Amid the Heated Debates, Iraqi Immigrants Struggle to Make a Living in Arizona

Familiar fare—qeema, biryani, dolma—offers comfort to the thousands of refugees starting life over in Phoenix

Butcher shop owner Sajad Saleh sells his wares at the Al Tayebat Meat Market. (Bryan Schutmaat)
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Perhaps you’ve bought pita bread at the supermarket? Dry, flat: a kind of envelope for holding food. Now imagine something more like a beautiful down pillow where food could rest and relax and dream big dreams.

And you’ve probably never tasted a samoon, a diamond-shaped Iraqi bread, because, if you had, you’d have moved to Phoenix so you could live within smelling distance of the Sahara Sweets Baghdad-style bakery, which is in a strip mall next to the Iraqi halal butcher and the Iraqi grocery store. A samoon, hot from the wood-fired oven, is like a popover that you can really sink your teeth into. It wants hummus the way pancakes want maple syrup.

Can you wrap your mind around a tray—a huge tray, the size of a pool table—that’s nothing but tiny squares of baklava, a giant grid of honeyed puff? There are eight or nine of these trays at Sahara Sweets, just waiting for the moment when Iraqis across the city get off their jobs and race to the bakery.

If you’ve got these images in your head (or in your mouth), then perhaps you can imagine a secure, prosperous Iraqi community under the Arizona sun. There, sadly, you’d be wrong. Thousands of people are making a new life here, but Iraq is just about the most traumatized society on earth, and Phoenix is not exactly easy on migrants, and it all adds up to a real struggle to gain a foothold. Which is why food is such a refuge.

Jabir Al-Garawi founded the Iraqi American Society for Peace and Friendship in Phoenix in 1993. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Both Fatima Alzeheri (left) and Fatema Alharbi arrived in Phoenix as children. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Samoons, Iraqi bread similar to a popover, are baked in wood-fired ovens at Sahara Sweets bakery in northern Phoenix. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Dolma, hummus and gyros line the table at Papa’s Gyros, a local Arizona eatery serving Middle Eastern fare. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Baked disks of freshly made flatbread are tossed at Sinbad’s Restaurant. (Bryan Schutmaat)
A tray of baklava, a sweet treat made of puffed dough, honey and sugar, greets customers at Sahara Sweets. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Ali Mohammed moved to Phoenix in 2013 after serving as an interpreter for the U.S. military during the Iraq War. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Baklava and tea complement a local Arizona/Iraqi newspaper found in Phoenix, a large resettlement community for Iraqis. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Mohammed Essa eats shawarma at a local Palestinian restaurant. (Bryan Schutmaat)
Saad Al-Ani worked as an engineer before leaving Iraq for Syria. He later migrated to the U.S. because of the civil war in Syria. (Bryan Schutmaat)

Meet, for instance, Ali Mohammed. “Just like the champ, except backwards,” he says, clenching his fists above his head like a prizefighter. He’s a genial, round-faced 34-year-old who went to work in 2003 as an interpreter helping the newly arrived U.S. forces train the local police and army. “I was the human device between the Americans and the Iraqis,” he says. “At first it was very normal, but after about 2004 it started to get dangerous. You were riding in the Humvee with the Americans, and the people thought you were a traitor.” U.S. soldiers issued him a Glock pistol, but he didn’t carry it. “I’m a Muslim,” he says, “and I know everyone has a last day for his life.”

The last day for his job was August 3, 2006, when his father was executed by militants. “They attacked him because he was an effective man. A preacher. And because of me.” Mohammed applied for permission to come to the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, granted to those in danger because of their work with coalition forces. “America let me down for a long time by not letting me in. I might have been killed anytime.” Finally, in 2013, he received his visa and joined the growing Iraqi community in Phoenix. “I was thinking the U.S. was going to be much better than Iraq,” he says. “It’s a good place to have freedom. But it’s hard to have a new chapter. It’s not a place to be sitting in your chair and chilling out.”

Mohammed was eager to work. After his stint as a translator he’d been a high-school English teacher in Iraq—he was one of the few recent arrivals we met who spoke the language fluently. Even so, the local resettlement agency in Phoenix wanted to get him a job as a hotel housekeeper. “I told them I could find work myself. I have the Internet so I have the world in my hand.” He got a job at an Amazon warehouse, which he liked—but when the Christmas rush was over, the job was too. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees hired him to ask people on Phoenix street corners for money to support other refugees around the world. “And people couldn’t even give cash—they had to give you their credit card number. So here was a fresh guy stopping people in the street and explaining to them that there are millions of refugees around the world that need your help. The first week I got one donation. The next week I failed to get any. So now I’m looking again.” (Since we saw him this spring, he’s been rehired by Amazon on a temporary basis.)

It wasn’t just that business is slow. This is Arizona, with one of the most restrictive immigration laws in the country and a sheriff’s office last year found guilty of systematic racial profiling. And it isn’t just the locals who can be hostile. Sometimes it’s other Iraqis “who say to me, ‘What are you doing here? Get back to your country.’ I call all these people the dream stealers, the dream thiefs,” says Mohammed. There are days when he’d like to return, and if Iraq ever got safer he might—“but I’m not going back with empty hands. At least I’ll get a degree.”

With his English and his Horatio Alger pluck, Mohammed is far luckier than many other arrivals. Therese Paetschow, who helps run the Iraqi American Society for Peace and Friendship (the organization changed its name after its old offices were vandalized the night after 9/11), says unemployment is common and “mental illness is epidemic—pretty much everyone who gets here is fleeing something horrible, and when you hear that a bomb killed 20 people in your hometown, it brings it all back. And there are so few resources. There are no Arabic-speaking psychiatrists or counselors in the area—the resettlement agencies have counselors for victims of torture, but they’re maxed out.”

About Sue Halpern and Bill McKibben
Sue Halpern and Bill McKibben

Sue Halpern and Bill McKibben live in Vermont, where they work at Middlebury College and write books and articles on subjects ranging from therapy dogs to climate change. Being good Vermonters, they make their own granola and try to eat three meals a day together.

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