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From Iraq to Minnesota, a new life

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Iraqi refugees
Millions of refugees have fled from Iraq in the five years since the war began. Many Iraqis wait in lines like this one, to register their names. The U.S. promised to resettle tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees in this country and a handful have come to Minnesota.
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

No place, not work, not home, was safe from people with guns, according to a recent Iraqi refugee resettled in Minnesota.  

This 32-year-old Iraqi who we'll call Ali, arrived in Minnesota a few months ago with his wife and two children.

He says in Iraq, he'd come to work and ask about a colleague who was missing.

"You see him today.  Second day you ask for him, 'Where is he?'" Ali would say.

"The idea is to protect and save my kids and family in a safe community and a good community."

"He was assassinated, he was kidnapped," (was the response.) 

"What did he do?" Ali would inquire.

"He do nothing, he just died," was the answer.

We're sitting in a suburban Twin Cities apartment.  

Ali revealed his identity to Minnesota Public Radio for purposes of verifying his account, however he doesn't want his real name or other identifying details made public.

He has a wide circle of family and friends still in Iraq and doesn't want to say anything that might jeopardize their safety.

Ali says he made the decision to leave Iraq two years ago when it became clear he and his family were not safe from violence even in their home.

He sits on a sofa and points to a nearby sliding glass door.  Where Ali lived in Iraq, he says anyone moving past a window placed themselves in danger.

"Sometime you have to stay in a safe room, and like this window, terrorists, when they watch you moving they may suspect you or shoot you," he says.

Ibrahim Mohamen
Ibrahim Mohamed, a refugee to this country from Somalia years ago, is one of the Catholic Charities resettlement workers helping refugees from Iraq start a new life in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

There was another factor.

As two medical professionals, both Ali and his wife were targets of terrorists and gangs who might want to kidnap them and force them to care for their people or hold them for ransom.

In the end, Ali says he and his wife decided the danger facing them and their two young children was too great.

They packed their bags, loaded the car and drove to a neighboring Middle Eastern country and to safety.

When it became clear they wouldn't be allowed to stay there, they asked to go to the United States and to Minnesota where they have a family connection.

Catholic Charities resettlement worker Ibrahim Mohamed, met the family when they arrived at the Twin Cities airport a few months ago.  Mohamed says they had little more than the clothes they were wearing.

"When you are fleeing from your homeland and getting away from getting harmed or persecuted you just running for your life and most refugees don't bring anything with them, literally a few clothing items and that's it," he says.

That's how Mohamed came to this country from Somalia.  He was also a refugee.  The past eight years he's worked for Catholic Charities resettling other refugees.

Catholic Charities finds the refugees a place to live, arranges for some donated clothing and household goods and gives them some cash.

Several other Minnesota social service agencies that resettle Iraqi refugees follow the same formula.

After a couple of months the refugees are eligible for welfare and food stamps, and they must start looking for work.

Many of the Iraqi refugees coming to this country, have a good chance of finding work, according to Larry Yungk, the senior resettlement worker for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  

"It's an urban population, so actually they're coming for the most part with a lot more skills, education and experience than you might see from some other parts of the world," he says.

That's the case with this Iraqi family.  They are conversational, almost fluent in English.  However their medical training in Iraq doesn't match standards in this country.

So they face perhaps a couple of years of retraining if they want to continue in the same line of work.

That's frustrating for Ali.

However he put his family's especially his children's interests ahead of his own in deciding to flee Iraq.

"The idea is to protect and save my kids and family in a safe community and a good community," he says.

Minnesota's Iraqi population is small, no more than a few dozen recent arrivals.  Refugee officials say the number will grow.

The federal government decides this month on how many will be allowed into the United States next year.  The prediction is the number will at least match the goal of resettling 12,000 Iraqis this year.