The Nasser family lives only a ten-minute walk from Jonathan Edwards College in a shingled, three-family home. Walking up their block, one sees Malik Nasser, a middle school student, playing stoopball with two American friends. Their friendships flow naturally, but Malik, unlike his friends, is one of the many Iraqi refugees who have resettled in New Haven since 2007.

The local operations of IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services) have led to thousands of Iraqi refugees settling in New Haven. The number of Iraqis seeking asylum in Connecticut has historically swelled after periods of great upset: in 1996, there was an influx of Kurds after Saddam Hussein’s persecution of the minority, and from 2007 until now, Iraqi requests for asylum have been approved annually. IRIS welcomes about 215 new clients to New Haven each year but expects more asylum applications from Iraq in the coming years in light of recent violent crises. Malik’s brother, Zaid, wrote in his Common Application personal statement that in Iraq, “our home was full of family but the country was full of war, torn apart over Shiite and Sunni strife. Internal conflict, tyrannical governmental leadership, and the war with Iran were felt in every household, threatening survival.” Zaid’s family left Basra, Iraq in 2002, temporarily lived in Jordan, and arrived in the US in 2012.

Laurel McCormack, Volunteer Coordinator at IRIS, has noted that Iraqis face distinct challenges in resettling. Like all persecuted minorities looking for safety in the west, they experience great culture shocks and language barriers upon immigrating. Social tenets of generosity and trust central to life in Iraq do not manifest similarly in the US, and Iraqi refugees express distrust of their neighbors and of American laws. They have faced a wealth of racism and discrimination, particularly in the decade following the September 11th attacks, but are instructed by IRIS not to retaliate, though such retaliation would be expected in Iraqi culture.

Challenges in resettling and establishing new communities prove more difficult for older Iraqi refugees, straining relationships between generations and creating tensions within families. As with Malik’s family, many Iraqi children and teenagers speak English comfortably, while their parents struggle to learn the language and often do not consistently attend the ESL classes that IRIS provides. Most families continue to speak Arabic at home, and varying levels of fluency in both English and Arabic can breed frustration between parents and children, causing a shift in power dynamics that upsets the familial hierarchies maintained in Iraq.

The Nassers’ resettlement is typical for Iraqi refugees in New Haven, marked by both successes and strife. Malik’s parents are unemployed; his mother is not healthy enough to work, suffering from physical ailments and crippling PTSD from traumas in Iraq, while his father claims to have been looking for a job for two years. Malik’s adult brothers, who do not live with him, work at a local factory and help to support their family. The family’s circumstance may seem bleak, but they are safe, a notion that Amira, Malik’s mother, stresses. They have a small home, stocked with off-brand cookies, sodas, and intricately engraved tea kettles. Malik has many friends at the public school he attends, and Zaid gets good grades in classes like AP Chemistry. He plans to go to college but knows that even completing his applications will be tough. “I wish my parents could help me apply to college. I am trying to do everything by myself—financial aid applications, the Common App. It’s too much,” Zaid said. He struggles with writing in English; grammar and fluency come more naturally to him while he speaks.

The family tries to carve out a community for themselves, but, as Amira laments, their friends are not in New Haven. She speaks fondly of the neighborhood where they lived in Basra, while Zaid, who spent his formative years in Aman, recalls this as a particularly social time. Nevertheless, he says, “the schools were very disorganized, and my classmates were more focused on bullying one another than doing their homework or paying attention in class. Teachers were also difficult to connect to; unlike American teachers, they hit students who misbehave. And their lessons were not as rigorous as those in the United States. For example, I studied English for nine years in Jordan but didn’t learn verb conjugations until my first week in America.” Zaid values the education he receives in the US above all else, but he echoes his mother’s sentiment that he is sometimes lonely.

Malik’s family lives in close proximity to some of the other hundreds of Iraqi refugees resettling in New Haven through IRIS. IRIS purposely helps set refugees up in homes near others from their country of origin, but that unfortunately has not created a close Iraqi community for all. Leyla, an Iraqi refugee in her fifties, and her adult daughter, Shada moved to New Haven in 2011 but have made little progress in involving themselves in the New Haven community. They express surprise at the difficulties they have faced in accessing services in the US, particularly those pertaining to health care, and discomfort in a society that regards women differently than in Iraq. The two women still do not feel comfortable going out alone. Once, when Leyla saw a doctor, he asked her questions about her menstrual cycle through a translator that made her so uncomfortable she was brought to tears.

Leyla and Shada, originally from Baghdad, are Christian Iraqis and thus feel culturally and politically distant from the majority group of Iraqi Muslims. The two women, who had preexisting anxiety disorders, have had a difficult time adjusting to life in America, which serves to further strain them emotionally. Both are too sick to work, speak English poorly, and do not regularly attend ESL classes provided by IRIS. They face great financial difficulties, often failing to meet the costs of their heating and electricity bills. Piles of paperwork necessary to gain disability and health care benefits are confusing and daunting, but the two women do try to fill them out with the help of volunteers though the Yale Refugee Project.

The two sometimes socialize with other Iraqi refugees placed in the multiple-family house where they live, and the women also befriended the Syrian owners of a Middle Eastern grocery store in Hamden, Connecticut. In fact, Shada married one of the men who owns this store, but after he wordlessly handed her divorce papers a year later, she spiraled into a depression so severe that now she rarely leaves her room. The women have been prescribed antidepressants, but they still lack access to services that can more thoroughly address their mental illnesses. Fortunately, they have found some human contact through the church they attend and have casual friendships with both Christian and Muslim Iraqis.

“There are clear social divides between refugees of different nationalities,” McCormack says, and divides exist further within the Iraqi population. Though Iraqis are not as stringently divided based on Sunni, Shiite, Christian, and Kurdish affiliations as they are in Iraq, these same loyalties still hold, with some exceptions. The lifestyles of Iraqi Muslims are more similar to one another than with Christian Iraqis, and there are more Arabic Muslim worship communities than there are Christian Arabic-speaking communities in New Haven. Many religious Iraqis maintain their observances in New Haven, joining Arabic worship communities and upholding religious tenets pertaining to dress and diet. While refugees often work in the food sector, this poses challenges to religious customs that forbid the handling of alcohol and require one to stop working to pray multiple times a day.

Family unification is paramount for Iraqi refugees, a priority that has become even more urgent as the country’s instability has grown. Malik’s family was fortunate and rare to have traveled together throughout their asylum process. A year after Leyla and Shada arrived in New Haven, Leyla’s son, Raheem, joined them, with another son arriving a year later. Only a month before Raheem was granted refugee status in the US, he was injured in a terrorist attack on a Christian church in July 2013 after he had recently requested asylum based on religious persecution. Leyla’s daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren joined soon after. The family struggles to find space and comfort in their small apartment within a multiple-family house, but they are grateful to have been reunited over the span of three years.

Familial separation was the largest complicating factor in their resettlement, and it unfortunately persists. Leyla’s last son is currently in Jordan and has not yet heard back regarding his application for asylum, which he filed at around the same time as the rest of his family members. Leyla speaks of him often, and his limbo status, compounded with ISIS’ power, prevents her from sleeping at night.

Much of the psychosocial suffering that Iraqi refugees experience traces back to distrust of US laws—many fear arrest and thus the prospect of forced repatriation, especially harrowing given recent ISIS terror campaigns. At this time, Malik’s family is especially grateful to have their nuclear family safely in New Haven, regardless of the psychological, social, and financial challenges of their current circumstance. When asked about current political turmoil in Iraq, Malik’s mother grew tearful, kneading her hands. She lamented that it is difficult to be away from home but vows that she will never go back; her sons share this sentiment but do not feel it with the same poignancy. Having only spent their early years in Basra, they view Iraq with a greater degree of removal—they have not suffered similarly under its repressive regimes, but also hold fewer fond memories from the country.

Leyla echoes Amira’s feelings for Iraq—she describes it as a place ravaged by a bad government from which all good people have fled. The violence sustained in Iraq inevitably continues to affect the Iraqi refugees in New Haven who spent most of their lives there. Instead of investing in social lives in New Haven, many spend their days watching Iraqi television, obsessing over news in the Middle East, and lamenting that New Haven does not live up to the romantic ideals they held about life in the US.

Resettlement is surely difficult, but, Zaid states, “I did not know what it meant to really live, to invest myself in my future until I came to the United States.” “For so long, my family has dreamed of leading other lives. We envisioned peaceful, happy lives, lives full of opportunity and stability, friends and community.” Perhaps they are not there yet, but with even greater terror looming in Iraq, Zaid and many other Iraqi refugees are grateful to have positioned themselves to best pursue improved lives.

*All names have been changed to respect the privacies of Iraqi refugees

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