Florida prepares for Iraqi refugee influx
By Saundra Amrhein, Times Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, January 28, 2009


MIAMI — Many Iraqi refugees are about to make Florida their new home.

Iraqis displaced by the U.S.-led war are among new groups of refugees who will increasingly be resettled in communities throughout Florida and the country, a United Nations official said Wednesday.

The U.N. has referred more than 42,000 Iraqis for resettlement in the United States. Of those, 15,000 have already arrived — many of them religious minorities or single mothers whose husbands were killed, said Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Yungk spoke to more than 200 case workers, educators and social service providers for refugees during a conference at Florida International University.

Iraqis are a growing group of refugees, he said, noting that just two years ago only 300 Iraqis were resettled anywhere in the world. About 2 million Iraqis are now considered displaced outside their country and an equal number inside. Many have sought refuge in neighboring countries, such as Jordan and Syria.

The focus of the conference was to discuss ways to address refugees' trauma and mental health needs beyond a job and housing. Florida resettles 25,000 to 28,000 refugees a year – three times more than any other state. The majority are placed in South Florida, while Tampa Bay is the second largest area for resettlement.

The conference was sponsored by the Florida Department of Children and Families Refugee Services and Clearwater-based Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, which has social service programs in 32 counties and does refugee resettlement.

Resettled refugees in the Tampa Bay area come from countries that include Cuba, Bosnia, Sudan, Somalia, Burma, Colombia, Venezuela and Liberia.

Yungk warned the audience what to expect about the Iraqi refugees: Surveys found that 20 percent of them have had a family member kidnapped and between 40 percent and 50 percent have seen someone killed.

"There is a huge amount of trauma," Yungk said.

They are more highly educated than other resettled refugees.

"But that should not lessen the amount of help they are going to need, or the patience, upon their arrival.''

Yungk said to expect more refugees from Burma and war-torn Congo, where an estimated 400,000 women have been raped in the past few years

Organizers noted that resettlement has gone beyond driving refugees from the airport to an apartment.

"It's not just about jobs or housing, which is very important, and food," said Michael Bernstein, president of Gulf Coast. "It's also about resilience and recovery and healing from wounds that many, many thousands (experienced), have been through torture, genocide."

While refugees are very resilient, that shouldn't be taken for granted, said Dr. Richard Mollica, director of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.

While not all refugees need a diagnosis or are pathological, Mollica said, service providers do need to recognize and deal with the humiliation and psychological scarring some experience and the deep-seated need for justice.

"You can't ignore that someone killed your three children," he said.

But patients do learn how to live a productive life without letting their anger and grief consume them, he said.

Tampa Bay's refugees

The four-county area — Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, and Pinellas counties had 10,173 refugees, asylum seekers and other "entrants" resettled between 2004 and 2008. In 2008, the largest numbers of those who were resettled came from these countries:

Cuba: 1,677

Burma: 88

Haiti: 50

Colombia: 51

Venezuela: 35

Iraq: 23