When the sun sets over the Colonial Traveler Inn, Ahmed and Abeer al Rubaye gather their seven children in a dimly lit room and form a small circle on the floor. The memories of Baghdad’s bombings, shootings, and violent crime — including the street execution of Ahmed al Rubaye’s brother in 2012 — are not discussed.
During dinner of chicken and rice cooked on a hot plate, the children joke and the parents offer advice. It is a far cry from Iraq, where they once owned a home and didn’t need a handout from the state. “I thought America was going to be paradise,” Rubaye said.
Instead, since coming to Massachusetts nearly two years ago, the family has bounced from Lowell to Leominster to this motel room in Saugus, which has made it difficult for Rubaye to find steady work and forced the children to shuttle from one new school to another. The family is among the 4,576 Iraqi refugees who have settled in Massachusetts since the 2003 US invasion, and many are foundering in their quest to assimilate, specialists say.
Like refugees from other countries, they receive limited federal and state financial assistance and are expected to find housing and work, and learn English almost immediately upon arrival. But a combination of traumas many Iraqis have suffered and are still processing — witnessing atrocities or being victims of violence themselves — has made it particularly trying for them. And very large families like the Rubayes may face additional challenges finding suitable housing.
Dr. Sondra Crosby, director of Boston Medical Center’s Immigrant & Refugee Health Program, said a combination of such factors has caused some Iraqi refugees to struggle. “I find it appalling that this family is living in a motel. And they’re not the first,” Crosby said. “The Iraqis are a group that also come with a huge burden of trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and they really need to be resettled in a safe environment, with access to medical and mental health care and to be embraced by the community.”
At 42, Rubaye is broad-shouldered, fit, and used to working with his hands. In Iraq he was a welder and a taxi driver, and he believes that an understanding of the street saved his life many times. Back in Baghdad, he drove with three different ID cards, and, depending on the militia checkpoint, he would present himself as a Sunni Muslim, Shi’ite Muslim, or Christian. Rubaye described the dark side of refugee life — a journey that began in 2013 when his family slipped over the Turkish border and waited to hear about their US refugee application.
Although all of his story could not be confirmed, friends and family backed up key details. In 2014, he said, they arrived in Lowell and were allotted around $10,000 from the government to begin their new lives. For a few months, things looked bright: They settled into an apartment, and Rubaye found work in plastic and clothing factories. They bought a minivan, and the children enrolled in school and started to learn English. “Then, more problems,” Rubaye said in Arabic on a recent day, as a friend translated.
In Lowell, his son Abdul Wahab, who is now 11, began having epileptic seizures. Another son, Taha, 13, was diagnosed with diabetes, he said. And his wife, Abeer, who also suffers from epilepsy, became increasingly isolated in a new country. Rubaye shuttled his sick boys to doctor’s appointments and lost his job. And, after a year, the family ran out of money and lost their apartment, he said.
The state Department of Transitional Assistance, which pays for homeless families with school-aged children to live in motels, found them a place at a Days Inn in Leominster. The family was split into two rooms, and the kids went off to a new school district. But six months later, in February 2016, Rubaye said, he learned that his family had to uproot again. His children returned from school that afternoon to find their belongings in a dozen trash bags next to their minivan.
They were told to drive to a new motel in a place they had never heard of: Saugus. There, just yards away from the constant hum of Route 1 traffic, the nine were assigned two small, yellow-paneled rooms. In the parents’ room, 7-year-old twins Abdullah and Fatimah sleep with their mother, Abeer; Abdul Wahab is in another bed, while, Rubaye finds a place on the floor. In the other room, the oldest boys, Mohammed, 17, Mustafa, 16, and the twins Taha and Yaseen sleep in two beds.
The stresses have mounted. Two weeks after moving to Saugus, a member of the family attempted suicide, Rubaye said. There was a prolonged hospitalization that brought further despair, and a realization that the family was far from settled in their new country. “We all get very sad,” Rubaye said in soft voice, and then he began to cry. Refugee families depend on the federal government to help once they arrive.
To assist them, the State Department contracts with nonprofits to help families find an apartment, sign up for health care, enroll in ESL classes, obtain food stamps, and look for employment opportunities. But the organizations are only required to provide guidance for three months, and refugees who need more help must turn to state programs and case managers for other benefits such as welfare.
Samantha Kaufman, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, declined to comment on the Rubayes’ plight. “We can’t release any personal information about individuals and families,” she wrote in an e-mail. Dr. Richard Mollica, director of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, called for increased refugee benefits from the government.
“If you have a medical problem or a mental health problem or you’re a survivor of torture, the probability that you’re going to make it to independent living after eight or nine months is probably nil,” Mollica said. Currently, the biggest allotment of financial aid for refugees is a one-time federal payment of $2,025 for each family member.
Some families pool those funds for rent and clothing, but at least $900 of each allowance goes to pay administrative costs to such resettlement agencies as the International Institute of New England, which was assigned to the family originally for three months, according to Rubaye. The International Institute did not respond to queries about resettling refugees. Mohammed, 17, and Mustafa, 16, the family’s oldest sons, enrolled at Saugus High School in February.
They have made some friends but still haven’t been able to master English. “These are two great, great kids facing a very difficult situation,” said Seth Minkoff, a teacher, who called the boys “amazingly resilient.” Mustafa wants to attend college but doesn’t dwell too much on the future. Despite living in a motel for the last eight months and attending three different school districts, he prefers America to the war zone he grew up in.
“I like that there is law and order, because there is none in Iraq,” he said. Recently the family received a rent voucher from the state that would pay $2,200 a month to subsidize a market-rate apartment for nine people. Obtaining a subsidized public housing unit is not an option, since the waiting list is long and the process typically takes years.
Last Saturday, Rubaye drove over to Chelsea to see a five-bedroom apartment. “I waited and waited,” Rubaye said. An hour later, no one had showed up, so Rubaye drove back to his motel room and broke the news to his wife. Later that night, they did not discuss the apartment, as the family sat in their cramped dinner circle on the motel room floor.
By Steven A. Rosenberg