As an aid worker in Iraq, I worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations to help Syrian refugees fleeing the Islamic State. Now, I’m an immigrant myself, building a new life in Chicago and contributing to my new home as an administrator at a local hospital.
I urge our leaders to rethink policies that make it harder for refugees to come and contribute to America. Our willingness to welcome the world’s displaced and vulnerable has historically made American communities stronger and wealthier — but so far this fiscal year, America has admitted just 18,051 refugees, down from more than 80,000 in 2016. That decline is eroding our moral leadership in the world and weakening the economy in communities all across the country.
I was born and raised in Baghdad, in a middle-class family. When Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003, I left my private-sector job and joined USAID to help rebuild my country. For years, I worked alongside Americans to improve Iraqi health clinics. Then in 2014, I joined a United Nations team in Erbil, where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees were crossing the border to escape the Islamic State. We helped people who had lost everything to obtain shelter, food and medical attention. Thanks to our efforts, the 125,000 Syrian refugees in Erbil have now integrated into the local economy, building new lives for themselves and their families, and bringing much-needed skills and creativity to northern Iraq.
But while we worked, Islamic State forces advanced toward northern Iraq. Luckily, I was able to gain a Special Immigrant Visa, which grants U.S. residency to Iraqis persecuted for assisting the U.S. government. In 2014, I left my old life behind and came to America with my family.
I was fortunate. Recently, it has grown far harder for Iraqis to obtain these visas. Around 100,000 Iraqis are still seeking to come to America under the Special Immigrant Visa and related programs, but last year the U.S. government approved just 200 visas, down from 10,000 in 2016.
Sadly, that’s in keeping with the current administration’s broader refugee policies. The U.S. is offering sanctuary to fewer and fewer refugees — a trend that’s bad not only for those in need, but also for American communities. As my own life story shows, refugees are often highly skilled and motivated to become productive members of the American workforce. Almost 4 out of 5 refugees are working age, according to New American Economy, and America’s refugees have a collective household income of $77.2 billion, and pay $20.9 billion each year in taxes. Refugees boast high rates of retention with our employers. The diversity that we offer to U.S. companies has been proven to boost bottom lines and innovation.
Certainly, my wife and I have been working hard since coming to Chicago. Thanks to Upwardly Global, a nonprofit that offers job coaching, skill-building and networking to work-authorized immigrants and refugees, we were both able to find work with a local nonprofit organization, where I used my experience as a project manager to coordinate in-home care for seniors across the Chicago region. Three years ago, I took a new role as international programs coordinator at a South Side hospital, where I now help patients from around the world access treatment.
I’ve also just received a master’s in biomedical informatics from the University of Chicago, gaining health care management skills that will help me ensure that all our patients receive prompt, effective care from our world-class physicians. I’m proud to know that I’m giving back to Chicago — especially in health care, a sector that powers our city’s economy but continuously faces severe worker shortages.
I’ve seen hope and suffering in the tent cities of northern Iraq, and I know I’m fortunate to have escaped the Islamic State and to have been given a chance to build a new life in America. My wife and I now own our own home, as is the case for about 6 out of 10 refugee families. Our children are growing up in peace and safety.
We’re grateful for our new life here and are proud to be able to fully contribute our skills to Chicago’s workforce. I hope America will continue to give immigrants the same chance to build new lives here, and to enrich our communities and our economy, in years to come.
Taif Alshakir is an international programs coordinator at University of Chicago Medicine.