Hard time for Iraqi refugees in weak U.S. job market
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fleeing after years of war in Iraq, many refugees arriving in the United States can't find the jobs they need to rebuild their lives.
Unemployment among Iraqi refugees is estimated at nearly three times the national average of 9 percent, and up to 2,000 of those who arrived in the past four years may have left for other countries.
Some Iraqis are now even contemplating going home as the United States struggles to recover from its worst economic downturn in decades, experts say.
"I've tried for every kind of job, from translating, teaching, consulting, mentoring, down to cat sitter or housekeeper, every kind of work," said Nour al-Khal, a woman in her 30s who fled Iraq after being shot in an attack that killed U.S. journalist Steven Vincent in 2005.
"If I go back to Iraq 100 percent I could get killed ... (but) living unemployed makes me feel like I've lost my identity. I feel like a burden. There are no jobs here," said Khal, who holds a bachelor's degree in English and lives in New York.
Originally from the Shiite-dominated city of Basra in Iraq's south, Khal had worked as a translator for Vincent and with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
At least 60,000 Iraqi refugees have arrived in the United States since immigration restrictions were eased in 2007, said the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental agency established after World War Two.
Many of them had been threatened for having worked with U.S. companies, aid groups and government agencies, IOM said.
Abdallah Boumediene, head of a community and health center for a large Muslim population in Sterling Heights, Michigan, estimated that up to 3 percent of the 60,000 Iraqi refugees who have arrived since 2007 may have left.
"It could be as many as 2,000," Boumediene said. "It's not always going back to Iraq, it is often neighboring countries where they feel they will be better able to use their skills and expertise. Some have gone to Iran."
Boumediene said he estimated the jobless rate for Arab immigrants is roughly double the Michigan average of 14 percent and triple the national rate of 9 percent.
It is hard to know how many have left. Neither the IOM nor the Iraqi Embassy in Washington track the number refugees who later decide to leave, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service only has exit records for deported Iraqis.
Iraqi artist Esam Pasha in New London, Connecticut, wants to return to his country but understands he would need a period of readjustment because Iraq has changed since he left.
"The places that I lived in and worked have all been destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again," Pasha said. "One day I hope to go back but I know it will take time to adapt when I do. Things have changed immensely."
Bob Carey, of the International Rescue Committee, which helps refugees fleeing war and natural disasters, said those thinking of returning should not underestimate the dangers.
"Talking to refugees, the threats to many of them still stand and haven't gone away with time," Carey said.
James Zogby, the pollster who is also founder and president of the Arab American Institute, said the situation in the United States could get worse, with many more refugees expected to arrive as Washington aims to withdraw completely from Iraq by the end of the year.
He said Iraqi refugees arriving in the United States "feel abandoned in a new country with limited language skills. They were promised things before they came and now they're cut off in a strange land."
Khal said she would stay if she could find work.
"I'm a moderate Muslim, I don't wear a scarf, I'm westernized," she said. "I feel I've done my part. I want American society to do its part. I've already shed my blood with Americans in Iraq."
(Editing by Michelle Nichols and Xavier Briand)
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