Refugees Find Oakland Can Be Worse than Iraq
January 14, 2012
Jordan Gerstler-Holton / Special to The Chronicle
Since the start of the Iraq war, nearly 60,000 Iraqi refugees have settled in the United States. Oakland has a long history of hosting immigrants from around the world. Affordable housing and an accepting, multicultural society make the city a great place for refugees. Unfortunately, the city also has one of the country's highest crime rates, according to federal statistics and other studies. Many Iraqi refugees living in Oakland have been robbed, beaten or shot and now say they felt safer in Iraq.
OAKLAND, CA (December 28, 2011) -- After the Iraq war broke out, Ghazwan Al-Sharif went to work translating for the U.S. military -- a job that paid well but subjected his family to repeated violence, including a brutal attack on his sister.
Scared for his life, Al-Sharif accepted the government's offer to come to America as a refugee, one of thousands relocated to this country since the war began. In June 2008, he moved in with two other Iraqi refugees, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood -- a situation arranged by the nonprofit International Rescue Committee.
It wasn't long before Al-Sharif said he learned that there were parts of Oakland where violence rivals what he escaped in Iraq.
One night, he decided to walk home alone. Two men attacked him, bashing him in the face with a metal object and robbing him of some money, his cell phone and his ID. He was left screaming on the ground, his face gushing blood.
He said the police never identified his attackers.
Al-Sharif, 40, is one of more than 50 Iraqi refugees who have been moved to East Oakland by the International Rescue Committee. The nonprofit's officials say they won't settle refugees in unsafe neighborhoods, but Al-Sharif and dozens of other Iraqis blame the organization for exposing them to an unfamiliar type of violence -- one perpetrated by gangs rather than political militants.
Al-Sharif admitted it wasn't smart for him to walk home alone at night. And committee officials say they warned Al-Sharif, and all refugees the group resettles, to heed safety precautions.
The nonprofit's officials say they've distributed flyers on safety issues, stepped up efforts to work with local police and no longer place refugees in jobs with swing and graveyard shifts. The group has stopped placing refugees in Fruitvale and other of Oakland's most dangerous neighborhoods, although some refugees continue to live in these areas. Al-Sharif has since moved to San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood.
Like many of his fellow Bay Area refugees, Al-Sharif does not believe the International Rescue Committee has done enough. "Why are you putting them in Oakland and letting them suffer?" he said, referring to his fellow refugees. "I want to be safe.... I can find work and manage to survive, but I need to be safe."
Oakland as Refuge
Oakland has a long history of hosting immigrants from around the world. Affordable housing, easy access to city services, efficient transportation such as BART, and an accepting, multicultural society make the city a great place for refugees, said rescue committee spokeswoman Melissa Winkler.
But the nonprofit receives only $1,800 in federal funding to provide each refugee with housing, employment and other basic needs. That doesn't go far in the Bay Area, and refugees are expected to be financially self-sufficient within four months.
That's why the IRC chose to resettle many of them in Oakland, where housing is often inexpensive.
"It's key for us to ensure that refugees are able to keep paying their bills after the financial support ends," said Don Climent, who used to head the now-dissolved San Francisco chapter.
Unfortunately, the city also has one of the country's highest crime rates, according to federal statistics and other studies.
Beth Schlachter, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the State Department, said government guidelines for relocating refugees don't consider crime rates. The requirements for "decent, safe and sanitary housing," she said, extend only "from the apartment itself to the building or apartment complex they're living in."
Since the start of the Iraq war, nearly 60,000 Iraqi refugees have settled in the United States, including almost 14,000 in California.
Some Iraqi refugees, such as Harith Al-Kaiate, 47, consider safety a matter of personal responsibility. An auto mechanic from Baghdad, his family resettled in the Fruitvale area in January 2010. Al-Kaiate dismisses Oakland's crime as normal for big American cities, and he doesn't regret coming to the city. He's happy with its familiar climate, urban lifestyle, easy access to public schooling, and the fact that he was able to find work.
"There are a lot of places you shouldn't be," he said, adding that criminals have never targeted him, his wife or his three children. Even so, he hasn't forgotten the time a nighttime gunfight near his home left his car, which was parked outside, riddled with bullets. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Ragheed Abdulameer, 32, another recent arrival, blames himself for being robbed at gunpoint earlier this year just a few blocks from his home at East 24th Street and 14th Avenue. "I made the mistake of not looking around before getting into my car," he said. "Now I know better."
Yet not all refugees agree. One of Abdulameer's friends has yet to bring his wife and children from Iraq, believing they're safer in Basra. The friend declined to be interviewed or identified for this article, saying he fears retaliation from federal authorities and the rescue committee.
More than a dozen Iraqi refugees who have been resettled in Oakland say they live in varying degrees of fear. "Had I known about this place, I'd never have agreed to come," said Oday Fatah, 33, who comes from near Baghdad and lived in a building on the 3400 block of 12th Avenue until a few months ago.
Hard to Move
It isn't easy for refugees to move to safer areas, particularly in the first few months after they've arrived. That's because under the resettlement program, refugees who refuse to accept their "assigned U.S. destination" or move to another location may not receive "the same level of services and/or cash assistance," according to the State Department.
This was confirmed by Husam Abdulkhaleq, lead therapist at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn, Mich. When refugees move away from where resettlement agencies "want them to be," he said, they lose federally funded benefits, often their only income in those first few months.
Then there are obstacles that remain after the government assistance runs out.
Most refugees earn around minimum wage, which can make it difficult to save the money for a deposit on a new apartment. Even if a refugee can find the money, their nonexistent credit histories discourage landlords.
"So the only solution for you is to get beaten or mugged and then you can get out," quipped Al-Sharif, who says he became depressed and attempted suicide after he was mugged. His condition persuaded the International Rescue Committee to help relocate him to San Francisco. The rescue committee agreed to move another refugee and his family after he was shot multiple times in a drive-by shooting outside a Fruitvale mini-mart earlier this year, Climent said.
It's nearly impossible to be accepted as an Iraqi refugee to the United States, which means the ones who do make it almost certainly suffered horrendous trauma in their home country. "They've survived, and they've come to the U.S. to start a new life, and if you settle them in an environment like that, you bring back all these things," Abdulkhaleq said.
E-mail Jordan Gerstler-Holton at email@example.com.
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