New To Town 2015
Mohammed Abdulraheem, 19, lost one year of his education after leaving Baghdad as an elementary-school kid. "It was really distracting in class when I heard an explosion or saw flames out of the window," he says quietly. Ten years, five moves, and four countries later, Mohammed and his family are now eating a home-cooked feast before watching the Seahawks game. Taghreed Mahmood, Mohammed's mom, lays out a big dish of fava-bean rice topped with rich, flavorful chicken so tender that it frays on the fork. She places it on a table already loaded with savory pastries, spicy pickled vegetables, bulgur-beef cake, and baba ghanoush made from scratch.
Mohammed, Taghreed, and Mohammed's father, Ihsan Yas, are naturalized refugees. Nearly 800 people like them, who left Iraq after Americans invaded for a second time—and some after ISIS invaded—make up the biggest wave of new arrivals Washington State has seen over the last fiscal year. More than two-thirds of all Washington's refugees land in King County, where the Iraqi-born population has at least doubled since 2010.
"We fluctuate between the eighth- and the ninth-largest refuge-receiving state in the US," says Sahar Fathi, policy analyst for the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. She doesn't want to give out numbers about other kinds of immigration—Seattle is a "sanctuary city," meaning that it tries to protect its undocumented residents—but refugee numbers are on the record.
The newest Iraqi arrivals are distinct from the first wave of Iraqis who settled in Seattle in the early 1990s after the Gulf War. Because the latest group of refugees decided to stay in Saddam's Iraq, political tensions between the two communities can arise. The neighbors who got here first are sometimes very cold toward newcomers, Taghreed explains—a different kind of Seattle freeze.
Taghreed works two jobs and teaches Iraqi cooking classes in Kent, a suburb south of Seattle. Only a few years ago, she was teaching Iraqi kids not to play with "gifts" in the street that could turn out to be bombs. (Before that, she was an accountant.) Now she and her husband are hoping to bring their adult daughter and other son to Seattle, too.
Taghreed says she has one other big hope, and she adapts a quote from her current source of inspiration, Martin Luther King Jr.: "I have a dream," she says, "that [one day] no one is saying for Muslim people, 'They are terrorists.'"
The weird looks and Islamophobic comments Iraqi women receive from non-Iraqis around Seattle can magnify a newcomer's sense of alienation. Nadia Mahmood, 42, is a determined and cheery mother of three who worked at Safeway for five years. While most of her customers were lovely, she says, others refused to buy food from her because of her hijab. On the day I meet her, that hijab is a silver paisley scarf paired with a pink-striped top, smart gray trousers, and suede boots.
Finding jobs, housing, and child care make up other major challenges while new refugees try to settle into daily life. So does learning English. That's why Nadia organizes a group of Iraqi refugee women at the Kent Youth and Family Services Center every week. Some of the women arrived from Baghdad as recently as five months ago. They discuss plans for language, computer, and cosmetology classes—or events like Iraqi culture day, which Kent mayor Suzette Cooke attended last fall.
Nadia proudly shows me a photo she took with the mayor on a pink iPhone covered in rhinestone hearts.
It's a start, but the women Nadia knows sometimes get so sad, they don't want to leave their apartments. Her friends suffer from high levels of depression and stress. "We've spent our whole lives around war, you know?" Nadia says. "Everyone here has a big story."
Even though that story ends in the relative safety of Seattle, the refugees who do get placed in Seattle often end up far from the core of the city. Like Nadia's and Mohammed's families, they settle in places like Kent, where rent is just barely affordable. Mohammed's family lives in an apartment complex where identical banana-yellow buildings are labeled by letters of the alphabet. They're waiting for a Section 8 voucher to move closer to downtown. That way, Mohammed won't have to take a two-hour bus trip each way to get to class. They're still lucky, by comparison.
"Even though we're building new affordable housing every year, it's not keeping up with the need," explains Mahnaz Eshetu, executive director of the Refugee Women's Alliance, or ReWA, which helps Seattle-area refugees adjust after resettlement agencies leave them behind. This isn't just true for Iraqis; it's true for the Somalis, Burmese, Bhutanese, and Ukrainians that have been settling in Seattle for years. It will also be true for the new current of Congolese refugees the state expects in 2015, and the Syrians on track to arrive in 2016.
"It takes a couple of months to process all the paper with the Department of Social and Health Services," Eshetu says. As a result of that gap, a handful of refugee families—not necessarily from Iraq—end up in the shelter system each week.
The process of adjusting to the Seattle area can be a stark, ongoing shock. Especially compared to the Baghdad these refugees once knew, a 1,300-year-old city full of gardens and bustling outdoor cafes.
To show me an example of what Iraq was like before the war, Taghreed unwraps her daughter's wedding album from plastic. It's 2002, and the bride, who's surrounded by Christian and Muslim family friends, rocks a tradition-meets-Y2K look, complete with silver eye shadow and chrome nails. She and her husband sit beneath a gorgeous canopy garlanded by real jasmine leaves. The cake, covered in pounds of white icing, looks at least four feet wide and three feet tall. In another photo, the bride and groom saw through the structure with a traditional sword.
"Because we are terrorists!" Taghreed says, laughing, about the sword in the cake. Then she lets out another big, long laugh. It leaves an ache in the silence after.