Iraqi refugees working to blend in with Utah society

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SALT LAKE CITY — Over the past couple of years, there's been an influx of new engineers, doctors and teachers in the Salt Lake Valley. They're just like other group of professionals, except they come from Iraq.

What is ... NAAN?
The New American Academic Network (NAAN) is a partnership between the University of Utah, University Neighborhood Partners, and the International Center, the department of Workforce Services and resettlement organizations of Utah. The goals of the partnership are to connect individuals of immigrant and refugee background with higher education, creating opportunities for them to return to school and/or employment. -NAAN website

Omar Salih arrived in the United States with a college degree and a plan to do social work, but he couldn't find a job. So, he decided to return to the Middle East.

"The first six month, I make decision to return back. I feel like I am reach closed road. There is nothing," he said.

That's why the state, the University of Utah and resettlement agencies created NAAN, the New American Academic Network.

Like Omar Salih, many Iraqis with credentials — doctors, engineers, would-be social workers — who came to Utah were getting frustrated.

"Because they were unable to really get those entrances, the frustration was building and people were going back, and perhaps in very unsafe circumstances," explained Rosemarie Hunter, with the University Neighborhood Partners.

NAAN tries to get refugees in school and/or reconnect them with their professions. Omar Salih got an internship. Mazen Hamoudi, a psychiatrist, got some money for expensive recertification tests. "(I am) studying during the night, working during the day, taking care of a wife, two children," he said.

Yes NAAN, it has support because it gives you blueprint to give you what you can do, because we are coming here blind.

–Muthana Maltouf, Iraqi refugee


Engineer Hussein Kadhim got a mentor. "When I go to the United States I don't want people talk about me (and say), 'He go to the Unites States. He did nothing.' I wanna make something here," he said.

"Yes NAAN, it has support because it gives you blueprint to give you what you can do, because we are coming here blind," explained Muthana Maltouf.

"Because I am a refugee, I want to help other," said Hana Al Shamry. She teaches English to her Iraqi neighbors. Next year, she'll pursue a graduate degree in social work.

"I like to really continue my education, because I said education is the light of your way," she said. "Yeah light for everything, light to start your life with education."

As for Omar Salih, he found a job and decided to stay in the U.S. He is studying English so he can go back to school and pursue a career in social work.

"I am feeling good," he said. "There's a lot of trust now. I trust myself. I trust my goals. After two years here, I'm OK. I really am OK."

Many of these Iraqis received refugee status because they did work for the U.S. government. They were branded as conspirators and became targets for violence.


Written by Peter Rosen with contributions from Bruce Lindsay.

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