Source: The Progressive Magazine
NABEEL USED TO WORK FOR the Americans in Iraq. He was a security team leader for the Research Triangle Institute, a U.S. contractor that was paid more than half-a-billion dollars to run “local governance programs” throughout the country. He survived three car-bombing attempts. “I was lucky,” he says nonchalantly.
But as GIs began to exit Iraq in 2011, he knew that his luck would not last. Nabeel says that some guys threatened him: “We will kill your son. We will get revenge when the Americans leave Iraq.” Nabeel didn’t need much more encouragement, given the collapse of public services that had made life arduous, so he applied for a special immigration visa for Iraqis employed on behalf of the U.S. government. With his family, he immigrated to El Cajon, California, in July 2011.
He expected a warm welcome and a decent standard of living for helping the war effort.
“When I came to the United States, I thought I would be better than the prime minister in Iraq,” recalls Nabeel. “Now, I am jealous of the street cleaner.”
Six friends of his nod in agreement. They are sitting in a sparsely furnished office in El Cajon, a city of 101,000 residents east of San Diego. The door says Babylon Design and Printing, but they jokingly call it the “Babylon coffee shop.” Outside, palm trees stand still in the damp night air. Inside hang oil paintings of Middle Eastern marketplaces and rural life.
All seven knew each other in Babil province, south of Baghdad. All worked for U.S. contractors. All escaped Iraq because of threats and the collapse of public services. Now, however, all are unhappy, most are jobless, and some wish they had never left Iraq despite the violence and chaos.
Also in the office are Ahmad Talib and Huda Al-Jabiri. They fled Iraq in the late ’90s, and spent five days walking without food to the Iranian border while Huda was eight months pregnant. The couple is employed as social workers resettling refugees. Ahmad says he is aware of five families who came to El Cajon recently and returned to Iraq.
“Many of the older generation want to go back,” Ahmad says. “This is not their culture. They have friends, families, memories in Iraq. One said, ‘If I am killed by a suicide bomber, I die once. Here in America, I die every day. I struggle with rent, I struggle with language, I struggle with work.’ ”
By one measure, the seven friends are fortunate. Out of a sea of four million Iraqis displaced since 2003, a relative trickle of 85,000 has been admitted to the United States. From 2003 to 2006, the United States accepted a mere 735 Iraqi refugees. Only after the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act became law in January 2008 did the United States start letting in a significant number of Iraqis.
While Michigan has a larger population of Iraqi descent, El Cajon is the top destination for this round of refugees partly because the State Department has discouraged refugees from settling in the economically depressed Detroit area. Professor John Weeks, a demographer at San Diego State University, estimates that the Iraqi population in San Diego County has swelled by an average of 400 a month since 2008, and El Cajon is now almost one-third Iraqi American.
But new refugees often encounter a rude awakening. The city’s poverty rate is 23 percent, and the unemployment rate at the end of 2012 was 11 percent. Moreover, El Cajon is still trying to live down its tag as the “meth capital of the world,” and it retains a hard-bitten feel evidenced by a robbery rate 50 percent above the national average.