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A Better Life for Iraqi Refugees

Iraqi refugees acclimate to Oregon with help from PSU students

When Professor Yasmeen Hanoosh learned that nearly 2,000 Iraqi refugees have settled in the Portland-Salem area since 2009, she saw an opportunity for her Arabic language students at Portland State University.

Hanoosh, an assistant professor of Arabic language and literature, offered her Arabic II and IV students extra credit to volunteer with these Iraqi families. She invited Lisa Kelly, executive director of Better Life-USA, to speak to her classes about her nonprofit's work assisting the refugees with English language acquisition, tutoring and cultural orientation.

There are now 4 million Iraqi refugees worldwide, a half-million of whom live as squatters in slums of their own country. Many of those who have found asylum in the United States worked in the Baghdad Green Zone, experienced death threats or kidnappings, or have lost family members in the war.

A native of Iraq, Hanoosh has a personal connection to the refugees. Her family's home in Basra was bombed in 1987; they moved to Baghdad and then emigrated to the U.S. following United Nations' sanctions following the first Gulf War in 1995. Those experiences shaped her academic interests in social and cultural issues related to displaced and exiled populations.

Nicole CritesAmong the first to volunteer following Lisa Kelly's Better Life-USA presentation was Nicole Crites (at left), 22, an international studies major and second-year Arabic student looking for a way to pursue her interest in contemporary Middle East issues.

At Kelly's suggestion, Crites began looking into the feasibility of a food cart focused on the unique cuisine of Iraq, as prepared by some of the recent refugees. Nearly 200 people turned out for a March 2012 fundraiser (below, right), showcasing the chefs' creations. That event was an eye-opener for them, Crites says. "These guys saw 200 people coming in, wanting something that they have," which has motivated them to continue.

That's what Better Life-USA's Kelly calls "vocational dignity"—the self-worth that emerges from meaningful work.

Finding that work remains the greatest challenge for the Iraqi newcomers. Despite receiving government assistance, most families have struggled to find work, with only rudimentary language skills and formal education. Many suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorders, and the Portland metro area lacks the network of more established Iraqi refugees found in some other major cities.

Recently, Kelly asked PSU's Crites to take on a larger role, directing a new business development program that will help Iraqis with professional skills and business English, while continuing to pursue funding for the food cart and other small business initiatives. Volunteering gives PSU language students the chance to practice their spoken Arabic with native speakers.

"They gain cultural opportunities—many haven't traveled, and this gives them a chance to see and hear how the language is used," says PSU's Yasmeen Hanoosh.

The PSU–Better Life-USA partnership has now expanded to include students in other disciplines, including a group of MBA students supporting Crites' business development efforts. Of Better Life-USA's 21 volunteers, 18 are PSU students.

One is Kyle Hubbard, 19, a pre-med student, who saw a flyer for an evening lecture organized by Hanoosh on the refugees' plight.

Despite lacking any Arabic language skills he volunteered to help. Now, he is a weekly visitor to the east Portland home of Mohammed and Shaymaa Salih, who fled war-torn Baghdad in 2010 with little formal education and almost no English skills.

Hubbard helps their boys Qusay, 17, and Ali, 14, with homework, and the rest of the family with adjusting to life in the U.S. Eight-year-old Diana serves as translator (and babysitter to Hussein, nine months) when necessary. Hubbard's philosophy is simple: "I teach you, you teach me."

CAPTION ABOVE LEFT: PSU student Nicole Crites pitches the Iraqi food cart project to prospective funders at an "Awesome PDX" event in May 2012. She was one of five finalists selected from over 60 submissions.

CAPTION ABOVE RIGHT: Iraqi chefs prepared an array of native dishes for an event helping to raise funds for an Iraqi food cart in Portland. The event was organized by PSU students working with Better Life-USA.

CAPTION TOP LEFT and HOME PAGE: PSU student Kyle Hubbard (right) helps Ali Salih (left), 14, with homework. Salih is one of nearly 2,000 Iraqi refugees who’ve moved to Portland since 2009.

CAPTION TOP RIGHT: The Salih family is one of several that PSU Arabic language students help adjust to life in the United States.




PSU World Languages and Literatures:
Better Life-USA:
UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency: