November 12, 2013

Iraqi refugees find Augusta appealing

Affordable living, tolerance and services mean more may arrive.

By MICHAEL SHEPHERD Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Fleeing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, Khalid Zamat came to America in 2000 by boat, illegally.

click image to enlarge

Youssof Zamat, left, pours tea while Ghazi Yousif, center, answers questions during an interview at the apartment of Khalid Zamat, right, in Augusta.

Photos by Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

click image to enlarge

Khalid Zamat

He said after a jail term for illegal immigration in Mississippi, he lived in Louisiana after he was granted asylum. His family followed three years later, legally.

But in 2005, their lives changed. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Zamats’ home. The family evacuated, and after stays in other states, they settled in Portland. About six weeks ago, Zamat moved his family into a duplex just off Water Street in Augusta.

“The people are nice and it’s quiet,” he said through a translator, his son, Youssof, 19.

The Zamats are part of a recent influx of between 10 and 15 Iraqi families to Maine’s capital city. William Bridgeo, the city’s manager since 1998, said “not in my time” has there been such a quick, steady migration of immigrants to Augusta.

“But many people would say that the Franco-Americans arrived this way and the Polish arrived this way and the Irish arrived this way,” Bridgeo said.

Augusta’s Iraqis virtually all came from other parts of America, but Julia Trujillo Luengo, director of Maine’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, said she’s still trying to track down more information on their backgrounds.

For the Zamats, Youssof said it was simple: They came to Maine because it was quiet and they heard it was a good place to live.

“He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t like it when it’s busy,” Youssof said of his father. “You know, Louisiana’s a big state and it’s busy all the time. Maine’s the quietest place in America, I believe.”

Larry Fleury, owner of River City Realty and the Zamats’ landlord, said Iraqis have found it more cost-effective to live in Augusta over southern Maine.

Judy Katzel, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities Maine, the primary provider of resettlement services to refugees in Maine, said the agency settles people in and around Portland and Lewiston, not Augusta. They would likely lose touch with most people who later move. Still, she said it would be a “reasonable theory” that Iraqis are moving to Augusta partly because they find it cheaper.

But Augusta’s influx happened quickly, with little notice.

The surge created new challenges. Officials say the city’s welfare office has been tested, and city schools saw more than 20 new students of many ages who speak Arabic, with little or no command of English.


The Zamats live in half of a duplex on Bond Street.

Khalid and other Iraqis pray, drink tea and chat in a large, empty room with black sheets hung behind Islamic tapestries.

Khalid, 47, speaks basic English well, but apprehensively. During an interview, he often leaned on his son Youssof and his cousin Ghazi Yousef, 45, for translation.

The Zamats said they are from southern Iraq, around Nasiryah, a large city that was the site of one of the first major battles after the United States’ 2003 invasion, which toppled Hussein, who was executed in 2006.

America has withdrawn from Iraq, but the country isn’t much better off after the war. In 2005, the Failed States Index, which measures the control a government has over its territory, ranked Iraq the world’s fourth least stable country. In 2013, it ranked it 11th.

Violence has increased as al-Qaida in Iraq has recently gotten stronger: The United Nations says nearly 7,000 have been killed this year in acts of terrorism and violence in the country. Many say terrorists flow back and forth across the border with Syria, in the throes of civil war.

(Continued on page 2)

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