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Starting Over: Eight Months For Refugees To Get Settled

When you have nothing, eight months isn't a whole lot of time to get your financial house in order. But for refugees coming to the U.S. that's exactly the amount of time they have to find a job, and get settled in a new country.

But in a down economy, resettlement agencies are finding it hard to help refugees find work. This week we're focusing on the struggles refugees face as the economy falters.

Reporter Sadie Babits produced a three part series called Starting Over. She begins with this profile of an Iraqi family who's been in this country for only a few months.

Khaled Wali sinks back into the cushions of his used couch. His children — all eight of them — squish together to fit on the nearby sofa.

 Khaled Wali
Khaled Wali
Starting Over: Refugees In A Down Economy
Audio Slideshow

They watch their dad as he tells the story of the family's journey from war torn Iraq to Boise, Idaho.

Khaled Wali/Adel Muhammad Muhammad: "He live in Baghdad in Elfada City."

That's Adel Muhammad. He's Wali's friend. And today he's helping interpret.

Khaled Wali/Adel Muhammad: "This city is very hot and very danger. In a war and militias."

Khaled Wali was a truck driver in Baghdad and he worked with a U.S. contractor for the military. That made him and his family a target for the militias.

Khaled Wali/Adel Muhammad: "I think he three or four months he was targeted by the militias. He lives but the militias kill his brother. He live one year and four months in Syria. After that he coming to America."

Khaled Wali pulls some documents from his pocket, among them, a plastic card with the blue letters of the UNHCR. That's the United Nation's Refugee Agency, which helped the family get out of Iraq.

Khaled Wali/Adel Muhammad: "The UN help me and my children. The UN gives him cash card for cash money monthly and this paper to food for my family. He save this because story for your children."

Wali's face softens as he explains the day he and his family found out they would be resettled in America.  Now, all ten of them have been in Boise for nearly four months. They're living on federal assistance; $1100 a month for rent and utilities; $1200 a month in food stamps. They also get Medicaid. But after 8 months all of the federal help goes away.

Sadie Babits: "After eight months what happens?"

Khaled Wali/Adel Muhammad: "I don't know because don't found any job here."

Sadie Babits: "You don't have a job in Boise?"

Khaled Wali/Adel Muhammad: "No. not yet."

Starting Over: Refugees In A Down Economy
Audio Slideshow

Khalid Wali says he can't sleep at night facing the possibility that when the money runs out, he might not be able to feed his eight children.  Jobs in Boise and the surrounding Treasure Valley are hard to come by these days, especially for refugees. 

Khaled Wali/Adel Muhammad: "The downturn coincided with our heaviest arrivals ever."

Leslye Moore is the executive director for the International Rescue Committee — the IRC — in Boise. 

Leslye Moore: "You know the difference between an American not having a job and a refugee is that most Americans have a safety net of some kind built in. Refugees coming have nothing. They don't have anything to fall back on so it's a much more terrifying experience for them knowing there's no work for them out there and wondering what their future is going to be."

Unemployment in Idaho is the highest it's been in 15 years. Major employers in Boise like Micron recently laid off some 1500 workers. That's increased competition for entry-level jobs, which have historically been a good fit for refugees. And this isn't just happening in Boise. Moore says resettlement agencies across the U.S. report major difficulties finding work for refugees. 

Leslye Moore: "You know the last thing we want to do is put a refugee family in a shelter. We haven't done it yet "

While Khaled Wali searches desperately for work, he's taking this time to learn English.

Wali pushes the plastic letters on this child's toy.

He misses a few letters. So one of his daughters jumps off the couch to help.

Wali says he's thankful to be here. But coming to America he had high expectations ña house, a new TV, and plenty of money. Now that he's here he's discovered just how unrealistic those expectations were. Adding to the disappointment and worry, Khaled Wali's wife Zahra is sick. Doctors think she may have thyroid cancer.

Outside the family's apartment complex, the kids peddle their bikes around the playground. Wali and his wife Zahra watch.

Khaled Wali/Adel Muhammad: "I don't have any dream here in Boise. But the one dream is my children is happy."

Khaled Wali takes some comfort in that dream, knowing his children can go to school and play here safely. The family has received some local donations like diapers that go a long way in helping this Iraqi family establish a new life in an unlikely city.


International Rescue Committee

United Nations Refugee Agency