Refugees from Kuwait seek work, security

September 18, 1990|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

The lobby of the Sheraton at Baltimore-Washington International Airport bustled with engineers, accountants and other professionals who had lost houses, cars, savings -- everything but the clothes and the now unexchangeable Kuwaiti dinars they had carried out of Kuwait. They knew they could find jobs and prosper in this country, if only their immigration status would permit it.

"This is not what we are looking for, financial support," said a man identifying himself as Taha and holding out his hand in a mock gesture of begging. "We need to make our living through our own work."

Taha is 41 years old, a neatly bearded man in a gray plaid suit who was previously a technical director of an industrial engineering firm in Kuwait. He finds it difficult to make plans until he knows how long he can stay and work. "For the time being, I have no definite plan. We are looking for job openings," he said, though he is uncertain an employer would take a chance on someone with temporary status in this country.

Taha and his family arrived Saturday. They were among 614 people to arrive since Sept. 10 on one of three flights to Baltimore bearing hostages of the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. About half of them were foreigners who qualified for the flight to this country through their American-born children. Most are living on federal loans for temporary shelter and travel.

All asked that their names be withheld from print for fear of reprisals against relatives left behind in Kuwait.

Don Crocetti, deputy director of the Maryland office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said his agency had already granted several exceptions to the adult refugees from other countries by providing many of them with six months to live and work in this country while the federal government works out a new law or policy to accommodate their special circumstances.

One precedent for a special exception, Crocetti said, was President Bush's executive order last year allowing Chinese nationals in this country to live and work here until Jan. 1, 1994.

While the adults conferred in the hotel lobby yesterday about where they would look for a new life in this country, their children played ball games and hide-and-seek and explored the woods outside, all within sight of the airport where they had just arrived.

A man calling himself Nader said he and many of the others in his situation had deliberately arranged for at least one of their children to be born in this country while they studied or traveled on business or as tourists. It was a hedge against the uncertainty of the Middle East.

"We were planning for the future, so that if our son was born here, perhaps after 18 years he could get us the green card," Nader said, referring to permanent resident status.

Nader is a civil engineer, his wife an executive secretary. The elder of their two sons was born 11 years ago in Washington, while Nader was doing graduate work at George Washington University.

He holds a Jordanian passport, but as a Palestinian, he and others say they have no connection there and see no opportunity for themselves.

Nader's family, like many others, walked out of their house and locked the door, assuming they would never see it again. Nader said he packed a few changes of clothes and some suits, his university diploma, his children's childhood albums and their school yearbook. The rest is lost.

"I had a brand new BMW car. I just bought it," Nader's wife said.

She said the family also brought about $100 in American cash and 80 Kuwaiti dinars, worth about $240 at the pre-invasion exchange rate. She packed her woolen clothes to prepare for the American winter and her sturdier clothes, she said, not the elegant dresses that are favored in Kuwaiti society. For each of the two boys, she was able to squeeze in five jumpers and three pairs of jeans.

Nader said he would fly to Los Angeles with his boys on Thursday to leave them with his sister, so they can start school while he looks for a job. Friends in the Baltimore-Washington corridor told him to look in the West or the South. But he prefers the international atmosphere of Washington and hopes to find a job in real estate development.

Another man, a nuclear medicine technologist, planned to fly with his wife and three children to Los Angeles today on the hunch that it might offer the best opportunities in his field. "This is what I hear," he said, adding that "the climate there is nice."

He knows no one there. The only money he has consists of federal cash loans that might keep the family in a hotel a few days, and Kuwaiti dinars, which haven't been exchangeable for other currencies since the Iraqi invasion.

As for what will happen if his money runs out before he gets steady work, the man said, "I don't know, I really don't know."

Another Palestinian man, a 34-year-old accountant who graduated from the University of Rhode Island, said he had called a distant relative in Dayton, Ohio, who promised to put up his family and his cousin's family in a two-room apartment.

"We have to share the room for a couple of days and see what happens," he said. "We feel it's a shame on us to depend on someone else."

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