For Iraqi Refugees in America, the Recession Makes It Even Harder to Find Jobs

It has never been easy for refugees to start a new life in America. But Iraqis are really struggling.

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Murphy estimates that the majority of the Iraqi refugees at her office are living below the poverty level, compared with 1 in 5 Michigan residents.

"They're starting to say to their families, 'Go anywhere but the United States,' because the economy here is bad," she says. "I've heard people saying that if you can get to Europe, go, because you may or may not succeed here."

In California, conditions also are worsening. A weekly food bank for refugees at the Los Angeles IRIS office had about 65 people coming when it started nine months ago, Decker says. Now, 120 to 130 show up each week. Some have to be turned away.

The total amount of money that each refugee receives upon arriving in the United States is between $425 and $450—a stipend to defray initial costs of rent, transportation, food, and other necessities. Some get additional monthly benefits. Ateyah's family—including his wife, who is unemployed, and their two daughters, ages 2 and 4—receives $598 per month. But these benefits usually end after the first few months. Employment, therefore, is crucial.

Also key are the other benefits that resettlement agencies provide. To help refugees begin their new lives, the agencies give them everything from pots and pans to mattresses on arrival. The agencies themselves receive $450 to $475 per refugee from the government to defray administrative costs, a sum that remains the same whether the agency is in Los Angeles or Milwaukee.

Therefore, they say, they depend on private donations to provide for their clients. And those are down in resettlement offices across the country. Decker estimates that at her office, they've fallen 50 percent from last year. "I'm in a panic about how to find resources," she says, especially as she's been told to expect at least 200 more refugees next year than this year.

All of these difficulties are frustrating for refugees like Ateyah, who, he said, were given a different story before they came to the United States.

"In Jordan, they told us another thing: that you will be very welcome, you are a victim of the world, and we will start to put a new life for you; you will find a job as a doctor," he says.

That dream hasn't crystallized yet, but he's hoping it will.

"Sorry, I am not one of people who wants to stay home and get benefits and do the cooking," he says. "No, no, no." 

  • Read more about Iraqi refugees.