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Border & Immigration

Iraqi Refuge: Not Enough Help For Growing Population

ESL classes are maxed out at Cuyamaca College. The majority of the students are Iraqi refugees.
Jill Replogle
ESL classes are maxed out at Cuyamaca College. The majority of the students are Iraqi refugees.
Iraqi Refuge Part 1
Iraqi Refuge Part 1

It's hard to find a job in this tough economy. It's even harder if you've just arrived in the U.S.
Iraqis in face long waits to reunite with relatives living as refugees in the Middle East.

On a recent Friday morning, students of Iraqi descent practiced phrases they might need for a job interview in the language lab at Cuyamaca College.

One student – a thin young man, dressed in hip clothes – speaks into a computer microphone: “Why should I give you the job? I’m hard working and work full-time.”


He’s lucky to be in a class. English as a Second Language, or ESL, courses, are in high demand at Cuyamaca, which is located in San Diego's East County.

"We had enough students on the wait list to double the program," said Alicia Muñoz, Cuyamaca's ESL coordinator. In fact, over the past two years, the wait list for ESL classes has increased by nearly 14-times.

Most of the demand comes from recently arrived Iraqi refugees. More than 8,000 Iraqis have relocated to San Diego County since 2005, making it one of the largest refugee communities in the country.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story reported more than 13,000 Iraqi refugees have relocated to San Diego County. That is the total number of refugees of all nationalities that have moved to the county. We regret the error.

But budget cuts – affecting community colleges across the state – have forced schools to cancel classes in many subjects, including ESL. At the same time, the demand for these classes has skyrocketed. And it's not just community colleges that are feeling the strain.

County Supervisor Dianne Jacob has gotten an earful of concerns from elementary schools, hospitals and other public institutions in her district. They all say that they don't have the funds to address refugee needs, especially on shrinking budgets.


"There have not been adequate resources available to serve this population," Jacob said.

The supervisor recently hosted a meeting of refugee resettlement officials and service providers to discuss the problem. There, local school district officials said they need an additional $3.4 million to hire teachers for English learner programs. They also want more counselors to work with refugee students traumatized by war and displacement.

Hospital representatives also showed up with concerns.

"From a health care perspective, we're spending a lot of dollars — especially the community clinics — paying for interpreters," Michele Tarbet, CEO of Sharp Grossmont Hospital, said after the meeting.

Tarbet said the government doesn't provide reimbursement for interpreters. She also said the hospital is seeing a large increase in uninsured patients, many of them refugees.

After the meeting, the head of the federal office of refugee resettlement admitted he was caught off guard by the size of the problem. He didn't offer any immediate solutions, but conversations between Jacob’s office and service providers are ongoing.

Back at Cuyamaca college, Iraqi ESL students are thrilled to be taking steps toward integrating into their new home. Alan Tyari, 25, fled Iraq with his family in 2002. They lived in Lebanon for seven years before coming to the U.S.

Tyari said he wants to take professional English and eventually open a beauty salon.

"I want to do business for myself," he said.

Tyari currently gets unemployment benefits, because he recently lost his job. In fact, refugees are given some government benefits – help with health insurance, rent and food – for the first eight months in the U.S.

After that, many are on their own, in an economy with few job prospects. The lack of jobs probably contributes to the demand for ESL classes. To keep the benefits coming, refugees have to show they're taking steps towards self-sufficiency.