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The Arab Immigrant Question

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For a short time recently I worked with asylum applicants at an immigration law firm. I was primarily hired for my knowledge of the Arabic language, and worked almost exclusively with immigrants from Arab countries.

At the interview I was told I should be prepared to deal with a considerable influx of people fleeing the steadily disintegrating situation in Syria. Not having had a great deal of experience speaking with Syrians, as an Arab-American raised in New York by Iraqi immigrants, I was apprehensive about the task of communicating with speakers of the Levantine dialect of Arabic, in which I am not conversant. Of course I quickly found that depending on the region that the clients came from and its proximity to Iraq, and depending on those clients’ knowledge of the Standard and Classical dialects, communication was essentially not a problem.

On one level, the whole experience hit entirely too close to home. My entire family is from Baghdad, Iraq, and up to the time of the current conflict there (make no mistake: that conflict continues) many of my mother’s immediate family members were still there. At this point I only have one uncle still in Iraq (he is now a member of parliament) and variously positioned extended family.

Sitting there with people who had narrowly escaped war in West Asia with their lives, I found myself regularly identifying with stories of disappearances, harassment and violent threats, smuggling out of family members by fantastically perilous means, and outright murders. As they related their stories for affidavit composition, I would interject every few words: “Yes, that happened to my aunt… That happened to my cousin…”

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On another, heightened level, it was a surreal encounter with the new guard of dangers that have arisen from the uprisings and civil wars in that region of the last few years. One young man I worked with for basically the entire brief tenure of my time there had fled to America from Syrian Islamist insurgents who had attempted to enlist him to kidnap members of the Assad family and regime. They had found him at a public gym where he practiced martial arts. On his refusal, he became targeted both by the so-called Free Army and by the foot soldiers of the regime, who for their part believed him to be colluding with the rebels.

The cities of America will likely see no forthcoming end to this inflow of exiles from a region where, empirically, the U.S. government’s role has been instrumental in directing its fate. As the conditions in Western Asia have escalated, so have the masses of Arab exiles surged into the first-world countries where the horrors to which they have been subjected would never occur.

As these people come, their newfound communities will have to figure out what to do with them. In many cases they do not speak English, have the proper authorization to work, or even have any family or contacts to give them a place to stay (Fundraising Success Mag documents an Iraqi family who came to the US at the height of the war and slept for a number of months at a church).

Philadelphia has had a good start with the building of such groups as the Arab American Community Development Corporation, which have been successful in getting Arab refugees and asylees their papers, affordable and livable housing, and gainful employment, the basics of assimilation for which all incoming immigrants have a desperate need.

Another major step forward is represented by the English as a Second Language classes offered in such facilities as the Philadelphia Free Library, although it must be said that such opportunities are still sorely lacking here.

The continued advancement of a dearly wanting people into a safe and affluent society will depend heavily on the growth of such philanthropic organizations and social programs, as well as on the willingness of policy makers to receive them. A significant show of good will toward these people, who have been through hell on Earth, would lie in giving support to the groups which are seeking to fill the voids created whenever someone leaves their country behind in search of peace.

By Bessam Idani

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  • Karen

    It’s refreshing to see something like this written by someone so connected to the issue.

  • Jonas

    Interesting read. Any plans on expanding?

    • Omaat.org

      There is something in the works if we can get the funding! Possibly a mini-documentary. Stay tuned!

  • Becky Brown

    If I were to make an assessment, I would have to say that Bessam’s insights are thoughtful and thought-provoking. Well done!

  • Megan Hughes

    This is a really moving piece. Thank you to Bessam for opening up and sharing your thoughts and feelings in such an eloquent way.Very nice in conjunction with your ESL piece. Glad your writings and omaat are bringing these issues some much needed awareness.