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County fielding influx of refugees from Iraq

Majority settle in east, which caters to growing Middle Eastern population

ICC Note

Thousands of Iraqi Christians have left their homes due to the persecution they face from Islamic extremists. The United States is among the countries that has granted asylum to some of the Christian refugees.

By Leonel Sanchez

01/04/2009 United States ( San Diego County has long been a haven for Iraqi refugees, most recently for a record wave of new arrivals.

The 2,356 Iraqis, mostly Chaldean Catholics and other Christian refugees, who arrived in the region last fiscal year are part of a nationwide program to resettle refugees from the war-torn country. It is the largest number of Iraqi refugees who have arrived in San Diego County during a single year. An additional 3,600 are expected this year.

Many of the newcomers are refugees like Salah Saour, 45, an engineer from Baghdad who is still adjusting to his new country after arriving with his wife and their two daughters in August. Saour, who is studying English at an adult school in El Cajon , said his family was not safe in Iraq .

He made a slashing gesture across his neck to show how two of his cousins were killed by extremists. The Syriac Christian and his family fled to Jordan and lived there for four years until given permission to come to the United States , where they have relatives in El Cajon .

More than 30,000 Iraqis, mainly Chaldeans and Kurds, live in San Diego County, according to Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego, which is leading the resettlement effort. Other estimates vary. The vast majority of the new arrivals are settling in East County , which has services and businesses that cater to a growing Middle Eastern population.

The influx into the region comes as millions of Iraqis have been displaced since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the sectarian violence that followed. About 2 million Iraqi refugees are living in Jordan , Syria , Lebanon and other neighboring countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Local officials said they anticipated the influx but thought it would happen sooner.

“It didn’t catch us by surprise,” said Robert Moser, deputy director of Catholic Charities.

“Our networks have been saying, ‘They’re coming. They’re coming.’ For two years we were preparing, but they didn’t come.”

Catholic Charities is part of a network of resettlement agencies, social services agencies and church groups helping the refugees.

John Yaakoub, 44, a Syriac Christian, was injured in a street explosion in Iraq in 2003. One of his three daughters was nearly kidnapped. He said he suffered a heart attack before coming to the United States in August with his family. They had been living in Syria for two years because of the violence in Iraq .

“We feel safe here,” Yaakoub said.

He said he wants to find work, but nothing too stressful because of his heart condition.

Catholic Charities expects 3,600 Iraqis to settle in San Diego County this year, maybe more if the economy in the Detroit area – the other leading destination for Iraqi refugees – continues to worsen. The federal government already is sending fewer Iraqi refugees to that region because relief workers are having difficulty finding jobs for them, officials said.

Ibtisam Yacoub, 54, arrived in El Cajon to live with her sister in August. She and her daughter fled to Turkey in late 2007 after extremists threatened to kill them “because we are Christians,” Yacoub said. She said she hadn’t seen her sister in 16 years.

She was a lab assistant in Iraq , and her daughter was a doctor. They hope to find jobs in their new country, but for now, they are studying English at the Foothills Adult Education Center in El Cajon .

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