Iman Allawi is a devout Sunni Muslim who came to this country two years ago with little formal education, no knowledge of English and a disarming smile that speaks to her singular determination to build a new life here for her family.
Shaymaa Mohsin describes herself as a freethinker, dresses like a Westerner and talks as if she were born to rock the boat. She arrived in the United States in 2008 armed with an engineering degree, a sharp command of the English language and a determination to find the professional and personal freedom that wouldn’t have been possible in her homeland.
Both women are from Baghdad. But their lives didn’t intersect until they met in Philadelphia — through, of all places, a Jewish organization.
JEVS Human Services, the 71-year-old agency formerly known as the Jewish Employment and Vocational Service, has assisted Allawi and Mohsin — both young mothers — in their efforts to resettle in Philadelphia, though in very different ways.
“The reason I am talking the language now is JEVS and the reason I am working now is JEVS,” said Allawi, 35, who wore a glittering, purple hijab.
For her part, Mohsin, 34, came to JEVS seeking assistance finding work and ended up landing a job there.
Their stories illustrate how two women reared in a country where the government promoted a hatred of Jews — and, in fact, forced most of the Jews out — have come to identify closely with the Jewish people.
“If I could find a job in Israel, I would go,” said Allawi, when asked about her attitudes toward Jews.
Both women are also examples of how survivors of a traumatic war try to move on from the past, even if the pain can’t be left behind completely.
And last but not least, theirs is an immigration story.
The immigration issue was thrust to the top of the political agenda last week with new proposals put forth by President Barack Obama and by a bipartisan group of senators to create a path to citizenship for most of the nation’s roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants.
None of the reforms being discussed would have any impact on either Allawi or Mohsin, who have been granted refugee and asylum status, respectively. They’ve been admitted to the country by the U.S. State Department and are automatically on a path to citizenship.
But their experiences highlight the work that two Jewish organizations, JEVS and HIAS Pennsylvania, are doing to help newcomers become full members of society. Up to this point, JEVS has served far more Iraqi clients than HIAS.
And officials of these organizations tend to downplay the difference between immigrants and refugees, noting that both come here to restart their lives and that in doing so, they all face considerable obstacles.
“To be a refugee is extremely difficult,” said Zoya Kravetz, who in 1979 came to Philadelphia herself as a refugee from the Soviet Union, and for the past 14 years has directed JEVS’ Center for New Americans in Northeast Philadelphia.
JEVS, an organization with an annual budget of $57 million, was founded after World War II to help retrain Jewish refugees from Europe to work in America. In addition to the Center for New Americans, the organization runs a technical school, offers services for the physically and mentally disabled, and has a career strategies program.
Allawi walked into the JEVS center two years ago unannounced, speaking no English and desperate to find work. She has three children: a daughter, Amani, 7, and two sons, Mustafa, 5, and Hakeem, 4, and a husband who is unable to work.
For six years, Allawi’s husband, Muthanna, a car mechanic by trade, worked as an assistant to The Wall Street Journal in its Baghdad bureau. According to Allawi, he acted as a translator and a guide, taking reporters out of the Green Zone, the international, fortified zone that was the base of American operations, into other parts of the increasingly perilous country. A spokeswoman for the paper identified him as a driver.
Insurgents regularly targeted Iraqis who worked for American organizations. In 2010, he was the victim of a car bombing, according to his wife.
“He had burns on his skin. I still have the pictures,” Allawi said. “The shrapnel is still there.”
She said the family realized their situation in Iraq was untenable and applied for refugee status. They waited for eight months: She and the children stayed with relatives, he remained in the Green Zone.
The issue of absorbing Iraqi refugees — especially for those families who worked with the Americans — has been a delicate one. Some have pushed for the country to do more for those who put their lives on the line and remain in jeopardy.
Exactly where refugees are resettled in the United States is determined by a variety of factors, including whether they know anyone in a particular place and where there is a resettlement agency able to help them.
The Allawi family had a friend in Philadelphia and arrived here in January 2011.
They were among some 9,000 Iraqi refugees admitted to the United States that year, about half as many as in 2010, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ website. Of the 2011 arrivals, 72 Iraqi refugees came to the Philadelphia area, according to a state department official.
Most of the Iraqis in the area have been resettled by a non-Jewish agency but once they start seeking employment, many of them have gravitated toward JEVS, with the word spreading through the community about the benefits there.
In 2011, Iraqis made up 36 percent of clients at JEVS’ Center for New Americans. Today, that number is 52 percent out of a total of 149 clients.
Kravetz said that when refugees first arrive at JEVS’ door, either as referrals or walk-ins, they are told, “You need to get a job and we are here to help you.”
With her husband physically unable to work, it was up to Allawi to support the family. Another Iraqi immigrant suggested she check out JEVS, and she began taking English, computing and vocational classes offered by the agency.
Allawi credits her Russian-born job counselor, Yana Kanevsky, with helping her find work, first as a cashier at T.J. Maxx and — after she got sick for a time and lost that job — working behind the register part-time at a supermarket. Allawi also said Kanevsky has provided emotional and logistical support through many unforeseen tribulations, such as when her son was injured in an accident and she had a dental procedure go wrong.
“This is a Jewish person and she did so many good things for me,” said Allawi, whose family also relies on federal welfare to make ends meet. As a condition of receiving welfare, she must perform a certain number of hours of community service and she has chosen to do so at JEVS.
Kanevsky , who described Allawi as a good-hearted person who works as hard as she can for her family, has had her own awakening of sorts working with Iraqis.
In 1991, she was living in Haifa when the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles at the center of Israel. But that, she said, doesn’t affect her relationship with Iraqis seeking a better life here.
“How the doctors feel about their patients — it is the same for me. All my clients, they are refugees looking for our help. It doesn’t matter from where they are from,” she said. “We want to help them not just with one thing here, one thing there. We are trying to do more and more.”
Now, Allawi hopes to get a full-time job, to get her family into better housing, and for the entire family to become citizens. Despite being uprooted and the instability that has wracked her country, she is not sorry that the United States invaded Iraq.
The war ultimately led her family to the United States, she said, where each member of her family can expect a better life.
Mohsin, Allawi’s interpreter during the interview, said she uses her friend as “an example of courage and persistence.”
Those terms could certainly apply to Mohsin as well.
The daughter of a Shi’ite father and a Sunni mother, Mohsin said she never quite felt comfortable in her home country.
“It’s hard to be a woman in the Middle East,” she said, adding that she no longer considers herself Muslim and is now “something of a Buddhist.”
“I was not OK with following the traditions,” she continued. “I was challenging everything. I am still doing that in America.”
Mohsin said the American invasion may have led to a sharp decline in security, but it brought plenty of economic opportunity. Armed with an engineering degree, she found work at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and later with the United Nations, both as an interpreter and an engineer.
But insurgents conducted a series of reprisals against those who worked in the Green Zone.
“It was very hard working there because whoever works for the United States and the Americans is a traitor” in the eyes of terrorists, she said. “A co-worker, she went out one day and was taking a cab and no one heard from her again — ever.”
In 2008, she was granted a student visa and moved with her husband to Washington State, where she enrolled in a graduate engineering program. But she dropped out after she gave birth to their only child, a son. She lost her student visa, but she told American officials she could be killed if she was sent back so she was granted asylum status.
The couple moved to Philadelphia nearly two years ago and divorced soon after. Mohsin was then joined here by her parents and — though she’d worked as a part-time interpreter out west — found herself unemployed and responsible for three people.
She sought help from JEVS. She knew it was a Jewish organization and had grown up with anti-Semitic rhetoric all over the media. But she also recalled her grandmother telling her about Jewish friends and what a tragedy it was that the Jews were forced to leave Iraq.
JEVS ended up hiring her to assist with the agency’s growing number of Iraqi clients. Part of her mission was to help convince many of them that it was OK to get help from a Jewish organization.
Last year, she started work as a caseworker. It was her job to help clients overcome whatever stood in the way of being able to find employment, whether it was finding childcare or learning to speak the language.
Now, she spends half her time as a caseworker and half as a job counselor. She is tasked with finding employers to hire refugees. In this economy, she said, that’s no easy assignment. So far, she has gotten three people hired. Part of the challenge, she said, is helping Iraqis, many of whom come from middle-class backgrounds, adjust to working so hard to attain a standard of living below what they had back home.
She said that JEVS is becoming so well known in the Iraqi community in Philadelphia that few now have qualms about seeking help there.
Personally, she said, she has put aside her goal of advancing her engineering career to continue with what she has found to be her true calling: helping refugees find their footing. “I love working with the people,” she said. “I love helping them.”