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Iraqi Refugees Hope for New Start Elsewhere

  • Quinn Klinefelter

Nearly two million Iraqis have fled the continuing conflict in their homeland for neighboring countries. Among the thousands arriving in Syria and Jordan every day are Iraqi Christians, members of the country's small non-Muslim community. Many, fearful they could become targets of sectarian violence if they try to return home, hope to start a new life elsewhere. But, even those with relatives in the United States are finding significant barriers to resettling in America.

The sound of vespers floats along the vaulted ceilings at Our Lady of Chaldeans Cathedral in the Detroit suburb of Southfield. Chaldeans are Eastern Rite Catholics. They make up the largest group of Christians in Iraq, though they remain a tiny minority of the population.

About 150,000 Chaldeans live in the Detroit area, families lured here in the early 1900's by jobs in the budding auto industry. But Father Manuel Boji says many of his parishioners still have relatives in or near Iraq, and his congregation's prayers include frequent pleas to keep family members safe.

"Minorities, including Christians, Chaldeans, are caught in-between [the sectarian fighting]," he explains. "They have no militias, they have no power. The government at the time being is not that powerful to protect people and minorities especially."

Chaldeans say Iraqi Christians are leaving their ancient homeland in ever-increasing numbers, and there are now an estimated 120,000 Iraqi Christians in Jordan, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. According to the Chaldean Federation of America, most want to resettle in the United States, because they have relatives like Eva Abed waiting for them.

Abed and her immediate family fled Iraq before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, after her father refused to join the army. But some of her aunts and uncles remained in Iraq until six months ago, when the threat of anti-Christian death squads drove them to seek refuge in Syria. Abed says she called to send glad tidings at Christmas, but found her relatives had little to celebrate. "They're living with some people they don't even know. They don't have no house, no work, no money, nothing. It's not stable. They're just sitting there, just waiting, y'know, [for] something to happen to them."

Resettling refugees has become a hot topic in the Detroit area on independent cable channels and talk shows for the local Arab and Muslim community. Radio host William Salaita works with the Michigan-based Arab-American and Chaldean Council, which represents Iraqi Christians. He says his callers frequently complain about the U.S. Patriot Act, passed after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. It prohibits any immigrant who provided material support to a potential terrorist organization from entering the country. Salaita says in the Middle East, it's often hard to know just who is and who is not a friend. "Anybody who even gave a glass of water to [someone who] is supposed to be terrorist or associate of terrorist, he won't be eligible according to the material support issue," he points out. "And this is really very difficult."

U.S. officials acknowledge the Patriot Act's security requirements present a barrier for many hoping to come to America, and have recently eased some of the restrictions. Washington stopped resettling Iraqi refugees after the 9-11 attacks, and did not resume until 2005. Last year, only 200 Iraqis were allowed to resettle here. This year, the Bush Administration planned to allocate 500 slots for Iraqi refugees. But Administration officials now say that number could rise to as many as 20,000.

Ellen Sauerbrey, Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees and Migration, says "We really don't have a cap and we don't have a quota." She says few Iraqis have been allowed into the country since the war began in part because the United Nations had not identified those refugees who were most vulnerable.

But now, Sauerbrey says, the U.N. is starting the evaluation process. "From that, we'll be able to determine people who are being persecuted for their religious beliefs, for example, those who are elderly, single women with children, those who have helped the United States and are being targeted for that reason." Sauerbrey says a significant number of Iraqis should soon be identified as eligible for resettlement.

Yet even if that number is 20,000, it's just a tiny fraction of the nearly 2 million currently living outside Iraq. Some analysts say the Bush Administration wants to avoid resettling large numbers of Iraqis, because that could be viewed as admitting that the U.S. is losing the war. But Ellen Sauerbrey says it's not a matter of politics; the Bush Administration doesn't think there's a need for resettlement on a grand scale. "Most refugees want to go home," she insists. "And so the focus of the United States' policy needs to be to create a stable Iraq so people can go home."

But many Chaldeans say the U.S. has a moral obligation to admit Christians and other Iraqi refugees, because it was Washington that led the invasion which forced them from their homeland.