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Migration in the Americas: Iraqis in US, safer but struggling

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR

Samad and Dina Jabbo dance at a banquet organized for the Iraqi community in El Cajon, Calif. Samad, 40, his wife Dina, 37, and their daughters Monica, 16, and Milano, 12, and son Antonio, 7 months, arrived in the United States in June 2010 after living in Damascus, Syria, for four years. They are Christians from Baghdad and have green cards. They felt their lives were in danger when they lived in Iraq.

Photojournalist Kadir van Lohuizen traveled from the southern tip of South America to the far reaches of Alaska on the North American continent to explore migration in the Americas. What he found both supported and defied stereotypes, which he reported on a website and an app for iPad called Via Panam.

“Little Baghdad” is the nickname for El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego that is home to a high concentration of the 116,000 Iraqis living in the United States. The Kurds came in the late 1980s, followed later by Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. They live together peacefully, far away from the violence in Iraq, but life is far from easy. Many lost their social status and networks of family and friends when they emigrated, and they often struggle to find work. Xenophobia is also an ever-present obstacle.

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR

Monica Jabbo opens her locker at school in El Cajon. She and her sister Milano love being in the U.S. but it's still a struggle for the family -- they have to finance day-to-day life and pay their rent, which is $1,200. Because Monica's father Samad is unemployed, the family has to rely heavily on government assistance -- $760 per month.

The United States admits thousands of Iraqis each year as refugees -- although that is only a fraction of the number that Iraq's Middle Eastern neighbors and some European countries have absorbed. Nonetheless, their numbers in the San Diego area rose rapidly after the American invasion of Iraq. El Cajon, around 15 miles northeast of San Diego, has almost 7,000 Iraqi-born residents out of a total population of 100,000. A further 3,000 have Iraqi ancestry, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR

The Baghdad cafe in El Cajon, above, is a popular tea house frequented by many Iraqis in the community.

In recent years, Iraqi stores and restaurants have been cropping up across the city, the Arabic script signs above their doors quickly becoming part of the city's scene. But the growing Iraqi presence has also brought some unsavory characters: According to authorities, members of Iraqi criminal organizations from Detroit are now active in El Cajon. In late 2011, police raided an Iraqi club in search of drugs and weapons.

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR

Mohammed Mustafa, 68, in his store in El Cajon. Mustafa and his wife Nasrin, 58, have eight children, two of whom live at home. They are from Dohok in Iraqi Kurdistan. In August 1988 they fled to Diyarbakir in Turkish Kurdistan, and in September 1991 they arrived in New York. They made their way to El Cajon in June 1993. Mustafa feels he has made a mistake by coming to the U.S. and not returning to Kurdistan, where the economy nowadays is growing. The family recently opened this 'Community Fashion' store but business is very slow, he says.

Many Iraqis in El Cajon say xenophobia is common, and some fear being the victim of a hate crime. It is not an unfounded worry -- a 32-year-old Iraqi woman was murdered in El Cajon in what appeared to be a racially motivated attack in March. Next to her body police found a note threatening her family. "Go back to your own country, you're a terrorist," it read.

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR

Breakfast at home. Khattab Aljubori, 37, and his wife Suhad, 31, frequently speak to their family in Iraq through Skype. The computer is parked near the table so that they can have breakfast 'together'. The family, including children Ibrahim, 4, Awos, 3, and twins Mustafa and Fatima, 6 months, as well as Khattab's mother Nhanaa, 61, came to San Diego in November 2010 from Babylon, Iraq. Khattab worked for the U.S. in Iraq as a computer and info system administrator and was often threatened for being a U.S. agent. In the end it became so dangerous for him and his family that they sought asylum in the U.S. and were granted visas.

Iraqis in El Cajon make an effort to support their fellow immigrants. Each year the Iraqi community organizes a large celebration that brings everyone together. Local businessmen meet one another and newly arrived immigrants learn about life in America from their established countrymen.

Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR

Khattab with his family in a park in San Diego. While they lived comfortably in Iraq, they find it much harder to be successful in the U.S. and they say they feel they've lost their dignity. Khattab likes the U.S. but his wife wants to go back to Iraq. She says she feels locked up and misses her family. Finances are also an issue -- Khattab earns some money repairing people's computers but they depend on government support and sometimes find it difficult to pay the rent.

K. van Lohuizen / NOOR

From Colombians fleeing war to North Americans retirees moving to Nicaragua, a photographer's journey from Chile to Alaska explores both the expected and unexpected patterns of migration in the Americas

Experience the entire journey, from Chile to Alaska, by exploring the slideshow at right, the Via Panam website or by downloading the app for iPad.

More Photoblogs from the Migration in the Americas series:
Mom works in US while family stays in El Salvador
US retirees flock to Nicaragua

On the run from water in Panama

Bolivia hopes for windfall from producing lithium

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