By Naazish YarKhan
Terror and persecution force refugees to flee their homelands. Of the 2 million Iraqi’s whose homes and livelihoods have been lost since the Occupation, the US accepted less than 700, during the first three years. This February, that number changed to 7000, of which 2000 will be resettled in Michigan. These Iraqi’s either have family in the US, or have worked for the Americans while in Iraq.
I am unsure whether Oman has accepted any refugees from Iraq, but a large number of new refugee families are expected here through August, says Heidi Moll Schoedel, National Director, Exodus World Service in Bloomingdale, IL. A refugee resettlement agency, Exodus World Service recruits volunteers to receive the refugee families at the airport, along with a caseworker. Still others, can create ‘Welcome to America Packs’ comprising household goods, food staples, and the like and deliver them to the family, on their first day in the United States. For those interested in a long term relationship, there is the “New Neighbor” program, to help refugee families get acclimated to life in America. We would be interested in having a list of mosques and Qurans to give incoming Muslim families, says Schoedel.
I also spoke to Noah Merrill who is in Jordan at this time, where applications for refugee resettlement are being processed by UNHCR, (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Merrill works with US based, Middle East Cultural and Charitable Society, as director of the project's Direct Aid Initiative, and with its news and analysis website Electronic Iraq ( http://www.electroniciraq.net/). He is also a consultant to the American Friends Service Committee's Middle East Peace Building Program and was in Chicago on a speaking engagement, recently.
According to the UNHCR Iraqi Refugee/IDP Standing Committee Update, as of June 26, 2007, there are a total of 185,000 registered Iraqi refugees in the region. 90,000 have registered in Syria, 30,000 in Jordan, 7,600 in Egypt (11,000-12,000 are expected to register by 2007 end). A total of 200,000-300,000 Iraqi refugees are expected to have been registered by the end of 2007. 2,000 refugees have been crossing into Syria daily. UNHCR has committed to 20,000 referrals for 2007 and has thus far referred 9,441 to a range of countries including the US. “But estimates place the numbers of Iraqis seeking refuge in Jordan at more than 750,000,” says Merrill.
“Depending on the size of the family, then, it's clear that there are tens of thousands of families, many of which have been broken or divided by the suffering of violence, displacement, and legal obstacles to travel, such as men who are not granted visas, while women and children are,” says Merrill. “Or people are separated based on perceived ethnic or religious identity, for example, in cases where the husband and wife come from different sects.” The vast majority of Iraqi families have had loved ones killed or injured by the violence in Iraq. Those made refugees represent close to 1 in 10 of all Iraqis.
Only a handful of these will make their way to Chicago. “Refugee arrival numbers are always unpredictable, but we received requests for help for more than 25 families that came to the greater Chicagoland area during the month of June alone, and we expect similar arrival numbers throughout the summer,” says Heidi. “Most refugees arrive in the United States with little more than the clothes they are wearing and a few personal possessions. They face the difficult challenge of starting over in a new land. It is important that refugees are welcomed when they arrive and receive support as they adjust to their new lives in our communities.” Besides Iraqi’s, new arrivals that Exodus will handle include Burmese refugees of the Chin and Karen ethnic groups, who fled a brutal military dictatorship and Burundian refugees, who have been housed in remote refugee camps for more than thirty years.
“Applicants for refugee status must pass through a complex series of interviews and documentation sessions describing the suffering they experienced and are required to provide whatever proof of persecution they can. If approved by UNHCR, they then must be approved by the country that would accept them for resettlement. “Often this means passing extreme security screenings, as well,” says Merrill. “One family, who are very good friends of mine here, have been waiting for six years to be resettled.”
While these families wait, never knowing if they will be selected for resettlement in another country, the situation in Jordan remains one of frustration, hopelessness, fear, and despair. “While for many the conditions here are of course better than what they fled in Iraq, they have few rights. They are barred from work, and are frequently subjected to raids and threats of deportation if they are caught working. The majority are without sufficient funds to maintain a decent standard of living, and so health problems, lack of good housing, and basic security are significant issues,” says Merrill, who has been involved in work opposing the sanctions in Iraq and then opposing the invasion.
Noah Merill and his wife, Natalie, are in Jordan, expanding on the work they did in the US. ‘I felt I needed to contribute in some small way to improving the conditions in which so many Iraqis found themselves as a result of the actions of the US government and others without the best interests of the Iraqi people at heart,” he says.
The duo make arrangements for medical care and other support for a small number of refugees they met in Jordan this Spring. “Donations to pay for this care came from Americans who want to provide some direct restitution to Iraqis who have suffered and lost so much as a result of the actions of the US government. We also hope to be able to bring the severity of the crisis and the voices of Iraqis to people in the United States through writing and advocacy while here, and on our return in mid-September,” he concludes.