viernes, 4 de febrero de 2011

Inventing a New Life, Yet Again


When she first came to this country and this city in June 2007, Nour al-Khal wore a head scarf, as was proper for a woman from Basra, a Shiite-dominated city in southern Iraq. She continued to wear it for more than a year. Then, on an August day in 2008, the scarf came off.  She was a bridesmaid at a wedding. To Ms. al-Khal, it seemed a good moment to lose this “small piece of cloth on my head” that instantly, and incorrectly, made her an Islamic radical in some people’s eyes. “It was a crucial step on my part to be integrated in the society here,” she said the other day.

But integration requires more than a wardrobe change. Work is essential, too. A job is one thing that Ms. al-Khal has not had for the past 15 months. “I’ve been applying basically for anything: translating, teaching, baby-sitting, cat-sitting, everything — jobs I never thought of in my life,” she said. “I’m not lazy. I’m not sitting on the couch all day. I just want to move forward.”

Perhaps you recall Ms. al-Khal’s story. It has been told before. With the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, she parlayed a degree in English from Basra University into a translator’s job with the United States Agency for International Development. She also did translation for foreign reporters, working most closely with Steven Vincent, a freelancer from New York who had gone to Basra to chronicle spreading violence there.

In August 2005, the two of them were abducted by armed men believed to have been part of a police death squad. Mr. Vincent, 49, was killed, his body dumped in the street. Ms. al-Khal — a name that she adopted for her own safety when she went to work for the Americans — was shot three times. A bullet is still lodged in her left leg.

While she recovered in Iraq, Mr. Vincent’s widow in New York, Lisa Ramaci, knocked on many doors to convince the American government that Ms. al-Khal deserved to be classified as a political refugee. Her perseverance paid off. Ms. al-Khal, then in her early 30s, landed here in mid-2007 to begin life anew.

Things started out well enough.

She lived for half a year in Ms. Ramaci’s narrow, book-filled apartment in the East Village, where photographs and mementos in a window form a shrine to Mr. Vincent. She took a job as a receptionist at a real estate firm. She found other places to live, first in Chelsea, then in Astoria, Queens, sharing space with an Iraqi family. She landed a new job, a good one. Working from home, she did English-Arabic translation for a nonprofit group that advised the American and Iraqi governments on international law and human rights issues.

That job lasted until November 2009. Her employer lost its government contract, and Ms. al-Khal was laid off.

For a while, she got by on her savings, but they evaporated. Unable to keep up the rent payments in Astoria, she moved back in with Ms. Ramaci this week, back to a bedroom that used to be Mr. Vincent’s office. Ms. Ramaci is unemployed herself, let go last summer by an auction house in New Jersey where she had worked.

“Welcome to America in 2011,” Ms. Ramaci told her old and new roommate. “You’ve got 35-year-olds moving back home with their parents. It’s not just you.”

Indeed, it isn’t, for Americans or for refugees.

Among Iraqis, thousands have had trouble reinventing themselves in this country, which bears considerable responsibility for their displacement with its long war. Many had worked in Iraq for American government agencies and news organizations, often as translators in dangerous situations. Now they find themselves in a recession-battered America that has diminished interest in Iraq — and in the Iraqis who had helped it.

It may not be just about Ms. al-Khal, but like Yossarian in “Catch-22,” she can’t help taking it personally. She has even begun talking about a return to Iraq, though that does not seem realistic. She would probably lose her refugee status. Also, she acknowledged, Basra is still perilous. Besides, Ms. Ramaci said to her: “there is no way that I will let you go back to Iraq. We will find you a job, and we will get you a life.” For Ms. al-Khal, work and life are intertwined. And to her mind, no matter how weary of war Americans may be, the fact that she is an Iraqi with a skill should matter. “A lot of work needs to be done between the two countries,” she said. “We still have business. We’re not finished with each other.”