Iraqi Father Shares Experience As Refugee In Houston

Houston’s open-door policy for refugees is being threatened by state officials, who are pushing to block Syrian refugees from entering Texas.

Haider Elias poses near a Christmas tree with his wife and son.
Haider Elias and his family have taken to celebrating Christmas since coming to Houston as refugees six years ago.

*Editors Note: In a previous headline of this story we identified Haider Elias as Syrian. We regret the error.

Haider Elias says languages are kind of his thing. He’s fluent in four, and he put those skills to work as a translator for the U.S. military in Iraq. Since moving to Houston six years ago, he’s picked up a few new phrases.

“The ‘hasta la vista’ is one that I liked,” Elias says. “It’s always, ‘see you whenever you want.’”

Elias and his family came to the U.S. as refugees. They’re Yazidis, members of the Iraqi religious minority that’s been persecuted by ISIS. Like almost 40 percent of all refugees who come to Texas, they resettled in Houston. Elias found work within a month at a computer manufacturing company.

“I already spoke good English and I already knew how to apply for jobs,” he says. “It didn’t take me very long actually to find a job, but that was not the kind of job I was looking for.”

Today, Elias works from home as a freelance translator, and he’s a U.S. citizen. But when he first got to Houston, he didn’t have a lot of options.

Refugees don’t get to decide where they resettle in the U.S. Cities are assigned to them based on a number of factors – where they have friends or family, and what kind of economic opportunities they’ll find.

Sara Kauffman is the Houston director for Refugee Services of Texas, a nonprofit resettlement agency.

“One of the advantages we have in Houston is we have many jobs available for people who are new,” Kauffman says.

She says most refugees the group works with are employed within four to five months. With thousands more coming to Houston each year, Kauffman says lots of local businesses see an advantage in hiring them.

“We have some people who call us when they have job opportunities coming up because they know refugees are ambitious,” she says. “They work hard. They are really committed to doing well in their work, and so I think employers recognize that and see refugees as a great hire for them.”

But Houston’s history of welcoming newcomers has been challenged recently. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been a vocal opponent of resettling Syrian refugees in the state.

“Now with the possible connection of one of the Syrian refugees being involved in the terrorism attack in Paris — Texas is saying no more,” Abbott told Fox News last month.

The state has since gone to court to fight the federal government over refugee placement. Texas has dropped a request for an immediate temporary restraining order aimed at blocking the arrival of a Syrian refugee family. But state officials are moving forward with a federal lawsuit aimed at stopping further resettlements. A hearing is set for next month.

Still, that sentiment has not been echoed by leaders in Houston. Mary Lee Webeck is the director of education at Houston’s Holocaust museum. The museum recently invited Elias to give a talk there.

“This city has a heart,” Webeck says. “I think that connecting to that heart and finding people that can communicate with that is really, really essential to all of us.”

The Holocaust Museum audience listened carefully as Elias talked about the history of the Yazidi people’s religious persecution.

“They were left traumatized, and they were forced to put their lives on hold,” Elias says.

Since leaving Iraq, Elias has become a vocal advocate for the Yazidi community. He says getting support from such diverse groups gives him hope about the future of refugees in Texas.



Tomeka Weatherspoon

Senior Producer

Tomeka Weatherspoon is an Emmy-award winning producer. She produces segments, the weekly television program Arts InSight, the short film showcase The Territory and a forthcoming digital series on innovation. Originally from the Midwest, Tomeka studied convergence journalism from the world’s first journalism school at the University of Missouri. She has...

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