December 1, 2013

Mideast unrest powers influx of newcomers to Maine

Increasing numbers of people escaping violence are resettling in the state at a time when housing and jobs are hard to find, especially in Portland.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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

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Ali Farid, left, a native of Iraq who assisted the U.S. military, now resides in Westbrook with his mother, Dunya Alobaidi, and his brother, Nizar Farid.

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Carlo Bufano, a Jobs for Maine Graduates career specialist at LearningWorks, counsels Sudanese immigrants about education and work opportunities.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Sumia Yousif, a Sudanese immigrant, fills out an application for the LearningWorks Youth Building Alternatives program. She liked the fact that she can receive a small stipend while learning.

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Ali Farid

 


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