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Iraq's refugee nightmare.; The Exiles

Anna Husarska is senior policy adviser at the International RescueCommittee.

Amman, Jordan

One day in late February 2004, a 30-year-old Iraqi Christian namedJourj found a note stuck to the windshield of his friend's car: "Becautious, your day is approaching, oh traitors of Iraq and slavesof dollar," the message warned in Arabic. It was addressed toJourj, his younger brother Tony, and the car's owner, Munir, all ofwhom were working as contractors at a U.S. military base south ofBaghdad. A tall man with a broad smile, Jourj has a wife and twosons, now nine and four. He had gotten work as a satellitetechnician on the base through his uncle Danny, an Iraqi-Americanwho served as a translator for U.S. forces. Now he was earning anaverage of $2,000 per month--more than he had made before theinvasion.

But the warning from Iraqi insurgents was clear: Cut ties with theAmericans or face retribution. Jourj consulted Tony and Munir. "Ishowed them the note and we agreed that we cannot simply stopworking for the Americans," he recalls. "We had all sorts ofcommitments. I took an advance to do maintenance of the bathrooms,and tent after tent of soldiers wanted to have the decoderinstalled to watch Fox News and other American channels ontelevision."

Two weeks later, on the evening of March 5, Jourj and Tony piledinto Munir's Opel and headed home from the base via a mostlydeserted highway. Jourj was exhausted, so he took the back seat,where he slumped into a half-sleep; Tony sat on the passenger sidein the front. Munir was going about 120 kilometers per hour, butsuddenly he looked in his rearview mirror and noticed a car quicklygaining ground on them. "This is trouble," he murmured. "May Godprotect us." As the vehicle overtook them, bullets sprayed intoMunir's car. Jourj was relatively unharmed; Munir was shot in theshoulder but survived. Tony, however, was killed.

Six days after burying his brother, Jourj was, incredibly, back atwork on the base. "I wanted to fulfill my commitments," heexplains. But, after only a few days, he received a phone call athome in the evening. "You were the target, " a voice said. "You arenext." That was as much as Jourj could take. The next day, he, hiswife, and his sons left home for good. They changed locationsaround Baghdad for over a month, waiting to observe the traditional40th-day mourning ceremony for Tony. As soon as it was over, theyhired a driver for $350 and traveled four hours to the Jordanianborder. The good news was that they were safe. The bad news wasthat they were now refugees--and their problems had just begun.

These days, you can find stories like Jourj's throughout Jordan andSyria-- stories of Iraqis who put their faith in America's abilityto transform their country and, when America failed, were forced toflee for their lives. Millions of Iraqis have been displaced fromtheir homes since the start of the war in March 2003. Of those,perhaps two million have fled their native land, many taking upresidence in Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. But these host countrieswon't allow them to stay permanently, they can't go back to Iraq,and there are few opportunities for resettlement in thirdcountries. The best that can be said for their situation is thatthey made it out of Iraq alive. In many cases, though, they escapedwith nothing, and now their futures are in limbo.

A few streets away from where Jourj settled in Amman lives Juliana,another Iraqi Christian whose family was turned upside-down by itsinvolvement with the U.S. military. (A disproportionate number ofthe Iraqis I met who had worked with Americans are Christians;perhaps Americans prefer to hire them because it minimizes thecultural gap.) Both her brother and sister were translators for theArmy. "There was a captain and a lieutenant who loved my mother'scooking-- especially dolma, the stuffed peppers--and they called mymother `Mum,'" says Juliana, a petite 32-year-old with stunninglybig black eyes. Their family's relationship with U.S. forces beganin April 2003, when loudspeakers blared through the streets ofBaghdad announcing job opportunities with the U.S. Army. Juliana'syounger brother, Sargon, went for an interview. An engineer bytraining who had been forced to work as a bakery cashier because hewasn't a member of the Baath Party, Sargon spent much of his freetime and money in Saddam-era Iraq on tapes of foreign films. Theresult was that he learned English well, though at first hisvocabulary was based mostly on The Lord of the Rings and ArnoldSchwarzenegger movies. It came in handy: The Army hired him on thespot, with a starting salary of $600 per month.

Initially, the job seemed promising, but rumors soon surfaced thatchildren with family members working for the Americans would bekidnapped. Juliana's father was told by the owner of theirneighborhood supermarket--a Baath Party member known as Abu Ali whowould soon close down his shop and disappear--that his daughter'sthree-year-old son was to be kidnapped because of Uncle Sargon'sjob. Juliana told Sargon, and the Americans offered to put a guntruck in front of his family's compound. This, all his relativesagreed, would simply cause more trouble. So Juliana, her husband,and their son fled to Amman in August 2003.

Meanwhile, Sargon continued to excel. His salary doubled, and he wasleading a team of translators. His superior in the First CavalryDivision penned a recommendation attesting to his loyalty andbravery. "[B]ecause of his dedicated service to the CoalitionForces in the fight against terrorism," his commander wrote,"insurgents have made many credible threats on his life, but he hascontinued to perform his duties to the highest standard." So as notto endanger his family, he visited his parents only once everythree months, sneaking in at 3 a.m. and being picked up by theAmericans again 24 hours later from a nearby police station. Toallay suspicions, his mother told neighbors that he was in Syria.

Then, in April 2004, a bomb exploded under the truck in which Sargonwas riding, and the vehicle fell into the Tigris. One soldier died,another was hurt, and Sargon suffered an injury to his forehead. Hewas hospitalized for three months, during which time he received askin graft. He grew long hair and, when he returned home, concealedthe injury from his mother. Still, she was becoming increasinglynervous; Sargon was her only son, and she was not ready to losehim. She spoke on the phone with a relative in New Zealand, whosuggested that Sargon could leave Iraq and settle elsewhere bygetting married. Soon, a cousin had located Jacqueline, an IraqiChristian living in Auckland. During a one-hour phone conversation,Sargon made his case. E-mails were subsequently exchanged, andSargon, armed with gold jewelry, departed for Amman, where heobtained a visa for New Zealand. Before leaving, he had recommendedhis younger sister, Gina, to the Army as a potential translator.She, too, would work for the Americans. She, too, would bethreatened. And she, too, would flee Baghdad, eventually joiningher sister, Juliana, in Amman.

At least she is alive--not everyone is so lucky. In Amman, I alsomeet 49- year-old Layla, who shows me photos of her daughters Linaand Rita. They and their younger brother, Roone, were working at abase north of Baghdad Airport in 2004, doing laundry for the Army.On August 18 of that year, the Humvee in which they were travelingto work was attacked by insurgents. Lina and Rita were killed.Roone escaped and immediately fled to Greece; from there, he sentword that insurgents were bent on killing the whole family. So,after Layla and her husband, Samir, buried their daughters, theyused the $5,000 the U.S. Army gave them as compensation to move toAmman. There, they live with their 16-year- old daughter and threeother adult sons in two basement rooms. One son worked at abilliards cafe and the others worked at a factory, but all threewere caught without work permits and fired. Layla has bouts ofuncontrollable sobbing. Samir had a heart attack last year. Theirdaughter does not go to school.

Of course, in Iraq, you need not be employed by Americans to receivedeath threats. Angam was threatened because her husband owned aliquor store; Majeda because she refused to marry a Shia; Leilabecause her son was an engineer; Selivia because her father was abarber; and so on. All have fled Iraq, and all have heartbreakingstories. Still, while many Iraqis suffered in the course of beingchased from their homeland, it is those whose families loyallyserved the United States to whom the United States owes the most.Yet so far, America has, for the most part, turned her back on themin their hour of need.

Of the maybe 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, about70,000 have been recognized as asylum-seekers so far, although suchrecognition confers no particular rights on them. Neither countryis offering Iraqis any possibility of local integration. The optionof resettlement to third countries is the best one, if only becausethere is no other obvious solution. The United States, whichstarted the war that forced so many Iraqis to flee, would be thelogical place for many of them to go. Clearly, America cannot takeall or even most of them. But if Washington were to decide to takea large number--say, several hundred thousand--it would be sendinga signal that it is willing to do its part. This might galvanizeothers--such as Canada, Australia, or the EU countries--to accept asignificant influx of Iraqis as well. Since 2003, however, Americahas taken in only 466 refugees. The Bush administration recentlyoffered to accept an additional 7,000. But this will barely make adent.

To be sure, the prospect of resettling Iraqi refugees in the UnitedStates raises legitimate security concerns--namely, that terroristscould slip in alongside bona fide asylumseekers. But because thescreening mechanisms for refugees are much more thorough than forthose seeking tourist, student, or business visas--the processincludes, among other hurdles, detailed interviews with theDepartment of Homeland Security--it seems unlikely that a terroristwould choose the "refugee track" as his means of entering thecountry. Besides, among the millions of Iraqis who have fled theirnative land, the United States can surely identify several hundredthousand refugees who pose no security risk.

If the United States does not open its arms--and not just to thosewho worked for the U.S. occupation but to other Iraqis who fledpersecution as well- -then I am afraid I may return to Amman andDamascus in several years to find the same people living in thesame conditions. Jourj, Gina, and Juliana were all allowed intoJordan, but now their compulsory registrations have expired, and,if caught, they could be deported. (According to a relief worker inAmman, some 50 Iraqis are deported every week.) Iraqis are notlegally allowed to work in Jordan, and they have no access to thecountry's public health care system. In the cramped apartment inAmman where Jourj lives, only one room is heated, and his sons walkaround indoors in winter boots and thick sweaters. The rest of theapartment is so cold that, when I went with Jourj to the other roomto look at his brother's photo, I could see the fog of his breath.

In theory, Jourj and Juliana should have a better shot than mostrefugees at making it to the United States, since they have closerelatives who are American citizens. Juliana's in-laws live inChicago and applied in 1993 to have their son--now Juliana'shusband--join them; but, by the time clearance came in 2000, he hada wife and child, so they had to reapply. Years later, they arestill waiting for a definitive answer. Jourj, whose parents andthree sisters live in Michigan, has yet to ask them to apply forfamily reunification. Still, even if they apply now, it willprobably be a long time before Jourj learns his fate.

After the Vietnam war, roughly one million Vietnamese were resettledin the United States. Among them were men like Jourj, who hadearned the admiration of U.S. troops. "His commitment to oursoldiers," wrote an American sergeant major who worked with Jourj,"was tremendous and epitomized the words Loyalty and Duty." Nowit's America's turn to show a similar commitment to Iraqis who wereforced from their country. The United States cannot, by itself, saveall of them. But it can provide a new home for many. And that wouldbe a start.

By by anna husarska