful or not.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you for the call. Connie is calling us from La Jolla. Good morning, Connie, and welcome to These Days.

CONNIE (Caller, La Jolla): Good morning. How are you guys?

CAVANAUGH: Just fine. Thank you.

CONNIE: Okay, well, my question is how can we help that family in El Cajon? I was hearing the story and I was very touched by it. And, yeah, what can we do to help that family? It sounds like they need jobs. I could probably hire one of them.

CAVANAUGH: Connie, thank you for the call. I’m wondering, not only that family that Andy was talking about but if people just generally in San Diego want to help resettled families, what do they do, Bob?

MONTGOMERY: Well, they can certainly call the International Rescue Committee here in San Diego…


MONTGOMERY: …and we would be happy to provide many different ways that they can help. We have about 700 volunteers a year. We often have them work directly with families in one of our programs. Obviously, we accept some donations, certainly financial donations, also donations of usable furniture, things of that nature. And, of course, if anybody has a job, we would be – love to hear about that. We have an employment department that works hard to find newcomers jobs and as we’ve all talked about this morning, there’s many obstacles to finding a job, both with people coming with limited English and maybe nontransferable job skills but also the market here is very, very difficult. So we would welcome – There’s all – there’s other agencies in town, Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Service, Alliance for African Assistance, all these agencies are working with refugees from these communities and would welcome you to contact them and they will find a way for you to help.

CAVANAUGH: And if they wanted specifically to help the Abu Al-Nasab family, could you direct them to…


CAVANAUGH: …specifically to them?

MONTGOMERY: Yes, if they called us, we will identify the case manager for that family and put them – have a discussion about how best to help.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, Nasser, as you said, during the Iraqi war, this country that had various ethnic and religious factions, had lived in peace and intermarried, as you said, but it broke down during the war. Are we seeing any of that factionalization happening out in the east county as people from different parts and different religions of Iraq come to live here in El Cajon?

BARGHOUTI: Fortunately, not, so far, I would say. I – I’m pretty impressed at how people get along here. So we’ve, for example, I know that one of the Palestinian refugees did find a job in an Iraqi market that’s owned by a Chaldean-Iraqi, Christian Iraqi. And so once they get out of the war situation, they go back to their norm, which is coexistence. And, you know, Iraq has a very, very long history. It’s one of the oldest countries on earth.

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely.

BARGHOUTI: And that history of coexistence is deep. That is not to say there were never problems in Iraq. Of course, like any country, it went through many wars and so on. But the coexistence always won, and I think it will win again but it will take some time to get it back to what it was.

CAVANAUGH: You have been – you have seen the Iraqi community in San Diego grow during the years. How has it changed?

BARGHOUTI: I think it has changed in terms of the composition of the refugees, like a lot of the Arab-American community. Most Arab-Americans, before the seventies, were Christian, so many Christian Arabs who came to the United States from Syria and Lebanon predominantly. In the past few decades, it’s been much more Muslim refugees coming to the U.S. and so the composition of the communities have changed. So in San Diego, as we said, in the nineties, there were a lot of Shiite Iraqis that came to San Diego, then there were a lot of Chaldean Iraqis. And now there are all kinds, you know, there’s Sunni Iraqis and there are Palestinians, so the ethnic makeup has changed and made it actually more diverse than it used to be.

CAVANAUGH: Well, have you encountered any prejudice against Muslim refugees here in San Diego? I mean, we have heard of that since 9/11, and I’m wondering what the situation is now.

BARGHOUTI: Of course. There’s been a lot of cases of discrimination, some people out of ignorance. They see a woman who’s veiled, they associate that with a negative stereotype. And some of the Palestinian refugees have been harassed in public parks and so on. There’s been actually a case of severe harassment and we are meeting with the police chief of El Cajon to discuss that because those issues do come up and some of them are by youths that don’t really know better and some by more prejudice member of the communities, members of the community. And so we have to educate people, but there’s definitely been discrimination against them.

CAVANAUGH: I would imagine that happens in a lot of resettled communities as that community now has a different element, Bob, and the whole community has to embrace these new people. Sometimes there are some hiccups along the way, I would imagine.

MONTGOMERY: Well, certainly when you introduce a new culture or a new community into a neighborhood, it can upset the balance of that neighborhood and that’s why the resettlement agencies and, certainly, IRC, takes a community-based approach to our programming and we try to include and to work to improve the neighborhoods that refugees live in because we know if we – if our services also make the community better, then ultimately that will make it better for the refugees that are resettling there. But Nasser’s right, we have to go out and we have to do education because a lot of it is stereotyping and people just don’t understand who these people are, or more importantly why they’re here. And we can do that through education and reaching out into the communities but I think in most cases the San Diego community has been very welcoming to refugees for more than 35 years now. And I’m very impressed with that even after 9/11. We saw many people step forward and make a difference and make people feel comfortable here even though their background was Muslim or from another country.

CAVANAUGH: I think there’s a question that many people have about refugees who come to this country, Bob, and that is they’re basically forced to leave their homeland. And, therefore, when the situation gets better in their homeland, will they stay in the United States or will they go back? What have you found in your years of work with the IRC? Do people who come to America stay here or when the situation improves do they decide to go back to their nation of origin?

MONTGOMERY: In almost all cases, people stay. The lives of their children is one of the main reasons why they took huge risks to resettle here in the United States and their children become Americanized very quickly and they want to stay. The only exception to that was the Kosovar refugees that came in the late – 1999 when there was the brief war in Kosovar (sic). About 30% of them went back. But, again, it was a very short conflict and people could go back. But take Somalia, for example, they’re still too dangerous to return to Somalia. And people – refugees have been coming from Somalia since 1991. It’s just not safe for people to go back in some instances. In other instances, it’s like I said, people have become members and citizens of the United States and they want to stay and they want to continue to contribute to their new country.

CAVANAUGH: And we are out of time. I’m so sorry. We could talk about this for quite some time but no longer. Bob Montgomery from the International Rescue Committee, thank you so much.

MONTGOMERY: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Nasser Barghouti with the Arab-American – American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, thanks so much.

BARGHOUTI: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Andy Trimlett with KPBS, thanks for coming in, Andy.

TRIMLETT: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: If you’d like to post your comment, please go online, You’ve been listening to These Days, and stay with us for hour two coming up in just a moment here on KPBS.