March 12, 2010

Steady influx of Iraqi families helps agencies keep pace

KELLEY BOUCHARD

— By

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Iraqi refugees continue to come to Maine's largest city at a slowed but steady pace, rallying assistance from municipal and school agencies and many community volunteers.

The Iraqis are arriving with little more than the clothes they can carry. Most of them are relocating from Atlanta, having heard that Portland offers the security, good schools and friendliness they found lacking in the much larger Southern city.

They are among nearly 20,000 Iraqi refugees who have been admitted to the United States since 2007, fleeing the war that has pummeled their country for six years. More than 2 million Iraqis are living as refugees in Syria, Jordan and other countries, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

A total of 24 Iraqi families -- 111 individuals -- have arrived in Portland since late October, the bulk of them coming in November and December, said Robert Duranleau, the city's social services administrator.

An additional 200 to 300 Iraqi families are expected to move here from Georgia and possibly other states in the next several months, according to city and school officials. They are choosing to relocate as legal residents of this country, and have access to public services available to any disadvantaged person who lives in Portland.

The Iraqis are coming despite shoulder-high snow banks and an uncertain future as they search for a safe place to raise their families. ''The snow is nothing compared to the violence we experienced in Iraq. Even though it's cold here, our children are safe,'' said Huda Kadem, 40, speaking through a translator.

She came to Portland last month with her husband, Raed Khudhair, 45, and their five children, ages 10 to 22. The family is living in a third-floor apartment on Munjoy Hill, and the children are enrolled in Portland public schools and adult education.

In Baghdad, Khudhair operated a grocery store and a taxi. In 2006, he said, his family was attacked and his elderly father was killed by Shia militiamen. The family fled the city, spent 10 months in Syria and five months in Atlanta, then saved enough money to fly to Portland. They lived in the city's family shelter for a few weeks until a case worker set them up in an apartment.

''This is a beautiful place,'' Khudhair said of Portland and his sparsely furnished home.

Iraqi arrivals have slowed, possibly in response to a recommendation last December from Catholic Charities Maine. The refugee service provider suggested that Iraqis planning to move here from other states pace their arrivals so social-service agencies can better help them find housing, enroll their children in school and access other services.

One Iraqi family came in January; four families came in February.

''We haven't used a hotel in months, there's plenty of capacity in our family shelter, and we've been able to find housing for them relatively quickly,'' said Douglas Gardner, Portland's health and human services director.

Since October, 52 Iraqi children have enrolled in Portland public schools through the district's multilingual program. Headed by Grace Valenzuela, the nearly 30-year-old program serves about 20 percent of the district's 6,989 students.

Although small compared with larger cities, Portland's student population includes immigrants from 49 different language backgrounds who are learning to speak English. As a result, the influx of Iraqi students has gone fairly smoothly.

''We've been at this for a long time, so we're always ready to welcome anyone who arrives on our doorstep,'' Valenzuela said.

She noted that although formal education for most Iraqi children has been interrupted for several years, their parents are well-educated and eager to get their children back in school. ''The feedback I've been getting from my staff is that the parents and the children are very nice to work with,'' Valenzuela said.

With a $3.9 million annual budget, the multilingual program received about $300,000 in federal funding this year to provide services for students who are refugees or learning to speak English, Valenzuela said.

In addition, $1 million of the $14.9 million that Portland received in state education aid is based on its multilingual student population, said Herb Hopkins, the district's business manager.

Valenzuela noted that the 300 or so immigrant students that Portland enrolls each year help to slow an overall enrollment decline. She said that helps the district financially because the state considers student population in the formula used to determine how much education aid Portland gets annually.

The district's student population decreased 1 percent this year, from 7,061 to 6,989, and it's projected to decline 2 percent to 6,843 students in 2009-10, said interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers.

Still, Portland's enrollment decline this year was less than the statewide average of nearly 2 percent, a factor that helped the district get $14.9 million in state aid, up from $12.3 million last year, Whynot-Vickers said.

In addition, the district's adult education program receives a portion of a $350,000 federal grant awarded to Catholic Charities Maine for refugee resettlement services, said Arian Giantris, the agency's director of refugee and immigrant programs.

Some of that grant also goes to the city's social services division, which has a $4.5 million budget to provide a wide variety of assistance for disadvantaged residents, including new immigrants and refugees. Services range from housing and food vouchers to life-skills training and employment and education counseling.

General assistance, a welfare program that is partially reimbursed by the state, accounts for about $2.6 million of Portland's social services budget, said Gardner, the health and human services director. He's expecting general assistance to exceed its budget this year by about 12 percent ($312,000) because the recession has increased overall demand.

Among the 4,436 Portland residents who received general assistance last year, 726, or 16 percent, were refugees or ''secondary migrants,'' the official term for refugees who have left their original settlement location. The city's refugee assistance program provided services to 1,459 residents last year, including 514 new clients, most of whom were born in Somalia, Sudan and other African countries.

Refugees and secondary migrants also may receive state and federal subsidies for housing, food and other programs.

Despite all that Portland's municipal and school agencies are doing for Iraqi families, volunteers are stepping forward to fill in the gaps. Individuals and groups, such as Peace Action Maine and Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church, have provided assistance ranging from free furniture to transportation. Members of Portland's Sudanese community who speak Arabic have offered translation services.

''There has been an outpouring of community support that's both nice to see and necessary,'' said Margie MacDonald, coordinator of the multilingual program in Portland schools.

MacDonald's concern for the Iraqi families has her helping them after hours. She gave Huda Kadem and Raed Khudhair two mattresses, several chairs and a kitchen table, delivering most of the furniture herself because the family has no transportation.

''They have nothing,'' MacDonald said. ''Until a few days ago, they had no beds, no chairs, nothing. The children were sleeping on the floor, and that's no way to prepare them for a new school in a new place.''

MacDonald worries that the Iraqis coming to Portland have high hopes that it will be a wonderful place, but will find themselves isolated by the weather, lack of transportation, cultural differences and a language barrier.

Kadem and Khudhair said their situation is difficult, but it's getting better every day.

''I am thankful from the bottom of my heart,'' Khudhair said.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

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