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Iraqi refugees to resettle amid fresh trauma of violent past

Story Highlights

• Iraqi refugees to begin arriving in U.S. in next few weeks
• Refugees get apartments, counseling, traditional ethnic meal
• Agency says up to 95 percent of refugees self-sufficient in six months
By Debra Alban
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- A white board at the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta shows the origins of the hundreds of refugees the agency has placed in Georgia -- Vietnam, Burma, Iran. Soon, it will add another country, Iraq.

While their circumstances may differ, the refugees can expect a taste of home when they arrive. The agency will provide a traditional Middle Eastern meal of halal beef, rice, flatbread and tea.

The U.S. State Department says it expects at least 70 Iraqi refugees to come to the United States in the next 10 days, part of the 7,000 who will be allowed to resettle in America under an emergency measure approved in February.

The refugees, who settle in Atlanta and elsewhere, will be sponsored by the IRC, a nonprofit agency established in 1933 to help refugees and victims of war or oppression. San Diego, California; Chicago, Illinois; Phoenix, Arizona; and Detroit, Michigan, are other possible destinations, according to IRC spokesman Ed Bligh. (Read more about an Iraqi refugee family's struggles in Turkey)

Burundian refugee Bonifasi Nahimana, who arrived in Atlanta on June 4, can attest to the difference the familiar food makes in an unfamiliar situation.

"We [found] in the house the food ready to eat and ... Fanta to drink. ... They were ready to make us forget what we went through," Nahimana said.

Post-traumatic stress

An estimated 2 million Iraqis have fled their country since the war began in 2003. Those resettling in the U.S. are "torn between building a new life here and hoping for a brighter future there," said Ellen Beattie, regional director for the IRC in Atlanta.

Beattie will oversee the Atlanta efforts in making the Iraqis' transition to America as painless as possible.

"The very high level of indiscriminate violence ... has left many people with post-traumatic stress," Beattie said. "So with this group, that's one of the recommendations: Prepare to arrange for some relatively intensive counseling."

Fresh from the horrors of war, the Iraqis may need to establish coping mechanisms, said Dr. Kitty Kelley, program coordinator for the Center for Torture & Trauma Survivors of Georgia's DeKalb County Board of Health. The IRC with work with the organization to counsel refugees.

"There might still be a level of shock," Kelley said, even though the Atlanta-bound refugees have been in camps in Turkey. The mental health professionals will base counseling on the level of exposure to violence.

In addition, "it should be kept in mind that the recent trauma may be superimposed from the trauma of the past of the Saddam Hussein regime," said Dr. Lin Piwowarczyk, co-director of the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights.

No matter their emotional state, refugees can count on several constants as they resettle in the U.S.

The IRC situates the refugees in housing it deems safe, decent and affordable, equipped with essential items, such as a couch, a kitchen table and beds.

"Very few bring much more than a small amount of clothing with them. When you're forcibly displaced, you usually pretty much lost everything you that you had," Beattie said.

In Atlanta, the refugees can stock up using hundreds of dollars in vouchers accepted at the IRC's supply shop, where they can "buy" donated clothing and home goods.

Learning a new life

With help from the agency, the refugees will begin the path to self-sufficiency in their new home and new life in the United States.

The learning curve can vary.

Nahimana, 67, and his family are learning about the difference between a freezer and a refrigerator and the purpose of kitchen cabinetry. He and his family must also learn English.

Those coming from Iraqi cities, on the other hand, might be accustomed to the technology available as well as conventions such as paying bills, so they will begin their learning process by absorbing other types of American standards, such as how the medical system works, what the expectations are of parents with children in school and how to conquer the public transportation system, Beattie said.

When it comes to finding a job, they will often start at entry-level positions, no matter what they might have done before, Beattie said.

"We have people that have college degrees and they have medical degrees, but all of the that doesn't transfer immediately and much less if you have limited English."

Ninety-two percent to 95 percent of the families the IRC resettles are "completely self-sufficient" within six months of arrival, "an enormous accomplishment," Beattie said.

Those six months may be a difficult time for the Iraqis.

"The violence that they are in, the turmoil in that country will be very alive and fresh to them. And those wounds are wide open," Beattie said. But, she notes, this is a tough group of people.

"I see refugees as being survivors," she said. "[Their] resilience is incredible."


Students attend an English language class at the International Rescue Committee's Atlanta office.


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