Sacramento's Iraqi refugees community continues to grow

The Sacramento BeeJanuary 9, 2012 

A Carmichael living room has become an oasis for Iraqi refugees tortured by opposing sides of Iraq's brutal sectarian conflict.

It's the home of Sarmed Kamal Ibrahim, an engineer who built bridges, highways and apartments in Baghdad and now helps connect Sacramento's 1,500 Iraqi refugees with doctors, schools and jobs.

Ibrahim, 40, runs the Mesopotamia Association, a volunteer organization helping shellshocked Iraqi refugees who've lost their homes, businesses and loved ones since the U.S. invasion in 2003. The last American troops left in December.

Many of the Iraqi newcomers are struggling to learn English, get medical, dental and vision care and find jobs before their eight months of refugee cash assistance runs out.

"People come to my home or call us 24 hours a day, every day," said Ibrahim. "We are working to help our community improve ourselves and integrate into this society."

Ibrahim enjoyed a good life in Iraq before the war. He now works as a hotel janitor while studying to get his U.S. engineering license.

He knows an Iraqi doctor working as a stocker in a 99 Cent store to survive.

"I'm lucky I found a job, but some find themselves on the streets," Ibrahim said. "We're collecting money to help pay their rent, but for how long we are not sure."

Many Iraqi refugees are grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder, including Ibrahim's wife, Shatha Ismaeel, a former journalist.

"My only brother was killed by U.S. troops the first day of the invasion," she said, sobbing. "He was just 27, he had three kids, he hated Saddam!"

Her brother was going home after checking on his parents when he was killed by U.S. troops "shooting everywhere to take over the area," Ibrahim said.

"Americans wanted to pay us $2,000 for his death – it was an insult," Ismaeel said.

The number of Iraqis in Sacramento has tripled in the last year, Ibrahim said.

"They are Sunni, Shia and Christian," said Nabil Kudsi, whose Babylon City Market on Watt Avenue has become a hub for Iraqis seeking baba ganouj, lamb kebabs and other comfort food.

Kudsi had his own construction business in Baghdad until he fled to Jordan in 2008. "There were no services, no electricity, no hospitals, and if you did business you might be kidnapped," he said.

Since 2007, 15,000 Iraqis have been resettled in California, but thousands of others are coming from Utah, Georgia and other states.

About 2 million Iraqis fled after the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra in February 2006 killed more than 1,000 people, igniting a wave of sectarian violence.

Ali Khalaf, a Sunni Muslim who said he was imprisoned and tortured in 2007, sat on Ibrahim's sofa next to Basil Al Ansari, a Shiite kidnapped in 2006.

Ansari helped Khalaf get medical treatment for his son who suffered seizures.

Khalaf, a proud father of four in a gray flannel suit, had his own trading firm and lived in a five-bedroom home.

He said he was beaten with cables for several days and imprisoned with four others in a cell so small they couldn't lie down. "They said I was an ally of Saddam who destroyed Iraq," Khalaf said. "I told them I did no such thing."

He was finally freed, he said, after his family paid a $10,000 ransom.

Ansari said he was kidnapped by Sunnis and accused of being a U.S. sympathizer, even though his wife is Sunni. "I managed to escape and flee the country," he said.

Opening Doors, International Rescue Committee and World Relief have helped resettle Iraqis in Sacramento.

Mesopotamia's Rousul Tawffeq is working with Opening Doors and UC Davis to study the refugees' health needs.

"About 90 percent need a lot of help. Even if they were very educated in Iraq, many don't speak English, and they have to wait three to five months for a medical appointment," she said.

Ansari doubts America's nine-year war has paved the way for a safe, democratic Iraq. "Democracy took you about 200 years," he said, noting Iraqis across faiths had lived together peacefully for centuries until the war.

"Saddam was a dictator who killed maybe 500,000 but now it's 10 times worse," Ibrahim said. "The war destroyed our country, killed 2 million and created 5 million refugees."

Khalaf said he's experienced kindness in America. "Since I've lived in Sacramento, Americans have been very kind and warm-hearted," he said.

Some residents have expressed sorrow over the invasion, Ibrahim said.

On Tawffeq's first day here, "a woman came up to me and apologized for the war," she said. "There were tears in my eyes."

To read more, visit www.sacbee.com.

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