Building Little Baghdad

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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.

Smiling broadly, Muhammad Haji opens the door to his Dallas-area apartment. A gargantuan donated television playing cartoons takes up most of the living room. Haji’s three kids scramble up from the carpet and start talking all at once, in perfect English–they’ve picked up the language in just a year. Haji’s wife, Payman, brings out tiny cups of Arabic coffee.

The Haji parents’ English is limited, so Matsuda helps translate, filling in the gaps with her own knowledge of the family. Like millions of others, the Hajis fled Iraq during the “sectarian violence”–Iraqis call it the civil war. They landed in Turkey in early 2007 and stayed for a year. Haji says they were treated well, but Turkey will not absorb refugees; Iraqis must go to a third country or return home. When the U.N. asked where the family would like to go, Haji made the United States his first choice. “I needed to see it,” he says.

In January 2008 the family resettled in Milwaukee, but the Hajis felt isolated–and cold. They came to Dallas looking for a larger Iraqi community and warmer climes. They assumed refugee assistance would follow them, but they were no longer eligible for the Department of State resettlement funds they had received in Milwaukee. When the family reached Dallas, Haji says, Refugee Services of Texas, a nonprofit agency, said it would find them an apartment within three days. The Hajis stayed with another Iraqi family. Three days passed, then 10, then 18. Their hosts called Refugee Services and said it wasn’t their job to take care of the Hajis.

For a week longer, the Hajis moved from house to house, but they finally wore out all welcomes. The family found themselves on the street, sitting at a gas station with nowhere to go. Haji called Refugee Services from the pay phone: “Help us, or I will call the police,” he said. The group finally found them an apartment–albeit in a complex with, the Hajis say, drug deals going down next door. Carol Roxburgh, the executive director of Refugee Services of Texas, says the Hajis were not officially transferred from their agency in Milwaukee to Dallas, so they “broke their contract” and were not eligible for housing. Given the circumstances, Roxburgh says, “We went above and beyond to help them the best we could without any funding.”

In Iraq, the Hajis did not live a high-class lifestyle. Muham­mad was a barber. But there was more social security there, he says, at least before the war. He is stunned by the indifference with which he was met in the United States. In Turkey, “Everyone helped,” he says. In America, “You come to my country as a refugee,” he says, speaking in English, wanting to make sure he’s understood, and “after one month, I don’t help you.”

Muhammad at least has Matsuda, whom he calls his “big sister.” She won’t say what she has given to the Hajis, citing a Muslim maxim: “Not even the left hand can know what the right hand gives to charity.”

The Hajis have needed plenty of help. After a year in Dallas, Muhammad has found only part-time work in a kitchen, and Payman picks up babysitting shifts here and there.

Matsuda has heard stories like the Hajis’ scores of times. “Many organizations were very unacceptable in how they treated Iraqi families here,” Matsuda says. But blame for the plight of families like the Hajis cannot be placed solely on the backs of local or state agencies. The policies, the source of the problem, are made in Washington.

After the Iraq war began, there was barely a trickle of Iraqi refugees into the United States. Only 202 people out of the millions who flowed across Iraq’s borders during the civil conflicts of 2006 had been allowed to resettle here.

Meanwhile, Iraqis working for the U.S. military and defense contractors were under threat. In response, Congress passed Senator Ted Kennedy’s Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, which created more slots for Iraqis in danger because of U.S. affiliations. Many come straight from Baghdad, others from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. In 2009 about 19,000 resettled in America, and 17,000 more are expected this year.

At the same time we’re inviting more Iraqis to resettle, government support for political refugees has dwindled. In 1980 refugees received three years of assistance. Over time, cash assistance from the government has been whittled down to eight months maximum, and the time refugees go without income has widened. The Texas Department of Health and Human Services reports that, on average, refugees take five to six months to find employment in Texas. Waheed, the Islamic center’s refugee coordinator, says that in Dallas, most Iraqis wait at least a year.

All Iraqi refugees have one thing in common: They endured life in wartime. In 2008 the U.N. refugee agency found that among 754 Iraqi refugees in Syria, every person had experienced at least one traumatic event before fleeing. Eighty percent reported witnessing a shooting. Sixty-eight percent said they’d been interrogated, harassed, or received death threats from militias or other groups.

Every Iraqi family Waheed works with in Dallas has suffered something, she says: legs or arms lost in bomb blasts, histories of rape, burnings, not to mention grief, anger, and depression.

Behind a black metal gate in a rough Dallas neighborhood, the American Islamic Center is an anonymous building with beige siding and no sign. Yet it’s the hub of the emerging Little Baghdad.

The center is one of the few places in Dallas where Muslim refugees find financial help and something arguably more important: a sense that they’re not on this strange journey alone. Nearly all the Iraqi families interviewed for this story say they feel isolated in America. Neighbors don’t say hello or “welcome.” A post-9/11 distrust, they believe, lingers. Iraqis often feel feared here.

Not in the center. In the foyer, shoes are scattered in piles that lead to a prayer room. It’s Friday afternoon, and the sermon begins soon. Kids play on the carpet inside as folks chat on the back patio with the center’s director, Cindy Weber.

Yasein Ibrahim, a portly man, stands on crutches. In 2006 he was injured in a Baghdad bomb blast. His wife, Fozia, has since been the provider for the family of seven. She’s found no steady employment since the family arrived in Dallas 15 months ago. They receive $650 per month from Catholic Charities of Dallas. That barely covers their rent. For other necessities, they come to Weber and the center. “No one truly believes until he likes for his brother what he likes for himself,” Weber says, reciting an Islamic maxim. Giving to the poor is one of the five pillars of Islam.

It is called zakat, the giving of alms. All Muslims must give at least 2.5 percent of their wealth to the poor each year. “The highest people in Islam are the most needy,” says refugee coordinator Waheed, who works with Weber at the center. “We call those people miskeen. When we do a good act, it brings them toward us.”

Through the center, the Muslim community offers rental assistance, furniture donations, even cars. From food drives, they are able to buy groceries for 20 families each week. The center has a free weekend school, English classes, and a prayer room.

Though for some the center can make the difference between being homeless and being housed, Weber says she sometimes feels ashamed to tell Iraqi refugees what she can help them with. That’s especially true, she says, for those who risked their lives for this country–some of the approximately 100,000 Iraqis who worked for the United States. “It’s like our troops coming back,” she says, “and what do we have to offer them? It’s almost embarrassing that there’s hardly anything we can do for them.”

Little Baghdad is still largely invisible, spread out across slum apartment buildings and middle-class developments. When the community emerges, one of its anchors will probably be Salah al Bagdadi.

At Zituna World Food Market in Richardson, Salah wears a baker’s toque. He was a reform activist during Saddam’s regime, and when his life was threatened, he left Iraq and lived in Yemen and Jordan. When his permit ran out in Jordan, he was imprisoned. In 2008 he was offered resettlement to the United States. He hesitated. He imagined marauders drinking in the streets and the corruption of his daughters.

Salah had little choice but to come. For four months, he didn’t get his Social Security card and could not look for work. That bad patch is over, but things are hardly comfortable. “There is a certain standard I refuse to live under,” Salah says. “If I have extra money, I buy whatever I can for the house . . . to keep my dignity.” His wife, Haifa, is working as a hairdresser, and his daughter is a cashier in the salon.

With three wage earners, the family is able to scrape by. When he talks to his brother back home, Salah tells him it’s not that bad in the United States.

It took seven months, but Salah found a job doing the work he loves. He once owned pastry shops in Iraq and Yemen. Now he’s baking in the Arabic grocery where he works. Though he’s been there only two months, the growing Iraqi community is buying up his flatbread and pastries. It won’t be long before they need a bakery of their own.

Excerpted from The Texas Observer (March 5, 2010), a truth-telling nonprofit biweekly that should be the envy of every

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