When he was 18 years old, Ali Farid, an Iraqi, signed up to be a combat interpreter for the U.S. military.

He helped the military get critical information and supported its efforts to win the hearts and minds of locals. He found himself crammed into a Humvee while soldiers waged gun battles and cleared roadways of bombs.

But when U.S. troops withdrew, it became unsafe for Farid to stay in Iraq.

“People over there tend to ask questions. It’s not difficult to figure out you worked with the U.S. Army,” Farid said in an interview over Turkish coffee and Iraqi pastries at his Westbrook apartment. “(Insurgents) follow you. They know where you live. The next day – you’re gone.”

Farid, now 25, is one of the increasing number of refugees – Iraqis in particular – who are finding refuge in Maine.

More refugees have resettled in Maine in the last year than at any time over the past decade. The spike comes at a time when housing and jobs are hard to find, especially in Portland, where the vast majority are resettled.

During the 2013 federal fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 350 primary refugees – those who came directly from a refugee camp – and 16 special immigrants were resettled in southern Maine by Catholic Charities, which is contracted by the U.S. State Department through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to help people in war-torn countries.

That’s up 37 percent from the previous year, when 231 refugees were resettled. The vast majority of those refugees – 83 percent – were resettled in the Portland area. The rest were settled in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

Nationally, nearly 70,000 refugees were resettled during the last fiscal year. That’s up about 17 percent over each of the previous two fiscal years.

Not only are more refugees coming to Maine, but the demographics are changing.

Over the past decade, Somalis made up the lion’s share of Maine’s refugees. Last year, 158 Iraqis – including refugees, those granted asylum and those first resettled to other states – were resettled in Maine, topping Somali immigrants for the first time.

“The Middle East is one of the hottest points in the world,” said Tarlan Ahmadov, the program manager of refugee and immigration services for Catholic Charities Maine.

Resettling refugees is always demanding, because of differences in cultures and languages. But today’s refugees are faced with additional challenges – they’re coming at a time when housing and jobs are hard to find.

Meanwhile, Ahmadov said, refugees struggle to take advantage of skills and education from their native lands.

“This is a big limbo for us,” Ahmadov said. “They’re not qualified for the lower (level positions), but they cannot also go to the same level as in their country. It’s the biggest issue to make sure these people are certified so they can transfer their skills to the U.S. market.”

Ahmadov said more refugees were admitted last year partly because the federal government became more efficient at conducting the interagency background checks required by law. The process had been proceeding so slowly that refugee numbers fell short of both national and state allowances.

For example, the national ceiling for refugees was 80,000 in 2011 and 76,000 in 2012. But only 56,384 were admitted in 2011 and only 58,179 in 2012.

In Maine, Catholic Charities’ quota ranges from 250 to 300 people, Ahmadov said. However, only 197 and 231 refugees were resettled here in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

Ahmadov said the agency has been cleared to resettle 350 more refugees this year. Some of those refugees may come from Syria, which is embroiled in a civil war.

“This year we may see some Syrians, but it won’t be a big number,” Ahmadov said.

STARTING ANEW

Many refugees – especially those from remote African villages – have little experience with electricity, grocery stores or running water. Many come from warm climates and have never seen snow.

Ahmadov said refugees often need to be taught the basics of indoor heating and plumbing, and how to work a stove.

In addition to one-on-one education, all new refugees are required to participate in a group cultural orientation.

The agency also offers educational and employment services.

Abubakar Eisa, 23, came to Portland in May 2012 to escape the violence in Sudan, spending two years in a refugee camp before resettlement here.

Eisa was among a small group of refugees learning about educational and employment opportunities in Maine at a recent informational session at LearningWorks, a nonprofit education center for immigrants and at-risk youth. He has a diploma from Sudan and dreams of going to college to become a computer programmer.

Before he can do that, however, he must improve his ability to speak English and get his Graduate Equivalence Degree, or GED.

At LearningWorks, he learned that he could do both – while also earning a certification in basic construction, painting, culinary arts and more – at the center on Brackett Street. The center pays some immigrant students a $100 weekly stipend if they have good attendance and do well in school.

“You can get paid for going to school. It’s a pretty good deal,” said Carlo Bufano, a Jobs for Maine Graduates career specialist with LearningWorks.

Sumia Yousif was among those who agreed. She filled out an application to LearningWorks as soon as the presentation was over. The 21-year-old has a high school diploma from the Sudan, but must first get her GED and sharpen her English skills before she can go to college.

Yousif, who is a singer and dreams of becoming a dentist, arrived three months ago by way of Eqypt. She came to Maine to live with her aunt and uncle.

Ahmadov said roughly 80 percent of Catholic Charities’ resettlement activities are family reunifications.

“Maine is beautiful. I’m happy here,” Yousif said with a smile.

MAKING IT WORK

A mentor program is one way Catholic Charities helps refugees adjust to their new lives in Maine.

Josue Ntimugura is a native of Congo, an African country still plagued by violence stemming from civil war. When he came to the United States in 2010, he could barely speak English.

Now, Ntimugura, 25, is a relatively fluent second-year student at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, where he is studying engineering. He is also studying to become a U.S. citizen.

On a recent morning, as sleet and snow fell outside, Ntimugura met with his mentor in a small conference room at the Walker Memorial Library in Westbrook to discuss a long-range project to help his home village, which does not have electricity.

Ntimugura is working on a report about his village, which he plans to present to nongovernmental organizations when he solicits them for help.

He is currently figuring out the best way to help his village. His dream is to bring electricity to the village, but that might not be possible without first building up the economy. The village is supported by agriculture, he said. Primary crops include corn, beans, potatoes and cassava. Villagers also keep livestock – cows, oxen, sheep and goats – but they plow the fields by hand, rather than putting the oxen to work.

Ntimugura’s mentor is Tom Luna, a 50-year-old physician who moved to Maine with his family after retiring from a 26-year Air Force career.

Luna helps Ntimugura with a variety of tasks, including school work, filling out financial aid applications and registering with classes. He also helps him adjust to American culture by taking him to baseball games and on hikes. This winter, Luna said he plans to introduce Ntimugura to cross-country skiing and take him to the winter carnival in Quebec.

Ntimugura’s native language is French, which will come in handy up north, Luna said. “I don’t speak French, so that works out well,” he said.

Luna previously lived in Texas, which resettled 5,905 refugees in 2012, more than any other state. Other top resettlement states were California (5,167), New York (3,525), Pennsylvania (2,809) and Florida (2,244).

Luna said refugees in Maine have more challenges, especially when it comes to employment. In Texas, most immigrants speak Spanish, so many employers have learned how to communicate with them, he said.

It’s different in Maine because refugees and immigrants come from more than a half dozen countries and speak a variety of languages.

“By far, the biggest hurdle is language,” Luna said.

Despite the challenges, Luna said he gets as much out of the mentorship as Ntimugura.

“You really learn a lot about another culture. You really appreciate the challenges these refugees have,” he said.

For Ntimugura, having a mentor like Luna helps when he begins to feel overwhelmed.

“He is all the time encouraging me,” Ntimugura said. “Sometimes you start with no strength and you end up with strength.”

CHANGING FACES

Catholic Charities helps only those immigrants who are here legally. Refugees receive federal assistance for food and housing for up to eight months.

Since 1975, Catholic Charities has resettled 8,500 refugees in Maine, including 2,180 refugees in the past 10 years.

By far, most of the refugees who come to Maine are primary refugees. The group also helps resettle people who have been granted political asylum and people who have been granted a Special Immigrant Visa, a new category for natives of Iraq and Afghanistan who have helped America wage the war on terrorism.

Last year, nearly half of the primary refugees and all of the special visa entrants in Maine were from Iraq.

Ahmadov said Iraqi refugees generally have more education and training than other new Mainers. Many hold college degrees and doctorates, he said, or had professional jobs back home.

“Iraqis are one of the populations that are the most educated,” he said.

In 2010, 154 Somalis and 95 Iraqis were settled in Maine. Last fiscal year, those numbers practically reversed, with 158 Iraqis and 85 Somalis resettled.

Farid, 25, the combat interpreter from Iraq, came to the U.S. on a special immigrant visa in 2011. He left behind his mother, father, brothers and sister, as well as an upper middle-class life that was supported primarily by his father, an engineer.

Last year, 303 of Maine’s primary refugees, including all Iraqis, were resettled in the Portland area. That’s up 47 percent over the 206 refugees that settled here in 2012 and up 87 percent from the 166 refugees in 2011.

The rest were resettled in the Lewiston-Auburn area. Last year, 63 refugees were settled in Lewiston-Auburn, compared to 25 in 2012 and 31 in 2011.

‘IT WAS EASIER’

Finding housing in Portland, where residential vacancy rates are estimated at roughly 2 percent, has become increasingly difficult, said Ahmadov, of Catholic Charities. That has forced the agency to seek housing in South Portland and Westbrook and as far south as Saco and Biddeford, he said.

In order to comply with federal rules, Catholic Charities must find housing for refugees within 90 days.

The agency has a three-bedroom apartment on Forest Avenue for refugees who do not have apartments upon their arrival. When that temporary apartment is full, Catholic Charities turns to hotels.

“Years ago it was easier,” Ahmadov said.

Farid’s first home was an old, one-bedroom apartment on Grant Street. When he was reunited this summer with his father, his mother, Dunya Alobaidi, and his brother, Nizar Farid, the family relocated to Westbrook because they had trouble finding an apartment in Portland. They now live in a modest two-bedroom apartment on a quiet side street.

It’s not only a lack of housing that is challenging, Ahmadov said; refugees lack a rental history, personal references or a job. So the agency works with about a half dozen landlords in Portland and Lewiston who are willing to give the refugees a chance, while waiving application fees, which can often be a barrier to housing. Oftentimes, a little help can go a long way.

In May, Farid graduated from the University of Maine School of Law’s Master of Laws Program, a pilot program designed for foreign students with law degrees from another country. The degree is in addition to the degree he earned in Iraq while studying and riding in military Humvees.

Farid said he’d like to be a source of strength for others. He now volunteers with Catholic Charities and dreams of working for the State Department.

“I see myself conducting humanitarian missions. I see myself as a human rights advocate,” he said.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings