When the Hassoon family left Baghdad for New Haven in late August, they carried little from a house that Fatima Al Yasari, Amer Hassoon’s wife, described as “big” and “new” in tentative English. The other adjectives that might adorn the description are locked in Arabic characters and fading memories. She spoke with an unreadable smile, wistful and shy, from the worn armchair in the single story apartment on Fountain Street where she and Amer now live as refugees with their five children.
I first arrived in the Hassoon’s sparsely furnished living room about a month after they did, equipped with just a few Arabic phrases from an intro class at Yale. Fellow volunteer Justin Schuster and I were paired with them through the Yale Refugee Project, an organization that connects refugee families to student volunteers who can help them practice English and navigate life in New Haven.
The whole family had filed into the living room, as they would every week. Fatima and Mohammed, a three- month-old born just two weeks after their arrival, were quiet that day as Amer showed us certificates and letters of recommendation from his service in the U.S. Army in Iraq that praised his competence and dependability in terms he clearly understood, even if he couldn’t read them.
The situation was ostensibly tragic, but Saturday visits were fun: Amer joking about past presidents from Yale — Clinton he liked, Bush he didn’t — and later, when I tried (and failed) to fix the TV, pretending to be shocked by a cable. Before Halloween, Lana, a kindergartener, carved a pumpkin with a grin as wide as hers. Omar, a seventh grader, got excited about Spain’s chances in the World Cup and raced Noor, a fifth grader with wide eyes and quick movements, to guess English vocabulary. We communicated often in a sort of charades.
I quickly grew attached to the Hassoons, though the language barrier and the fear of asking anything too painful kept us a peculiar sort of strangers, and it was weeks before I heard any more about their home in Iraq. There was no other work in Baghdad when the U.S. Army hired Amer in 2006. Working as a sort of handyman, he made friends with the American officers he met and acquired the English he needed to do his duties. The job turned out to both support the Hassoons and uproot them — it ended in an anti-American terrorist threat that forced them to apply to the United Nations for refugee status.
After visiting a friend in the army in Portland, Oregon a few years ago, Amer had his sights set on moving to the Northwest, but refugees can’t choose their resettlement site, not even the country, unless they can demonstrate a tie to family or close friends. It was availability and chance that assigned the Hassoons to a rundown neighborhood in New Haven, a city that Amer is eager to leave. Their apartment was the best that New Haven’s refugee resettlement agency, Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), could provide with resources spread among 200 relocated families each year, explained Deputy Director Kelly Hebrank.
IRIS is notified two weeks, sometimes less, before each refugee is scheduled to arrive, and has just enough time to find housing and basic provisions for the refugee and his or her family. They meet them with an interpreter at the train station, and give them a tour and a hot home-cooked meal. The next day, without ceremony, the long process of resettlement begins: orientations on everything from the American legal system to domestic violence workshops, appointments for physical and mental health exams, enrollment in school, and English classes for four hours a day. After just a few weeks, refugees are referred to employment services and are expected to start work — often battling not only language barriers but also physical and mental handicaps and little job training, which proves especially limiting for women who have never worked outside the home. IRIS commits to covering basic needs like food, clothing and transport for about six months, until funding dries up.
“It’s a small amount of money for a short period of time. It’s a race against the clock for them to become self- sufficient,” Hebrank said.
This is how it goes for the lucky ones. Less than 1% of all refugees are resettled each year and the U.S. accepts more applicants than all other countries combined, with an ever- increasing influx each year from the Middle East. The Hassoons are just seven of the 2.3 million Iraqi refugees who have settled in the U.S., second only to Afghanis, who make up almost a third of American resettlements.
“The American public has this image of Africans walking across the desert with belongings on their heads, but more and more are made up of urban refugees because they’re unsafe. Not all of them are coming from camps,” Hebrank said.
In fact, many Iraqis come from big, new homes like the Hassoons, leaving careers in the U.S. Army, or jobs as teachers or engineers, in exchange for safety. According to Hebrank, the influx was only amplified by misinformation that started around 2008 that led many Iraqis to expect equally comfortable accommodations after resettlement.
“If they need a root canal [in Iraq], they can walk into an office and get one without an appointment and for a relatively low cost. They don’t get why they have to wait four months here and it costs a thousand dollars,” Hebrank said.
Every week Amer asks us to stay longer and come back sooner. He is frustrated, almost to tears sometimes, at the slowness with which the English words come to him, and the difficulty of finding the kind of intensive help he and his family need. To me, they are learning impossibly quickly. When Omar greets me with a fist bump and a “What’s up,” his accent fades a little more each week. He and Noor race a little faster to answer our questions in English. We act out fewer and fewer words from their homework. Fatima and Amer are learning too, but their first priority is helping their children understand enough to access an education that would have been impossible back home. There is new growth here where there were ruins in Baghdad, a place Amer once told me was “empty” and full of people who were “just tired.” It is not generalizable, but Fatima tells me she thinks America is “a country that helps people when they need it.”
At the end of the day, refugee resettlement is not a part of the story of American imperialism, and, in turn, it is not the fairytale of the American dream. Refugee resettlement is 10.5 million big, new houses that are lost to war and it is 10.5 million tiny apartments that are temporary homes — one for each resettled family. It is taking on jobs that lead to death threats. It is a free and fair education taught in an alphabet with different letters. Refugee resettlement is separated families and new friendships, and it is a few people in vast and uncontrollable nations who help each other when they can — even though it is not enough.
It is the way Fatima learns to bake pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, and it is the first batch of hummus she makes in her new kitchen. It is the way Omar’s whole face lights up as he spots us through the living room curtains and the friends Amer is off visiting in New York. It is the life Mohammed will live.