Arab families find they face tough choices on housing, work


September 21, 1990|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

Almost all the Arab refugees who had taken up 40 rooms this week at the Sheraton Hotel outside Baltimore-Washington International Airport have been dispersed to the temporary hospitality of friends and relatives in this country. But a few remain -- some saying they never would have left Kuwait if they had known how uncertain the transition here would be.

After federal loans paying for four nights at the Sheraton ran out yesterday, a few families were left sitting in the lobby unsure where they would spend the night. Later in the day, the hotel offered to put them up for another night, regardless of their ability to pay. And Sarah's House, a homeless shelter at Fort Meade, took in three others.

The refugees were part of a contingent of 614 people escaping Kuwait since the Iraqi invasion of Aug 2. They came to BWI aboard three different flights, the last two arriving last Saturday and Sunday. Many of those taking temporary shelter at the Sheraton were Palestinians with Jordanian passports who had prospered in Kuwait in a variety of professional careers. They had qualified for entry to the United States by virtue of having children born here during previous visits.

An accountant who had come with his wife and four children said yesterday that he and others had left their homes, money and careers behind in Kuwait on the strength of promises from the U.S. Embassy that they would be granted permanent residency status, housing, and a chance to find work in America. What they got upon arriving last weekend, however, were six-month residency permits, federal loans for travel, four nights at the Sheraton and great uncertainty about where to go from there.

"If I had known of this uncertainly I would not have come," said the man, who like many of the others at the Sheraton withheld his name. "I would die over there rather than live in this uncertainty. I don't want to beg you."

A spokesman for the Kuwait Task Force at the State Department in Washington said that communication with the embassy in Kuwait was limited and that the staff there may not have been able to provide precise details to people who were inquiring about flights to America. "If there was any misunderstanding, it's regrettable," the spokesman said, "but it's understandable given the stress our embassy was under."

Earlier this week, the refugees rejected the state's plan to move them to the New Windsor Service Center, a refugee resettlement facility run by the Church of the Brethren in Carroll County. The state had received a $120,492 federal grant for a 90-day contract with the center.

But the refugees said that the dormitory-style housing there was unsuitable for families and that the site was too remote for their search for work and a new life in this country. The subsequent offer to stay at Sarah's House was more appealing to some of them because it would give them the privacy of living in individual apartments.

Clarence Brown, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources, which administered the federal grant, said that with no takers at the New Windsor facility, the state will return the money to the federal government. The refugees "have pretty much made the decision they're on their own," he said.

Realizing that, several managed yesterday to find friends or relatives who would take them in.

One couple, Hasan and Aida, said a friend in McLean, Va., had promised to put them up for a few days in her two-room apartment.

Hasan, 40, a university math professor, hoped to find work teaching at a local college, possibly by the beginning of the next academic term in January. If not, he couldn't say what the family would do. "We think of tomorrow," he said. "We can't think of three months."

Alsiro Wael, 28, a civil engineer, had been planning to move with his son to Cleveland, where a friend had told him over the telephone, "come over and we'll see." The invitation sounded too tenuous, so he decided yesterday to stick with the remaining families. He and his son moved to Sarah's House later in the day.

Wael said that soon his wife and brother would be leaving the Philippines, where they had been attending a university, to join him somewhere in the United States. "I was supporting them," Wael said. "Now it's very hard."

Many of the refugees who had stayed at the Sheraton planned to keep in touch, advising each other through a telephone network of their experiences as they fan out across the country. One man identifying himself as Nader said he got a call yesterday from a refugee who had just flown from BWI to San Francisco, only find that the local social service agencies were unable to provide transitional aid. So Nader told him to call another refugee who had qualified for a rent subsidy and food stamps in Napa, Calif.

Another man who had worked in sales for the Kuwaiti national airline, met several sales executives from different airlines meeting this week at the Sheraton. A sales training supervisor with USAir told him, "Whenever you get settled, give me a call."

The man said he would do that, but first he had to settle his family into Sarah's House.

He said he has friends in this country, people who used to put his family up when they took vacations here. "But it's all different now."

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