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Nearly 85% of local refugees are from war-torn Iraq, straining resources on schools and social services; local leaders call for major changes in treatment of refugees


"We can create a national model," -- Sunny Cooke, president, Grossmont College


November 12, 2009 (El Cajon) – Impacts of the Iraq War are hitting home in East County, where so many Iraqi refugees have settled that El Cajon's mayor has dubbed a section of his community "Little Baghdad."  From Oct. 1, 2008 to October 1, 2009, the U.S. admitted almost 75,000 refugees—including 18,333 from Iraq.*  Since October 2008, San Diego has been taking in 400 refugee families a month.  Nearly 85% are from Iraq.  Almost 75% of all area refugees have settled in the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District (GCCCD), straining resources beyond capacity in social services, education, and healthcare.


“Social Services predicts that 200 to 300 new families will be entering East County each month for the next two or three years,” Mike Lewis, PhD, assistant superintendent of education for the Grossmont Union High School District said at a November 6 summit at Cuyamaca College titled Spotlight on Refugee Education and Employment.  Some have spent weeks or even years in refugee camps.  Many don’t speak English and have not been able to receive an education.  Many refugees are also physically maimed by war or suffer post-traumatic stress.  Often they receive misinformation and find steep barriers to getting the help that they need.

About 80% to 85% of local refugees are Chaldean Christians from Iraq, though the refugees include people of other faiths and from a diverse range of nations including Somalia, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and most recently, Burma.


Ahlan Wa Sahlan (Welcome)! a sign at the event read. Cindy Miles, chancellor of the GCCCD, said refugees from around the world “adds much to the rich fabric of our community.” She praised former State Senator Wadie Deddeh, an Iraqi immigrant now in his 80s, as “iconic in terms of a role model for positive things that can happen when we do things right.”


“We have immigrants coming here who have been thrown out of their homes. They are scared to death,” said Deddeh, who formerly taught English under an immersion program in Monterey. He called for immersion programs in English to help new refugees and asylees. “Otherwise we are dancing around the issue. Without English, they cannot get jobs…English, that is the hope, that is the dream, that is the future” for refugee families and their children, he concluded.


Miles said her hopes for the summit were to raise awareness of refugees’ circumstances and their impact on East County education and employment, also bringing community leaders in business, education, government, faith-based organizations , and others together to propose actions to provide better support for refugees (people relocated by the U.S., primarily from war-torn nations), asylees (immigrants who request asylym at the border), and those on special visas (who worked for coalition forces).



“Some refugees from Syria, Jordan, and Turkey had to leave within a day and take what they could carry,” said Holly Hough, liaison on immigration issues from Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine). She said Hunter is concerned about helping to assist refugees and asylees as well as “0people who fall between the cracks, who may not qualify as asylees.” She noted that the Congressman’s wife was an asylee. “Her father threw the whole family over the fence in Poland.”


Bishop Sarhad Y. Jammo of St. Peter’s Cathedral in El Cajon, one of only two Chaldean bishops in the U.S., spoke with pride about his people’s rich heritage in Mesopotamia and Babylon. “Chaldeans are descendants of a great people…the founders of civilization,” he said. Like the wisemen from Babylon who followed the Christmas star seeking salvation, today’s Chaldeans are seeking “civil salvation” in California, he said. Like the wisemen of Biblical lore who came bearing gifts, today’s Chaldeans bring “talents and potential,” the Bishop said.


“This country is our country and we have chosen it,” he added, noting that the diocese holds programs for refugees that are overwhelmed, with no government resources. “They came because this is the best salvation that they can find in human history.” He made an impassioned plea to help the refugees learn English and get an education. “Please do your best for them and at the same time, stimulate them--squeeze them to be their best,” he asked.


But while many want to help, resources and support systems are “maxed out,” said a representative from Catholic Charities, who revealed that there is now a three to four month wait for a health services assessment. The Community College District, struggling with a $10 million budget shortfall, does not have enough English as a second language teachers. Class sizes are too large.


Zana Asmar Salem, PhD, president and chief executive officer of Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social Services in El Cajon, said more English classes are critically needed. “No one can get employed without ESL, but most do not have access. No one will hire them, not even McDonalds.”


Scott Barr, counselor for low income and disabled students and coordinator of the Cal-Works program at Grossmont College, criticized County Supervisors for steering refugees away from education opportunities once the initial eight-month refugee program and federal funds run out. “The County mottos is `Get a job, any job,” said Barr, noting that some refugees wind up working as taxi drivers for less than minimum wage in “capitalist slavery—they don’t know it’s illegal,” he added. Most don’t speak enough English to pass a benefit assessment test needed to gain admission to a community college, he said.


“This is key," Barr stressed. "They are not told that if they enter a community college and take at least one-half unit during the refugee period, then you now have 4 years to access financial aid and other benefits such as transportation, childcare, and food stamps. If they don’t do that, they must leave Cal Works in one year.”


Cal Works, which provides aid, is geared toward families with children, not adults—and the time frame is even shorter for asylees than refugees. “If you’re a single man coming out of Africa, one of the desert boys, you’ve only got three months,” he said.


Barr also seeks a better way to encourage refugees to seek help for mental and physical problems. “Hundreds of Afghani and Iraqis have come here, and only one has showed up for disabled student services,” he said, adding that many believe there is a social stigma to admitting they need such help. He said many are suffering hip, knee and back injuries, as well as post-traumatic stress, “the same as our service members.”


A County mental health worker agreed that “the trauma these kids and their families have been through is really impacting their ability to learn.” She called for an easing of requirements for English as a second language teachers.


Another barrier to education for many is that refugees and asylees must pay out-of-state tuition rates of $200 per unit. Several people present called for the tuition rate to be reduced or waived for recent refugees and asylees.


A woman asked for better help to get job training. “I went to Congressman Hunter’s job fair, but when I went to the training, they said it was only for the mainstream,” she said.


Many attendees offered positive suggestions to help refugees in East County.


Local business leaders spoke in favor of helping refugees.


“These students work full time jobs and part-time jobs, and go to school full-time to bring back resources to their families,” said Valerie Harrison, president of the Rancho San Diego-Jamul Chamber of Commerce. She called for more businesses to utilize refugees, including older adults, as interns “to learn not only the culture but the businesses.” She added, “I’ve had interns anywhere from 18 to 55. A student is a student.”


La Mesa Councilman Ernest Ewin observed, “The case has not been made to the business community of why there are benefits . How many Chaldeans are in El Cajon and what is their buying power?” He called for formation of a blue ribbon commission to show that we should view refugees “not as a burden but as an opportunity for advancement.”


Other suggestions from audience members included a refugee tax credit to help bring employers on board, as well as translation software.


Janet Casteños said her La Mesa-Sunrise Rotary Club has adopted a refugee family. “It’s a fantastic way to understand the culture,” she said, urging other groups to do the same.


East County Magazine editor Miriam Raftery proposed partnering with other groups serving refugees and asylees to create an online Refugee information center, as well as outreaching to non-refugees to help through matching up community needs with providers, create an online discussion forum for refugees and service providers, announce cultural events and fundraisers to meet unmet needs.


A Sudanese man who said he spent four years in a refugee camp called local efforts “a faulty model. It’s a welfare model. These are new citizens. They need training—a model to create new citizens.”


A representative from Assemblyman Joel Anderson’s office urged refugees to write to elected officials about “wonderful effects the refugees have had on our communities” to empower politicians to obtain more funding for refugee programs.


The most ambitious vision at the summit, which was attended by over 150 people, came from Sunny Cooke, president of Grossmont College. Noting that the assimilation period for refugees has been shortened by the federal government from two years to eight months since the Iraq War began, she called for creation of a “transformation model of how this country greets and services its refugees.” Under her plan, a coalition of community leaders would examine what other countries do around the world.


“We can create a national model,” she concluded, “ but we have to have the support of our federal representatives.”


* Editor's note:  An earlier version of this article stated that the U.S. had admitted 60,000 refugees last year including over 8,500 Iraqis.  Those figures were from a presentation provided by the GCCCD.  ECM has since been contacted by Gina Wells, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Population, Refugees & Migration at the U.S. Department of State in Washington with  the updated figures listed above.  

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