After the Iraq war broke out, Ghazwan Al-Sharif went to work translating for the U.S. military - a job that paid well but subjected his family to repeated violence, including a brutal attack on his sister.
Scared for his life, Al-Sharif accepted the government's offer to come to America as a refugee, one of thousands relocated to this country since the war began. In June 2008, he moved in with two other Iraqi refugees, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood - a situation arranged by the nonprofit International Rescue Committee.
It wasn't long before Al-Sharif said he learned that there were parts of Oakland where violence rivals what he escaped in Iraq.One night, he decided to walk home alone. Two men attacked him, bashing him in the face with a metal object and robbing him of some money, his cell phone and his ID. He was left screaming on the ground, his face gushing blood.
He said the police never identified his attackers.
Al-Sharif, 40, is one of more than 50 Iraqi refugees who have been moved to East Oakland by the International Rescue Committee. The nonprofit's officials say they won't settle refugees in unsafe neighborhoods, but Al-Sharif and dozens of other Iraqis blame the organization for exposing them to an unfamiliar type of violence - one perpetrated by gangs rather than political militants.
Al-Sharif admitted it wasn't smart for him to walk home alone at night. And committee officials say they warned Al-Sharif, and all refugees the group resettles, to heed safety precautions.
The nonprofit's officials say they've distributed flyers on safety issues, stepped up efforts to work with local police and no longer place refugees in jobs with swing and graveyard shifts. The group has stopped placing refugees in Fruitvale and other of Oakland's most dangerous neighborhoods, although some refugees continue to live in these areas. Al-Sharif has since moved to San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood.
Like many of his fellow Bay Area refugees, Al-Sharif does not believe the International Rescue Committee has done enough. "Why are you putting them in Oakland and letting them suffer?" he said, referring to his fellow refugees. "I want to be safe. ... I can find work and manage to survive, but I need to be safe."
Oakland as refuge
Oakland has a long history of hosting immigrants from around the world. Affordable housing, easy access to city services, efficient transportation such as BART, and an accepting, multicultural society make the city a great place for refugees, said rescue committee spokeswoman Melissa Winkler.
But the nonprofit receives only $1,800 in federal funding to provide each refugee with housing, employment and other basic needs. That doesn't go far in the Bay Area, and refugees are expected to be financially self-sufficient within four months.
That's why the IRC chose to resettle many of them in Oakland, where housing is often inexpensive.
"It's key for us to ensure that refugees are able to keep paying their bills after the financial support ends," said Don Climent, who used to head the now-dissolved San Francisco chapter.Unfortunately, the city also has one of the country's highest crime rates, according to federal statistics and other studies.
Beth Schlachter, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the State Department, said government guidelines for relocating refugees don't consider crime rates. The requirements for "decent, safe and sanitary housing," she said, extend only "from the apartment itself to the building or apartment complex they're living in."
Since the start of the Iraq war, nearly 60,000 Iraqi refugees have settled in the United States, including almost 14,000 in California.
Jordan Gerstler-Holton, The Chronicle