AUGUSTA — Fleeing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, Khalid Zamat came to America in 2000 by boat, illegally.
After a jail term for illegal immigration in Mississippi, he lived in Louisiana after he was granted asylum, he said. His family followed three years later, legally.
But in 2005, their lives changed. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Zamats’ home. The family evacuated, and after stays in other states, they settled in Portland, Maine.
They lived there until about six weeks ago, when Zamat moved his family into a duplex just off Water Street in Augusta.
“The people are nice and it’s quiet,” he said through a translator, his son, Youssof, 19.
The Zamats are part of a recent influx of between 10 and 15 Iraqi families to Maine’s capital city. William Bridgeo, the city’s manager since 1998, said “not in my time” has there been such a quick, steady migration of immigrants to Augusta.
“But many people would say that the Franco-Americans arrived this way and the Polish arrived this way and the Irish arrived this way,” Bridgeo said.
Augusta’s Iraqis virtually all came from other parts of America, but Julia Trujillo Luengo, director of Maine’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, said she’s still trying to track down more information on their backgrounds.
For the Zamats, Youssof said it was simple: They came to Maine because it was quiet and they heard it was a good place to live.
“He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t like it when it’s busy,” Youssof said of his father. “You know, Louisiana’s a big state and it’s busy all the time. Maine’s the quietest place in America, I believe.”
Larry Fleury, owner of River City Realty and the Zamats’ landlord, said Iraqis have found it more cost-effective to live in Augusta over southern Maine.
Judy Katzel, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of Maine, the primary provider of resettlement services to refugees in Maine, said the agency settles people in and around Portland and Lewiston, not Augusta. They would likely lose touch with most people who later move. Still, she said it would be a “reasonable theory” that Iraqis are moving to Augusta partly because they find it cheaper.
But Augusta’s influx happened quickly, with little notice.
The surge created new challenges. Officials say the city’s welfare office has been tested, and city schools saw more than 20 new students of many ages who speak Arabic, with little or no command of English.
â€˜Too many Saddams’
The Zamats live in half of a duplex on Bond Street.
Khalid and other Iraqis pray, drink tea and chat in a large, empty room to the left of the front door, with black sheets hung on the wall behind Islamic tapestries.
Khalid, 47, speaks basic English well, but apprehensively. During an interview while sitting on the floor there, he often leaned on his son Youssof, 19, and his cousin Ghazi Yousef, 45, for translation.
The Zamats said they are from southern Iraq, around Nasiryah, a large city that was the site of one of the first major battles after the United States’ 2003 invasion of the country, which toppled Hussein, the long-standing dictator who was executed in 2006.
America has withdrawn from Iraq, but the country isn’t much better off after the war. In 2005, the Failed States Index, which measures the control a government has over its territory, ranked Iraq the fourth least stable country in the world. In 2013, it ranked it 11th.
Violence has increased recently as Al Qaeda in Iraq has recently gotten stronger: The United Nations says nearly 7,000 have been killed this year in acts of terrorism and violence in the country. Many say terrorists are flowing back and forth across the border with Syria, in the throes of civil war.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, has been blamed by many for an autocratic style, favoring Shi’ites. Zamat, also Shi’ite, left Iraq before him. Hussein, a Sunni, was in power then.
Around the time of the Gulf War in the early 1990s, Zamat said through his son, if you left home to go to the store, the government could take you to fight for them and never bring you back. Many of his friends disappeared.
Khalid said he was jailed twice there for no reason, once for a week, once for four months. He pulled up his keffiyeh to show a place on top of his head where hair doesn’t grow. He said a policeman burned him in jail.
He snuck out, getting to Syria and then to Mississippi. His kids and wife got here legally in 2003. But other family members — his parents, five brothers, nieces and nephews — are still there.
He’s scared for them. He said the family’s home, in a small town outside Nasiriyah, was shot recently. They’ve been getting threatening letters at their homes, he said.
It’s no better in Iraq than it was when he was there, Khalid said — it’s anarchy.
“There was Saddam Hussein, just one,” he said. “Now we have too many Saddams.”
Anticipating a rise
Khalid said he was a farmer in Iraq. In Louisiana, he worked in a gas station, his son said.
Now, he said he lives on Social Security Disability Insurance. He typically can’t sleep more than two hours, he said, for fear that he’ll get a call saying a family member in Iraq died.
Bridgeo, the city manager, learned about Augusta’s Iraqi influx a few weeks ago, when between 10 and 15 Iraqi men showed up in Augusta’s welfare office. Some were single; some had families.
Refugees often arrive with few possessions and can receive some assistance when they get to America, according to Catholic Charities. Once they are present in a Maine city with the intention of staying, they can get General Assistance to help pay for rent, food and utilities.
“It’s something we can pretty much take in stride now at the current numbers,” Bridgeo said, but if more come there could be “ramifications on staffing,” forcing the city to spend more on welfare and interpretation services.
The impact at schools has been just as large.
A few weeks after the school year started, more than 20 students flooded into English as a second language programs at Cony High School and Farrington Elementary School, said Augusta Superintendent James Anastasio, who said they’re anticipating more.
Twelve Arabic-speaking Iraqi children between the ages of 5 and 12 showed up at Farrington in the last month, said Lori Smail, the school’s principal.
That influx virtually doubled ESL teacher Robin Wilkinson’s program there, which served 12 kids speaking nine languages before the Iraqi influx.
At that level, Smail and Wilkinson said the school immerses the kids in language, using pictures and physical movements to teach kids throughout the school day.
“There’s so many opportunities for teaching in every little thing we do,” Wilkinson said. “It’s not just this lesson and this lesson, but every time we move there’s something.”
Anastasio said to account for the influx, two part-time positions, an education technician and teacher, were bumped up to full-time. The school board also allowed Anastasio to hire one more teacher if needed, as he expects more Iraqis to come to the city.
“They’re a tight-knit community like any other community,” Anastasio said. “Family units tend to follow family units and friends tend to follow friends.”
The Zamats say a lot of families have followed Khalid from Portland to Augusta, as he helps new families settle into the area.
“Most people want to live next to my dad because they like him,” Youssof said.
Similar to Somalis?
Immigration of Iraqi refugees to the United States has come in fits and starts.
After the Gulf War, many were resettled here. But in 2006, only 202 were admitted, even as Iraqis fled their war-torn country for refugee camps. More than 85,000 have come since then, according to federal data.
Maine has been an increasingly common landing place for refugees as well as legal, permanent resident immigrants, or those holding “green cards.”
In the 2012 fiscal year, nearly 10 percent of Maine’s 1,500 admitted green card holders were Iraqi, compared to 2 percent nationally. As a percentage of holders, Maine had more than any state that year besides Michigan, long known as the center of Iraqi immigration to America.
The same year, 78 of Maine’s 203 admitted refugees were Iraqi, third as a percentage of Iraqi refugees among states with more than 200 refugees that year, only behind Michigan and California.
But secondary immigrants — refugees who come to Maine after being initially settled in other places in America — are the main reason for Augusta’s influx, officials say. That was also the case in Portland in 2008 and 2009, when the Portland Press Herald reported that 24 families came to the city with hundreds more expected.
Secondary immigrants also fueled Maine’s most prominent recent mass migration, the rise of Lewiston’s Somali population, also kicked off by immigrants from Georgia.
University of Maine sociology professor Kim Huisman put secondary immigrants’ share of the Somali population at 95 percent in a 2009 paper.
But don’t start drawing parallels between the Iraqis and Somalis, warned Trujillo-Luengo, of Maine’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.
“It is indeed secondary migration,” she said. “But that’s really the only commonality between both groups.”
For example, UNICEF says the share of out-of-school children in Somalia and South Sudan is as high as 70 percent. In Iraq, the overwhelming majority of kids have historically gone to school. World Bank data from 2007 said 89 percent of primary school-aged children attended school.
A reference sheet on Iraqi immigrants from the National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness says while parental involvement in Iraqi schools is low, education is highly valued and teachers are well-respected. Many Iraqis have postsecondary degrees, and before the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iraq was a regional educational center. Khalid said one Iraqi immigrant to Augusta is a veterinarian.
“The people of Augusta should embrace them because these are mostly well-educated, nice people,” said Fleury, the landlord.
At Farrington, Smail, the principal, and Wilkinson, the ESL teacher, have seen that. At an optional after-school holiday event recently, Smail said all Iraqi students attended, parents in tow.
“They value education so much,” she said.