IMAS And The Challenges Of Iraqi Community In Chicago.
From the land between two rivers to the land of Lincoln, Iraqis fled their country’s war torn tragedy to resettle in a new home. An increasing numbers of Iraqi refugees have settled in Chicago and parts of Illinois. The need for a refugee services has increased to aid in their resettlement. One of the services assisting refugees is the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society which has been serving the Iraqi community for over seven years.
Founded in 2009 as a secular non-profit organization, The Iraqi Mutual Aid Society (IMAS) was formed by Iraqi refugees in response to the challenges faced by many as they adapt to their new lives in America. The mission of IMAS has evolved to all refugees and includes fostering a sense of well-being and self-sufficiency by easing fears in this transition to life in the United States. IMAS has forged connections between Iraqi and American societies and facilitates the preservation and exchange of Iraqi culture.
“The majority of our staff members and those who serve on our board of directors are themselves Iraqi refugees,” said Laura Youngberg, executive director, Iraqi Mutual Aid Society.
IMAS uses its bilingual and bicultural expertise to provide support services in health, finance, education, and employment to assist Iraqi refugees in their transition to life. Services are tailored to the background and needs of each refugee, and are developed with input from the community. “There is no comparable organization serving this population in the Chicago area,”said Youngberg.
Some Iraqis have arrived with families while others have traveled and resettled alone. IMAS has provided employment and social services, immigration legal services, cultural, youth and education programs to Iraqi and other Middle Eastern refugees and immigrants regardless of their religion, ethnicity or gender.
“The majority live in Chicago on the North side near our offices, especially in the neighborhoods of West Ridge and Rogers Park,” said Youngberg. Much like Skokie was an early safe haven for Jewish settles in Chicago, these neighborhoods seems to be more welcoming and familiar with refugees from Middle East especially Iraq. Iraqis have resettled on the city’s North side neighborhoods including the neighborhoods of North Park, Albany Park, Edgewater, and Lincoln Park. Some Northern suburbs like Skokie, Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, Niles, Glenview and Des Plaines but also the far Westerns suburbs like Wheaton and Aurora have provided a safe stop for these refugees. Until recently, this immigration trend is expected to continue for more several years with Iraqis and Syrians being among the largest group of refugees arriving in Chicago.
Many Iraqi refugees have a higher proficiency in English than other newcomer groups. While many are fluent in English, many still need or want classes to improve their skills to assimilate more seamlessly. Classes that meet these refugees’ needs may be difficult to find because language classes for new refugee arrivals are often geared toward those with little or no English. Many also find it difficult to take a first job to provide food on the table and study after hours particularly if they have a family or young children.
“The Iraqis that we see are highly educated, highly skilled and highly motivated to succeed. Sometimes the English is little bit of a barrier but that’s not uncommon across the board,” said Favin Gebremariam, Director of Development and Strategic Partnerships, Central Region, Upwardly Global. Partnering with the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society, the non profit group called Upwardly Global is able to assist Iraqi, Syrian and Afghan clients involved with IMAS with their program’s wraparound services. There non-profit group targets those who were former professionals and assists them with making the job transition to the U.S.
IMAS provides the resources and structure for Middle Eastern refugees to support one another. They welcome the new arrivals with and assist them in attaining what they need to succeed in the U.S. IMAS also promotes community building by using volunteerism within the community by providing training and opportunities. “IMAS hosts monthly Women’s Groups for mutual support and education on important topics,” said Youngberg. IMAS also provides Service Leadership Training to develop a model and concrete steps for clients to serve their community.
While resettlement agencies describe Iraqi newcomers as generally tolerant of cultural differences, refugee service providers who have worked with this population in the past note several possible areas of cross-cultural misunderstanding and conflict. While many ethnic communities has societal norms, cultural misunderstanding for Middle Eastern refugees fall into one of three buckets — religion, male/female relationships and cultural expectations.
Religion plays such an important part in the lives of Iraqi Arabs. Like Western culture with holiday’s such as Christmas or Easter, Arab cultures center much of their identity around religion and religious holidays and traditions. Some resettled refugees particularly those from rural areas can be confused by the number of Americans who do not follow any religion. They are puzzled by many Americans outspokenness about not believing in God but also in how it pervades into American politics. For Middle Easterners, their geographic location has placed them at the center of three of the world’s major religions. Religion is a large component of an individual’s identity.
Friendships between men and women can be a source of misunderstanding in any culture but it particularly nuanced in the life of a Middle Easterner. The West can be a source of confusion to young Iraqi men regarding relationships with women. Many young Iraqi Arab men do not understand that friendship with an American woman is not necessarily a sign of romantic or sexual interest. For an Iraqi woman, cross-gender friendships in American society can frightening which plays itself out with negative antisocial/societal effects. Iraqi females become intensely shy or hesitant to go out alone. They do not speak up in a class or make friends. Many tend to remain in the background where American woman are more socially vocal where their presence is welcome and expected. An Iraqi female can become isolative and scared.
These cultural issues or norms get played out in small exchanges but have the ability to expand to become more isolative. For example, resettled Iraqi refugees are often puzzled at an American’s need for invitations and advance notice before a visit. An Iraqi family might issue a general invitation, not realizing that they must pin down a specific time, date and place. They sit at home socially isolated and lonely, wonder why Americans are so unsociable. Middle Eastern cultures are generally more free flowing and casual. They involve less structure in forming get-togethers where drop-in exchanges are part of the cultural norm. Iraqis might also insist on paying in restaurants and on other occasions, to the point of spending more than they can afford. They are not familiar with the custom of splitting a check when there is a get together.
With the election of President-elect Donald Trump, Iraqi and Middle Eastern Immigration and refugee status has taken on a new dynamic. With a proposed ban on all immigration of all refugee particularly those from Iraq and Syria, the fears of many new refugees has been applied with anti-refugee talk from the newly elected president-elect.
With the new President-elect Donald Trump, Laura Youngberg hopes that the Office of Refugee Resettlement will continue to be funded and supported “We will continue to advocate for refugees’ rights and to be respected,” said Youngberg.
Many don’t understand that to be considered a refugee and get that status, one has undergo rigorous security screenings by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Defense and multiple intelligence agencies. This includes bio-metric checks, forensic testing, medical screenings, and thorough in-person interviews. It is not an automatic entrance after filling out a form. U.S screening for refugees is very different than the on-site screening of migrants arriving by boat and on foot in Europe. This is a message is very real but gets squelched in the news media. One must needs to understand a person does not choose to be a refugee, it is the only option available to them other than death.