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Iraqi refugee arrivals up in U.S., but still lag goals

By Karoun Demirjian

Before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Intisar Hassan, a Shiite Muslim who worked as a low-level accountant for the Iraqi government, had been targeted by Baathist police. She said they beat her in 1997, on suspicion she was not loyal enough to Saddam Hussein.

After the government was toppled, militias who were suspicious that she had been too loyal to the government began to threaten her.

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So she fled her home in Baghdad. For two years, she moved from house to house, keeping her whereabouts a secret from friends, family and neighbors.

Finally, in 2005, Hassan made a break for it, taking a bus to Jordan, and, she hoped, safety.

This summer, she became one of just 100 or so Iraqi refugees who have made it to Chicago since the war began.

According to UN estimates, more than 4 million Iraqis have been displaced since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Refugee advocates call it the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis on the planet, deteriorating more quickly than Myanmar (also known as Burma) or Sudan’s Darfur region.

More than 2 million people have fled the country, with most finding temporary asylum in the Middle East while they apply for permanent status in nations such as the U.S.

But while people are flooding out of Iraq, arrivals in the U.S. are more a trickle.

In February, the Bush administration pledged to resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees to the U.S. in fiscal 2007. But by its close on Sept. 30, fewer than a quarter— only 1,608—had arrived.

Government officials blame setbacks in creating and staffing on-site offices needed to conduct background checks, essential procedures they say have just recently been put into place, allowing them to process more refugees.

“There was nothing set up . . . and we didnʼt have clearance from governments to bring in the organizations that are needed, to establish office and computer systems, and all the things that go with it,” said Gina Wells, spokesperson for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the State Department. “Itʼs kind of like the start-up of a business. It doesnʼt happen in an hour.”

But refugee advocates suggest the administration has simply been dragging its feet, perhaps in an effort to downplay the scope of the crisis and the U.S.ʼs role in creating it.

“The humanitarian needs to be separated from the political here,” said Michael Kocher, deputy vice president with the International Rescue Committee, a resettlement agency. “As world leaders with a stated obligation to the people of Iraq, we should be doing more than the token amount.”

For tens of thousands of Iraqis living in Chicago, the refugee backlog has become a source of personal frustration.

Local resettlement agencies report processing thousands of interest forms—filed by citizens seeking to sponsor refugees—from Iraqi-Americans on behalf of relatives. The bulk of those are from Chicagoʼs Assyrian community, which numbers close to 100,000, primarily refugees from the Iran-Iraq War and first Gulf War.

Wait wears on many

Aprem Rasho emigrated from Iraq in the late-1970s. He has since sponsored several relativesʼ successful refugee petitions. But now, he is having difficulty sponsoring his niece and her three children, who fled to Syria in 2006 to escape mounting violence in Baghdad.

As Iraqi refugees crowd into Jordan and Syria, housing is growing scarce and the cost of living is rising.

“We used to send $100 a month. Now, we send $1,000,” he said. “What are you going to do? …There is no answer, they havenʼt received any word [on their acceptance].”

Refugee advocates say Iraqis can quickly make contributions after settling in the U.S. “They have a high level of education, literacy and skills,” said Melineh Kano, program director at Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries. “Now they have an opportunity in a free society to plan their lives. They have been living for this day, and they will thrive, adjust well and become good contributing citizens.”

Others argue that the U.S. has a moral obligation to those seeking asylum.

“Many are former translators and interpreters who have already been through a [security] clearance and have demonstrated loyalty to the U.S.,” Kocher said. “Historically, there is precedent: we took a million Vietnamese since 1975. We took over 600,000 Russian Jews from the Soviet Union, over 150,000 Bosnian refugees since 1993, and 15,000 Kosovo refugees in the spring of 1999 over just a few months. We have a noble history as a country of responding with generosity during refugee crises. But we havenʼt done it here yet.”

In recent months, the government appeared to pick up the pace of admissions. More than 1,400 Iraqi refugees arrived in August and September. And for fiscal year 2008, the government pledged to accept up to 12,000.

But acceptance rates slowed again last month, and advocates fear the administration will not meet its goals.

The numbers appear especially small when compared to average arrivals during the presidencies of Bill Clinton— about 90,000 a year—and George H.W. Bush—about 120,000 a year.

Tighter screening

Increased security concerns of a post-9/11 world have complicated refugee-screening, a multistage enterprise requiring co-operation among sometimes rival agencies.

The Iraqi resettlement process begins once a refugee registers with the United Nations, usually in Syria, Jordan, Turkey or Egypt. After UN interviews, the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security conduct interviews, and with the help of the FBI and CIA, investigate the refugeeʼs story. To date, about 80 percent of those interviewed have been accepted.

“What we have to remind folks of is that thereʼs a war going on,” Homeland Security spokesperson Laura Keehner said. “We have to make sure we do not inadvertently welcome a refugee who wishes to do us harm or has ties to terrorism.”

The actual resettling is done by independent agencies, such as World Relief and Catholic Charities, and their local affiliates. In all, the process can take six months or more.

Hassan learned during the last week of August that she was to arrive in Chicago on Sept. 4.

Because of her disability— the 1997 attack that separated her vertebrae and a 2005 mortar attack left her unable to walk without the aid of crutches— and the fact that she had volunteered in the refugee camps, Hassan had hoped to be reunited with cousins in Canada or a sister in Sweden.

“They told me, ʻYou are a single woman, you are under danger, and so you are slated for a better life,ʼ” she said through a translator.

In Jordan, a modest pension had afforded Hassan a comfortable existence. Now, Hassan shares a studio apartment where she cannot reach the bathroom fixtures. Refugees receive housing, English lessons, health care, job employment training, and a small stipend to help make the transition, but most benefits expire after 90 days.

By December, Hassan will have to support herself on a $613 monthly disability check, plus whatever else she can cobble together. With limited command of English, her future is unsure.

“I donʼt go anywhere,” she said. “Nobody asks or checks on me. The office that sponsored me here, Iʼm very thankful, because they were trying to help. But why did they bring me here? I was suffering in my country because of the war. Now Iʼm suffering here because of neglect.”

Because government resources for supporting refugees are so limited, resettlement often depends on strong community support coupled with individual determination. For Luaʼay Adwar Toma, 36, and his wife, Ebtesam Mansoor, 28, that support came from an uncle and aunt who opened their homes and lives.

In 2004, Toma and Mansoor fled Baghdad for Istanbul when co-workers at Tomaʼs laundry began receiving death threats for cleaning the clothes of American personnel.

They arrived in Chicago in late September, and have since been shuttled through the city by their aunt, Bernadette Mansour, who beams as she brings them to health screenings, job training and English classes at the Interfaith office.

“Hello, thank you. My name is Luaʼay Adwar Toma,” Toma said haltingly to prompts by teacher Nic Halvorson.

“Itʼs difficult, but we donʼt mind, because we are here to learn,” Toma said through a translator. “First is the language. Then the laws. Then find work. And the rest will follow.”

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