Iraqi refugee families resettled locally

By Christine Graf
October 23, 2008

Twenty-four Iraqi refugees have been resettled in southern New Jersey by Catholic Charities, a non-profit faith-based organization.

These Iraqi citizens had fled Iraq and took refuge in neighboring countries like Syria and Lebanon due to the increase of violence and personal threats jeopardizing their lives.

“Our mission is to help all those who are vulnerable and oppressed and refugees certainly are an oppressed target population,” John Marcantuono, director of the Catholic Charities refugee resettlement program, said.

A family of five from Iraq, are one of the families within the Catholic Charities’ refugee program. They arrived in New Jersey, two months ago from Syria where they spent over a year waiting and having meetings with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“We were very surprised and shocked because we were always rejected or on hold. We couldn’t say a word from the happiness,” the father, 55, said about receiving a United States refugee visa.

The family spoke to Loquitur through a translator.

“They were very afraid at first and depressed because it was so different,” May Arzoumanian, coordinator of Catholic Charities’ refugee individual development account program and translator for the interview, said.

An Iraqi has assisted the family with the resettlement processes by finding them an apartment as well as second-hand furniture, bedding and other essentials.

Being from Iraq, she fully understands the challenges that come with relocation. She explains that everything–from the streets, cars, buses and language–is different.

“Iraqi families do not know the language so it is hard to find a job yet,” she said. The only jobs that the father can apply for is along the lines of cleaning and carrying boxes, a far cry from his life in Iraq.

Back in Iraq before the invasion father was able to provide a comfortable living for his family by working for the Iraqi government as an assistant airport pilot. His prestigious position caused him to be targeted by terrorists in his country after the overthrow of the Hussein government.

In 2006, a terrorist kidnapped their only son at the age of 16 and held him captive until a $1 million ransom was paid. While captive, the son received no food or water and was brutally attacked. The family said the captors hammered long nails into his arm and used other torture methods.

“After my son was kidnapped I could not remember anything. All I was concerned about was the fear of losing one of my children,” the mother, 45, said through a translator.

Nine days and over a million dollars later, the son was dumped an hour from their home. The son had to find his own transportation back. The family described their son as covered in bruises, with head trauma and high blood pressure due to malnutrition.

The father explained that after the kidnapping they had nothing left but their house and had to leave even that to seek refuge in neighboring Syria. In Syria the family was safe but not treated as citizens.

“When they were in Syria nobody respected them. They walked with their heads to the floor like they were ashamed they were from Iraq,” she said.

“We came to America because we know there is a future in here,” the daughter, 22, said. “How lucky you are to be in college and have freedom to say whatever you think whether it is right or wrong. I wish to be like you.”

Two of the children are fortunate enough to attend high school in New Jersey, but the eldest daughter’s education has halted. She spent two years working towards her biology degree in Iraq but the unstable environment caused her to leave the country without getting her transcripts. Her dream is to complete her degree and return to Iraq to teach, but that is not possible at this time due to their financial situation.

The family describe leaving Iraq as “both happy and sad.” They miss their lives in Iraq but are grateful for a new beginning in America.

“We came for our children’s future,” the father said.

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Christine Graf

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