IRAQ'S REFUGEE NIGHTMARE: The Exiles - (The New Republic)
Amman, JORDAN One day in late February 2004, a 30-year-old Iraqi Christian named Jourj found a note stuck to the windshield of his friend's car: "Be cautious, your day is approaching, oh traitors of Iraq and slaves of dollar," the message warned in Arabic. It was addressed to Jourj, his younger brother Tony, and the car's owner, Munir, all of whom were working as contractors at a U.S. military base south of Baghdad. A tall man with a broad smile, Jourj has a wife and two sons, now nine and four. He had gotten work as a satellite technician on the base through his uncle Danny, an Iraqi-American who served as a translator for U.S. forces. Now he was earning an average of $2,000 per month--more than he had made before the invasion.
But the warning from Iraqi insurgents was clear: Cut ties with the Americans or face retribution. Jourj consulted Tony and Munir. "I showed them the note and we agreed that we cannot simply stop working for the Americans," he recalls. "We had all sorts of commitments. I took an advance to do maintenance of the bathrooms, and tent after tent of soldiers wanted to have the decoder installed to watch Fox News and other American channels on television."
Two weeks later, on the evening of March 5, Jourj and Tony piled into Munir's Opel and headed home from the base via a mostly deserted highway. Jourj was exhausted, so he took the back seat, where he slumped into a half-sleep; Tony sat on the passenger side in the front. Munir was going about 120 kilometers per hour, but suddenly he looked in his rearview mirror and noticed a car quickly gaining ground on them. "This is trouble," he murmured. "May God protect us." As the vehicle overtook them, bullets sprayed into Munir's car. Jourj was relatively unharmed; Munir was shot in the shoulder but survived. Tony, however, was killed.
Six days after burying his brother, Jourj was, incredibly, back at work on the base. "I wanted to fulfill my commitments," he explains. But, after only a few days, he received a phone call at home in the evening. "You were the target," a voice said. "You are next." That was as much as Jourj could take. The next day, he, his wife, and his sons left home for good. They changed locations around Baghdad for over a month, waiting to observe the traditional 40th-day mourning ceremony for Tony. As soon as it was over, they hired a driver for $350 and traveled four hours to the Jordanian border. The good news was that they were safe. The bad news was that they were now refugees--and their problems had just begun.
These days, you can find stories like Jourj's throughout Jordan and Syria--stories of Iraqis who put their faith in America's ability to transform their country and, when America failed, were forced to flee for their lives. Millions of Iraqis have been displaced from their homes since the start of the war in March 2003. Of those, perhaps two million have fled their native land, many taking up residence in Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. But these host countries won't allow them to stay permanently, they can't go back to Iraq, and there are few opportunities for resettlement in third countries. The best that can be said for their situation is that they made it out of Iraq alive. In many cases, though, they escaped with 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 its involvement with the U.S. military. (A disproportionate number of the Iraqis I met who had worked with Americans are Christians; perhaps Americans prefer to hire them because it minimizes the cultural gap.) Both her brother and sister were translators for the Army. "There was a captain and a lieutenant who loved my mother's cooking--especially dolma, the stuffed peppers--and they called my mother 'Mum,'" says Juliana, a petite 32-year-old with stunningly big black eyes. Their family's relationship with U.S. forces began in April 2003, when loudspeakers blared through the streets of Baghdad announcing job opportunities with the U.S. Army. Juliana's younger brother, Sargon, went for an interview. An engineer by training who had been forced to work as a bakery cashier because he wasn't a member of the Baath Party, Sargon spent much of his free time and money in Saddam-era Iraq on tapes of foreign films. The result was that he learned English well, though at first his vocabulary was based mostly on The Lord of the Rings and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. It came in handy: The Army hired him on the spot, with a starting salary of $600 per month.
Initially, the job seemed promising, but rumors soon surfaced that children with family members working for the Americans would be kidnapped. Juliana's father was told by the owner of their neighborhood supermarket--a Baath Party member known as Abu Ali who would soon close down his shop and disappear--that his daughter's three-year-old son was to be kidnapped because of Uncle Sargon's job. Juliana told Sargon, and the Americans offered to put a gun truck in front of his family's compound. This, all his relatives agreed, 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 was leading a team of translators. His superior in the First Cavalry Division penned a recommendation attesting to his loyalty and bravery. "[B]ecause of his dedicated service to the Coalition Forces in the fight against terrorism," his commander wrote, "insurgents have made many credible threats on his life, but he has continued to perform his duties to the highest standard." So as not to endanger his family, he visited his parents only once every three months, sneaking in at 3 a.m. and being picked up by the Americans again 24 hours later from a nearby police station. To allay suspicions, his mother told neighbors that he was in Syria.
Then, in April 2004, a bomb exploded under the truck in which Sargon was riding, and the vehicle fell into the Tigris. One soldier died, another was hurt, and Sargon suffered an injury to his forehead. He was hospitalized for three months, during which time he received a skin graft. He grew long hair and, when he returned home, concealed the injury from his mother. Still, she was becoming increasingly nervous; Sargon was her only son, and she was not ready to lose him. She spoke on the phone with a relative in New Zealand, who suggested that Sargon could leave Iraq and settle elsewhere by getting married. Soon, a cousin had located Jacqueline, an Iraqi Christian living in Auckland. During a one-hour phone conversation, Sargon made his case. E-mails were subsequently exchanged, and Sargon, armed with gold jewelry, departed for Amman, where he obtained a visa for New Zealand. Before leaving, he had recommended his younger sister, Gina, to the Army as a potential translator. She, too, would work for the Americans. She, too, would be threatened. And she, too, would flee Baghdad, eventually joining her sister, Juliana, in Amman.
At least she is alive--not everyone is so lucky. In Amman, I also meet 49-year-old Layla, who shows me photos of her daughters Lina and Rita. They and their younger brother, Roone, were working at a base north of Baghdad Airport in 2004, doing laundry for the Army. On August 18 of that year, the Humvee in which they were traveling to work was attacked by insurgents. Lina and Rita were killed. Roone escaped and immediately fled to Greece; from there, he sent word that insurgents were bent on killing the whole family. So, after Layla and her husband, Samir, buried their daughters, they used the $5,000 the U.S. Army gave them as compensation to move to Amman. There, they live with their 16-year-old daughter and three other adult sons in two basement rooms. One son worked at a billiards café and the others worked at a factory, but all three were caught without work permits and fired. Layla has bouts of uncontrollable sobbing. Samir had a heart attack last year. Their daughter does not go to school.
Of course, in Iraq, you need not be employed by Americans to receive death threats. Angam was threatened because her husband owned a liquor store; Majeda because she refused to marry a Shia; Leila because her son was an engineer; Selivia because her father was a barber; and so on. All have fled Iraq, and all have heartbreaking stories. Still, while many Iraqis suffered in the course of being chased from their homeland, it is those whose families loyally served the United States to whom the United States owes the most. Yet so far, America has, for the most part, turned her back on them in their hour of need.
Of the maybe 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, about 70,000 have been recognized as asylum-seekers so far, although such recognition confers no particular rights on them. Neither country is offering Iraqis any possibility of local integration. The option of resettlement to third countries is the best one, if only because there is no other obvious solution. The United States, which started the war that forced so many Iraqis to flee, would be the logical place for many of them to go. Clearly, America cannot take all or even most of them. But if Washington were to decide to take a large number--say, several hundred thousand--it would be sending a signal that it is willing to do its part. This might galvanize others--such as Canada, Australia, or the EU countries--to accept a significant influx of Iraqis as well. Since 2003, however, America has taken in only 466 refugees. The Bush administration recently offered to accept an additional 7,000. But this will barely make a dent.
To be sure, the prospect of resettling Iraqi refugees in the United States raises legitimate security concerns--namely, that terrorists could slip in alongside bona fide asylumseekers. But because the screening mechanisms for refugees are much more thorough than for those seeking tourist, student, or business visas--the process includes, among other hurdles, detailed interviews with the Department of Homeland Security--it seems unlikely that a terrorist would choose the "refugee track" as his means of entering the country. Besides, among the millions of Iraqis who have fled their native land, the United States can surely identify several hundred thousand refugees who pose no security risk.
If the United States does not open its arms--and not just to those who worked for the U.S. occupation but to other Iraqis who fled persecution as well--then I am afraid I may return to Amman and Damascus in several years to find the same people living in the same conditions. Jourj, Gina, and Juliana were all allowed into Jordan, but now their compulsory registrations have expired, and, if caught, they could be deported. (According to a relief worker in Amman, some 50 Iraqis are deported every week.) Iraqis are not legally allowed to work in Jordan, and they have no access to the country's public health care system. In the cramped apartment in Amman where Jourj lives, only one room is heated, and his sons walk around indoors in winter boots and thick sweaters. The rest of the apartment is so cold that, when I went with Jourj to the other room to 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 most refugees at making it to the United States, since they have close relatives who are American citizens. Juliana's in-laws live in Chicago and applied in 1993 to have their son--now Juliana's husband--join them; but, by the time clearance came in 2000, he had a wife and child, so they had to reapply. Years later, they are still waiting for a definitive answer. Jourj, whose parents and three sisters live in Michigan, has yet to ask them to apply for family reunification. Still, even if they apply now, it will probably be a long time before Jourj learns his fate.
After the Vietnam war, roughly one million Vietnamese were resettled in the United States. Among them were men like Jourj, who had earned the admiration of U.S. troops. "His commitment to our soldiers," wrote an American sergeant major who worked with Jourj, "was tremendous and epitomized the words Loyalty and Duty." Now it's America's turn to show a similar commitment to Iraqis who were forced from their country. The United States cannot, by itself, save all of them. But it can provide a new home for many. And that would be a start.Learn More
Special Report: Iraqi Refugees