From Iraq to Ceres: Doctor escapes, only to face economic war

February 6, 2009 

  • Lending a Helping Hand

    To help Iraqi and Iranian refugees, contact:

    World Relief in Modesto 491-2712

    International Rescue Committee in Turlock667-2378

    Light From the East: Web site

CERES -- Emil Adam knew he'd have eight months in the United States to find work before he'd lose the benefits he's entitled to as an Iraqi war refugee.

That timeline seemed inconsequential to the 51-year-old physician when he prepared for the journey in Lebanon last year.

"I didn't care for the eight months," he remembered thinking, "because I am going to the U.S., the master of the world. I will get a job."

His deadline is just four weeks away, and Adam still can't find steady work.

His dreams for a stable life in America are colliding with the country's worst economic recession since World War II.

"This is our luck," said Adam, who fled Iraq with his wife and three daughters when sectarian violence in their south Baghdad neighborhood made life unbearable.

"I am ready to work any job. I have to save my daughters," he said. "I am ready to work any job, but I can save patients."

More than 160 Iraqi refugees settled in Stanislaus County last year, drawn by a network of friends and family who immigrated to Modesto, Ceres and Turlock before the U.S. invasion of their country in 2003.

The refugees are finding an economic downturn that hits especially hard in their new cities. At 13.6 percent, the county's unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation.

Adam and his family settled in Las Vegas, then moved to Ceres a month ago to be closer to an uncle.

Some of the refugees found entry-level jobs as clerks or mechanics, said Violet Baza, a Ceres resident who has been helping them settle. Many of them need help learning English or figuring out the basics of American life, such as buying car insurance.

Adam, fluent in English, has applied for his share of low-skill jobs at retail stores but came up empty-handed.

He comes from a highly educated family of engineers and would prefer to work in medicine again. Doing so would require going through a state medical licensing process that would take half a year at best, but most likely longer if Adam's credentials are found insufficient.

In that case, he fears he'd have to return to medical school and work as a resident before practicing as a doctor.

Daughter worried, too

His oldest daughter, 26-year-old Silvana, has similar concerns. She finished her education as a civil engineer in Baghdad in 2005 but couldn't pursue her career because of the war.

She doesn't know where to start now that she's in the United States. It's possible that she can work for a licensed engineer and apply for her own credentials at a later date.

As uneasy as they are about their finances, Adam and his family are grateful for the calm they found in America. They're not considering returning to Iraq despite improved security in Baghdad.

"I trust Americans. This is my new country. This is my new life," Adam said.

He is haunted by some of the violence he witnessed in Baghdad in 2005 and 2006, a chaotic period when sectarian gangs killed almost randomly.

"It was a disaster. They were savages," Adam said.

Insurgents had placed improvised explosive devices in front of the Adam home to target U.S. military vehicles. The bombs would explode and shatter the house's windows.

Some killers murdered people and left maimed corpses in the streets.

"I was afraid one of my daughters would see these sights and become a victim," Adam said. "Can you imagine a man without a head?

"You know what pictures are in my head. They cannot be crossed out. They will stay for my life," Adam said.

The violence drove away many of Adam's neighbors. More than 2 million Iraqis have fled their country, and 2.7 million are displaced from their homes but remain in Iraq, according to the United Nations.

Adam ran his own private clinic but couldn't sustain it with people afraid to leave their houses.

"Nobody threatened me, but you can't live there. There are no people, and if there are no people, there are no patients," he said.

'I am losing my skills'

Adam finished his medical training in 1981 and spent five years as a doctor in the Iran-Iraq war. He kept his clinic open through the 1990s, when United Nations sanctions crimped Iraq's ability to import medicine.

His family lived for a year and a half in Lebanon before he got permission from the State Department to move to America.

"I have been practicing as a doctor for the last 27 years, and now I am out of a job," Adam said. "I think to myself I am losing my skills, and I am 51 years old."

His options to tide him over until he finds work likely will include extending his state benefits as a loan, a prospect that worries him because of the uncertainty of employment.

It already seems to embarrass him to accept the state checks that pay his bills.

"I am living as a homeless person taking checks from the welfare. This is the way I feel," he said.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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