Spotlight: Yaaroub Al-Doroubiy

– Written by Alexandra Magearu

When I arrive at the Cleveland offices of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) at the Catholic Charities, I encounter Yaaroub at his desk, busily engaged with helping his clients. “Things have been hectic today,” he tells me as he courteously greets me and invites me to the room assigned for our interview. Yaaroub’s role as a Self-Sufficiency Specialist at MRS requires that he is available, flexible, and supportive at all times. Things develop quickly and often in unpredictable ways in the daily routine of social work organizations like MRS, and you need to always be on your toes. Yaaroub loves his job. He tells me that he used to work in IT as a computer programmer back home in Iraq. His work was often solitary and, as a result, he thought of himself as an introvert. When he started working at MRS in 2015, he discovered new angles of his own personality. All of a sudden, he was interacting with people from various backgrounds and he enjoyed the experience thoroughly. To this day, he derives enormous satisfaction from helping recently resettled refugees and guiding them as they navigate their new environment. “I’m always using myself as an example,” Yaaroub says. He hopes his story inspires other refugees to persevere and succeed in the United States, despite the numerous challenges they encounter upon arrival such as learning a foreign language, finding a job, and becoming habituated to the differences in living, health care, and education.


By the beginning of 2012, Yaaroub and his wife, Rasha, had given up their expectations that the political situation would improve in Iraq. The destabilization of the country in the aftermath of the U.S.-led intervention had now led to a full-blown insurgency, sectarian violence, and generalized chaos bordering on civil war. Yaaroub and Rasha were especially concerned that their two small children, Yahya and Yousif, would grow up in an increasingly unstable and violent environment. The family’s home was, in fact, situated in a residential neighborhood in Baghdad less than two miles away from the Green Zone, an area that was growing increasingly dangerous at the time. But their hopes to relocate did not materialize right away. The turning point came when Yaaroub’s father, Quais, became ill and required a series of treatments unavailable in Iraq. They all traveled to Jordan, on an invitation from Yaaroub’s uncle, in order to secure the appropriate treatment for Quais. In Jordan, Yaaroub and Rasha could go out whenever they liked, they took their children to the playground, and enjoyed a provisional sense of safety. Reflecting on those times, Yaaroub remarks pensively that living in a constant state of war can have strange effects on your conception of normality. He and Rasha had become so habituated to the everyday violence in Iraq that they had lost hope that life could be otherwise. The trip to Jordan jolted them into awareness.


The Iraq Body Count project recorded 4,622 civilian deaths due to violence in 2012. Most of the deaths were caused by bombings in which thousands of other civilians were also wounded.[i] And the violence would only intensify with the beginning of the Civil War (2014–2017). By the end of 2012, Yaaroub and his family decided that their life in Iraq had become unbearable, and they started planning their relocation. They traveled once again to Jordan and began their application for refugee status for Yaaroub, Rasha, their children, and Yaaroub’s parents, through the International Organization of Migration (IOM) at the United Nations. Quais, a doctor by profession, had spent several years in Cleveland, Ohio when he was completing his graduate studies in the late sixties and early seventies. Given this prior association, the family stated their preference to be resettled in the United States. Their application was eventually approved, but their waiting time was lengthy. Refugees entering the United States face a rigorous vetting process that may take one to two years. Individuals and families are first officially declared to be refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in accordance with international laws and they are referred to the United States. They then enter a security clearance process ran by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, they attend an in-person interview with a U.S. Homeland Security Officer, they undergo medical screenings and cultural orientation training, and they are matched with a sponsoring agency in the United States. Yaaroub’s family began their application in November 2012 and they finally boarded their flight to the United States in August 2014.


Remaining permanently in Jordan was not an option. While Jordanian authorities were compelled by international laws to host displaced individuals and families throughout their resettlement process, refugees were not allowed to work, purchase a car, nor access other benefits available to citizens. As of 2019, the UNHCR reported that approximately 165,000 refugees were issued work permits in Jordan out of a total of 744,795 persons of concern from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and other contexts.[ii] But throughout their resettlement process, Yaaroub and his family had to depend on their savings for their daily necessities and on the kindness of Yaaroub’s uncle, who provided an apartment for their temporary stay in Jordan. They were amongst the lucky ones, Yaaroub tells me. Every month he and his family were required to visit the Amman offices of the IOM, and every time they witnessed thousands of people lining up to check on their applications or to begin their resettlement process. Many of them, Yaaroub knew, were relegated to refugee camps in Jordan, subsisting in adverse conditions.


When their flight landed in New York, Yaaroub encountered the first difficulties of their transition to the United States. As they were waiting for their transfer to Cleveland, Yaaroub wanted to buy some snacks for Yahya and Yousif, but he found himself struggling to articulate his first full English sentences. Although he had grown up with English-language music and films, listening to his father’s Frank Sinatra records, and passionately transcribing the lyrics of different American pop songs in high school, Yaaroub realized that his conversational English was very poor. He could understand spoken English, but he found it difficult to express himself in the beginning. He was also apprehensive about what awaited them in the United States. Yaaroub tells me that he was part of an Iraqi generation who grew up on a steady diet of anti-American governmental propaganda. He is careful to note, though, that stereotypes work both ways. While their fears were dispelled when they encountered hospitable and supportive people in the United States, Rasha still has to sometimes fend off comments about her appearance. Lingering on her choice to wear a hijab, acquaintances confess their surprise when they learn that she has a degree in Biology and that she is looking for ways to restart her career in the United States. People have to understand that wearing a hijab is most often a personal choice, Yaaroub tells me.


Upon their arrival in Cleveland, they were greeted at the airport by an Iraqi caseworker for MRS, the refugee resettlement agency Yaaroub’s family was assigned to. The MRS team welcomed them in their new home, an apartment social workers had furnished in preparation for their arrival. They were also provided with everything they needed, including food and clothing. Throughout their first months in the United States, they continued to be supported by MRS social workers and offered ESL classes, self-sufficiency mentoring, and employment advice. But it took a while for Yaaroub and his family to adapt to living in the United States. While Yahya and Yousif learned English very quickly at daycare and through their interactions with other kids, language learning was more difficult for the adults. Yaaroub’s parents, Quais and Ibtsam, became more isolated due to their advanced age and because they no longer had a community of neighbors and friends to rely upon as they did in Baghdad. Luckily, they were all reunited with Yaaroub’s two sisters and his brother, who are also living in the United States. Shortly thereafter, Yaaroub and Rasha welcomed their third son into the world, Yaseen. To support their expanded family, Yaaroub accepted a job in a spare-part car factory, but he had to take an abrupt leave when Rasha was lightly injured in a car accident. He supported his wife throughout her recovery, taking her to her medical appointments.


When he was ready to return to work, Yaaroub was offered a position as an Arabic-language interpreter at the Catholic Charities. He then applied to another position as a case manager with MRS and he secured it in December 2015. He, thus, began his new job as a Self-Sufficiency Specialist as part of the Reception and Placement program (R&P) and the Refugee Social Services Program (RSSP), helping newly arrived refugees connect with the resources they need in their first three months in the United States and beyond. The Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services recommends intensive case management for recently arrived refugees for four to six months as an alternative to public assistance.[iii] But often, this is a limited amount of time to help refugees become self-sufficient. Yaaroub notes that “self-sufficiency” is a variable concept for different clients. Those who had access to education and work in their home countries can easily adapt to their newfound circumstances. But many refugees have been deprived of opportunities prior to their relocation, some of them having spent many years in refugee camps in which they were not able to develop their skills. This is why MRS provides additional assistance for up to five years after arrival through RSSP.


Yaaroub tells me that he feels incredibly fulfilled to be able to work closely with people, get to know them better, and support them throughout the challenges of their transition. But there are difficult aspects to his work as well, particularly the fact that he absorbs the stories, feelings, and troubles of others, and carries them home with him. “Their stories weigh on me,” Yaaroub tells me, “and I keep thinking about them and try to find solutions for them after work.” But whenever he is dealing with difficult situations, Yaaroub is supported by his colleagues and the MRS leadership. Catholic Charities provides a number of workshops and trainings for their employees on managing difficult cases, coping with stress, and self-care practices such as yoga classes. Working at MRS is like being part of one big family, Yaaroub says. But Yaaroub also tells me that he is worried about the changes implemented in the refugee resettlement program in recent years and the dramatic lowering of the number of refugees admitted in the United States from 84,995 in FY 2016 to 18,000 in FY 2020.[iv] He is concerned about the effects these shifts will have on the services they will be able to provide. He also fears losing his job given the reduction in governmental funding that is usually distributed to resettlement agencies. But he knows that, whatever happens, he will pursue his passion for social work, possibly going back to school for another degree.

-by Alexandra Magearu

[i] “Iraqi deaths from violence in 2012,” Iraqi Body Count, January 1, 2013,

[ii] “UNHCR continues to support refugees in Jordan throughout 2019,” UNHCR, December 31, 2019,

[iii] Ken Tota, “Moving to the United States: Programs to Support Refugee Self-Sufficiency,” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, September 6, 2018,

[iv] “UNHCR troubled by latest U.S. refugee resettlement cut,” UNHCR, November 2, 2019,