Accessibility links

Iraqi Refugees Building New Lives in America

These women are Iraqi refugees who resettled in the United States. They are safe from the violence of Iraq. But the war is not over for them. Many struggle with horrible memories of the past. And all of them have friends and family who are still in danger back in Iraq.

Layla came to the U.S. in June 2013.

“I’m happy here because I am [safe] but I’m worried about my family, my nephew in Baghdad.”

Layla is the mother of six. She lost three sons in the Iraq war. Her youngest son was kidnapped in 2006 and is still missing. Her husband died of cancer. She now lives with her daughter’s family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has another daughter in Egypt. She says there is no future in Iraq.

“There is many militias in Iraq, bad situation, you know and Daesh all these problems. If you go out to buy something, to go to see someone… maybe you’re killed, you die on the way. Who knows?”

Layla joined a support group for Iraqi women refugees. Melissa Fogg is a social worker who helps organize the meetings.

“The women’s program really started as learning English and life skills. But then what we found is that the women just really are craving an opportunity to be together and to talk about their experiences and talk about their daily lives. And so it’s really shifted to being more of an emotional support group, where we focus on developing relationships and a support network within the community.”

Layla says these women are like a family to her. Together they laugh and cry as they share stories of hope and loss.

Iraqi refugee children, especially older ones, struggle in America’s school system. Justin Dorsey is an Arabic-speaking counseling assistant for the Philadelphia School District. He works closely with Iraqi children and teenagers.

“The first major problem or hurdle, I believe, is trauma: trauma from the war, what children have seen during the war.”

Dorsey says the government and refugee agencies need to provide more resources for helping refugees deal with trauma.

“The thing about memory, you don’t want to necessarily forget bad things. But, you want to take them and make the world a better place through your experience by using them.”

Ludy Soderman-Roman is the director of the Multilingual Support Office of the Philadelphia School District.

“There is a belief—a wrong belief—that in order to learn English you have to forget who you are, that you have to leave it behind. And that is wrong.”

Ms. Soderman-Roman suggests parents and children read bilingual books together. One of her favorites is called “Brown Bear, Brown Bear.” The words are in both English and Arabic.

“When our Iraqi children come to school, they will see children of many colors, different sizes, different abilities, different experiences. And they’re still kids. They will play together, and they will read “Brown Bear, Brown Bear.” It’s a great book.

Another non-profit organization that is assisting Iraqis is called the Iraq Refugee Assistance Project, or IRAP.

IRAP helps Iraqis who are in danger apply for Special Immigration Visas to the US. These visas are for Iraqis and Afghans who helped the U.S. government during the war. These are the faces of some of the Iraqis that IRAP has helped. IRAP is pushing the U.S. government to speed up the processing of Special Immigrant Visas.

Christina Elhaddad is the director of the IRAP chapter at the Washington School of Law at American University.

“What we do is we try to protect them in the sense that we work on their visa applications. Unfortunately, many of these applications take years to be processed. . . We owe them more than that. They’ve helped us, and it’s time for us to help them.”

IRAP helped this man, who goes by the name “Sham Hassan.” Sham, an ethnic Kurd from Baghdad, waited three and a half years for his Special Immigrant Visa. He worked as a translator for the U.S. military.

“By the end of 2011, I applied for the Special Visa Program and the refugee program, so I can get out of Iraq. Because I know that, if I stayed longer, I will be definitely dead.”

He was kidnapped by a militia in 2006 because of his mother’s family’s connection to the Kurdish and U.S. governments. He says he was tortured and forced to confess to crimes he did not commit.

Sham now lives in Washington, D.C. He works full-time at the Dog Tag Bakery, an organization that gives job training to disabled veterans.

“I mean, my work is my family. If I have any complication, any problems in life, the first place that I would go to is my work. Because here they love me so much, they take care of me so much and, I never, ever feel like I am part of a work facility. It feels like home.”

JUSTIN DORSEY: Iraqis tend to be, I mean, their resilience is pretty amazing… They adapt fast and well, a lot of them.

SHAM HASSAN: “I think that America is a very diverse country and everyone can live in America no matter what your beliefs are or who you are. So I did not face any problems for being a Middle Easterner. Actually, people are very interested to know about my culture.”

LAYLA: “The people [are] kind. If you walk in the street anywhere, you know we wear this hijab, they say “assalamu alaikum” and they are kind. Always they helped me because I was new here. I go alone to the hospital; I go alone to shopping somewhere. If I have an appointment, they help me. They are too kind people.”

LUDY SODERMAN-ROMAN: I really believe that the possibility of brotherhood is not something that is for utopia. I think that it’s something that we can do. And that’s my aspiration—that my brother and sister that comes from Iraq, whether they are Shia or whether they are Sunni, they see in me someone who will hopefully help them ease their arrival to the school district, to the city of Philadelphia, and to their new life.”

SHAM HASSAN: This is where I belong. I feel so much loved and adored. And I feel so much appreciated as well.

Adam Brock reported and produced this story for VOA Learning English. Jonathan Evans was the narrator. Caty Weaver was the script editor.


Words in This Story

resettlev. to begin to live in a new area after leaving an old one

Deash n. Arabic word for the Islamic State militia

cravev. to have a very strong desire for (something)

obstacle n. something that makes it difficult to do something

struggle n. to try very hard to do, achieve, or deal with something that is difficult or that causes problems

severeadj. very bad, serious, or unpleasant

trauma n. a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time

multilingualadj. able to speak and understand several languages

bilingual adj. able to speak and understand two languages

elementn. a particular part of something (such as a situation or activity)

non-profit organizationn. A corporation or an association that conducts business for the benefit of the general public without shareholders and without a profit motive.

confessv. to admit that you did something wrong or illegal

disabledadj. unable to perform one or more natural activities (such as walking or seeing) because of illness, injury, etc.

resilience n. the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens

hijabn. a head covering worn in public by some Muslim women.

“assalamu alaikum” – Arabic for “peace be with you.”

brotherhoodn. feelings of friendship, support, and understanding between people

utopian. an imaginary place in which the government, laws, and social conditions are perfect

aspiration n. something that a person wants very much to achieve

Show comments