Building Little Baghdad

Against strong odds, and despite an ungrateful U.S. government, Iraqi refugees carve out a community in Dallas–Fort Worth.

| July-August 2010

Building Little Baghdad Image

Jen Reel / Texas Observer

Amira Matsuda spends every day driving around the Dallas–Fort Worth area in her black Lexus SUV, visiting Iraqi refugee families, sipping Arabic coffee, and listening to their problems. In one of the country’s largest Iraqi refugee communities, it seems that she knows everyone, and everyone knows her. Officially, she’s president of the Iraqi American Association of North Texas. Unofficially, she has a full-time, unpaid job as roving ambassador and problem solver for the area’s fledgling Little Baghdad.

The United States has offered refuge to tens of thousands of Iraqis. And that’s about all the country, or the state of Texas, has offered. In the Dallas–Fort Worth area, established Muslims are working to keep refugees from falling through the cracks, and their efforts are attracting growing numbers of Iraqis to the area. “I think there’s a lot more coming because they know we’re providing this assistance,” says Aisha Waheed, refugee coordinator at the American Islamic Center of Dallas. “There are very few cities that provide the continuous work that we do.”

Matsuda, who heads the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation and helped form the Iraqi association in late 2008, is one of many pillars of this emerging community’s structure. The five-year-old foundation has doled out more than $80,000 since its inception. The association does not have outside funding; its members reach into their own pockets. “On a personal level,” Matsuda says, “we take [Iraqi refugees] shopping to cover their basic needs, pay some of their utility bills, rent, collect donated furniture from our community, and distribute it to those who need it.” Matsuda also provides legal advice, translations, and help finding employment.

She is helping at least 150 Iraqi households and receives calls, she says, “at all hours.”

Matsuda was never a refugee, but she understands what it’s like to move to a new country, to not speak the language, to not know anyone. Born and raised in Iraq, she married a Japanese businessman and moved to Japan before settling in Texas 23 years ago. Helping people, she says, makes her “sleep happy.”

Matsuda can sleep happy for a long time to come. In the past year, Texas saw an 85 percent increase in official refugee arrivals. “We’re still reeling from it all,” says Caitriona Lyons, the Texas State Refugee Resettlement Program coordinator. National voluntary agencies have redirected to Texas refugees who otherwise might have gone to Michigan, a popular destination, or other economically troubled states. Between 2006 and 2009, 2,822 Iraqis officially resettled in Texas. Thousands more are on the way.