skip navigation
Support KUOW

Recession Hard On Refugees In Washington

Carolyn Beeler

Noaman Azat and his family came to Seattle as refugees last year. It's been nine months, but still no one in the Iraqi family has found work. "People told us that few years ago, before the recession started, there were a lot of opportunities for people like us, but unfortunately we are now suffering from this issue," says Noaman. Non–profits who help people like Noaman say the government's resettlement policies are outdated. And the shortfalls in the system are made worse by the recession.


Noaman, his wife and three children live in a small, spare apartment in Tukwila. Sixteen–year–old Miriam and 19–year–old Reem are squeezed into the same bedroom as their 21–year–old brother.

Miriam: "Two computers, one desk, one chair — oh, three beds, sorry — and, we always study here, each one on his bed."

Beeler: "How do you like sharing a room with two other people?"

Reem: "Um, it kind of sucks."

Their brother Ali is studying engineering at a local community college. Sharing a room makes it hard for him to study.

Ali: "I had my own room in Baghdad and my own room in Jordan, so it's kind of a big difference for me to share a room with my sisters."

Reem: "He hates us to share a room with him."

Miriam: "We talk too much we're always like 'blah, blah, blah.' We're just trying to find work and then maybe, take a house maybe?"

Their father knew getting started in America would be tough because of the recession. But he didn't know just how bad it would be.

Azat: "We thought that being a well–educated family, we will get a good opportunity to be a benefit to the society here. And you know, we can cope with it, but we didn't actually imagine that the recession is that strong."

Noaman's family's situation is typical of what many refugees in Washington state are facing right now. That's according to Bob Johnson. He directs the International Rescue Committee in Seattle. Johnson has worked with refugees for more than 30 years. He says this is the worst it's ever been for new arrivals.

Johnson: "This last downturn has really been sort of the perfect storm. One reason is that the US increased the number of refugees coming to the US this fiscal year. And of course the economy is taking a nosedive, so when you have larger numbers and fewer jobs it sort of doesn't work too well."

Before they're allowed into the US, refugees must prove they'd face persecution if they returned to their home countries. Noaman and his family fled for their lives from Baghdad. In 2006, he was working with a contractor that sold pre–fabricated houses to the American forces. As violence there escalated, Noaman began to get anonymous phone threats.

Azat: "The first one, they ask an engineer that was a friend of me, they told him we saw you talking to him and we want his address. And he called me at night and he told me 'you better move.' The next time I get a call from them and they said that they will reach me. After that, I felt that it is very dangerous because we started to find bodies in the streets. And we moved out, we left our home."

Beeler: "Can you tell me about that moving?"

Azat: "We just rent a car and we moved to Jordan, saying that we are going to stay there for a few days, but I know we were not going to return back."

In Iraq, Noaman worked as an IT consultant. He has a degree in English literature from a university in Baghdad. Here in Seattle, he's applying for entry–level sales positions, or whatever he can get.

Azat: "I had to start from the beginning. I worked in the nearest past as a consultant for the mayor of Baghdad, and this is a very senior job, but I can't of course ask for such a post here. I am looking for much lower now, but without success."

Noaman has applied to more than a hundred jobs, but he's landed only two interviews. He wrote to Seattle's mayor, offering to serve as a liaison between Seattle and cities in the Middle East. He visited the Amazon headquarters, hoping to pitch a business idea.

Still, no leads.

Courtney Madsen say's that's frustrating but not surprising. She's the case manager who helped settle Noaman's family when they first arrived. She says about two years ago the companies that usually hire refugees just stopped.

Madsen: "It really felt like there were a lot of able–bodied, capable people with good language skills that just were not finding jobs. Whereas in the past it would have taken just, you know, it was more about timing. Here it didn't matter. It just didn't matter how good their English was, you just knew they weren't going to get a job for a long time unless a miracle happened."

Bob Johnson of the International Rescue Committee confirms that it's a lot harder now for refugees to get work. He says this recession is particularly bad for refugees because other support available to them has been decreasing.

The US refugee program started in 1980. Back then, single adult refugees got 36 months of cash assistance from the federal government. Now, Johnson says that only lasts for eight months.

Johnson: "The eight months is really a very insufficient period of time for somebody to learn English, learn a job skill and find employment in a normal economy, but in a down economy it's almost impossible, and that's sort of what we're facing now, and that's why it's more of a crisis now than it ever has been."

Johnson says the federal refugee resettlement program needs to be updated.

Johnson: "The main problem is that it's a system that was developed in 1980, from the Refugee Act of 1980. So it was a legislation for a different period of time dealing with different groups of refugees. There's been very little change over the year other than the cutbacks in the length of time refugees receive cash assistance."

When the legislation was written in 1980, most of the refugees coming to Washington were from Southeast Asia. Many spoke the same languages and quickly formed support networks.

Johnson:"Now we have a huge diversity of refugees coming from many parts of the world, and so it's a much more complex mix, more difficult to provide interpreters, deal with their different social issues and so forth. All of that requires a real overall look at the program."

A more recent policy change has decreased the number of refugees coming to Seattle who already have family here. Case manager Courtney Madsen says she's had to give those new arrivals without any family a lot more attention.

Madsen:"When that program ended, it completely changed my job. Before we could ask the family members to help them with basic stuff like applying for social security cards, taking them to their first doctor's appointments — now we have to do all of that, and so we have to focus a lot more on the even more basic needs."

Noaman doesn't need that kind of help. He just wants a job. And he feels like he won't really belong here until he has one.

Azat:"I mean how can I contribute to this society, to this community who were so good to us so far without being able to give them something."

Noaman feels responsible for bringing his family here and not being able to support them. But despite all the waiting, despite all the uncertainty, he says he's not giving up on his new home.

Azat:"Without hope you can't live. I have, I have to be a symbol for the rest and encourage them that we will make it in the end. So I have to keep optimistic and keep smiling and keep trying. This is the only option I have."

For KUOW News, I'm Carolyn Beeler.

© Copyright 2010, KUOW