Iraq refugees desperate for help

Iraq refugees desperate for help

[The following op-ed appeared in Newsday on January 4, 2012.  It is written by Rev. Robert Chase, a United Church of Christ minister and former director of the UCC’s Proclamation, Interpretation, and Communications ministry.  He is the founding director of Intersections International, a multi-faith initiative of the Collegiate Church of New York.]

What if tomorrow’s headlines screamed out the news that the Santa Ana winds have blown so fiercely that every single American in California and Oregon was forced to flee his or her home and that the environmental damage unleashed was so severe that they could not return — ever.

The scale of such a tragedy is unimaginable. Yet, this is what nine years of war wrought in Iraq.

As the holiday season recedes in our memories, along with the tender video images of returning troops surprising their kids in airports and classrooms, it’s easy to forget that we leave behind over 4 million displaced Iraqis. Two million languish in Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, but fewer than 80,000 have been settled in the United States, even though we were the ones who unleashed the firestorm that created the conditions that drove these people from their homes.

This is not a diatribe against the war in Iraq. Rather, it’s a challenge to all Americans to advocate for a humane and realistic resettlement policy that acknowledges what exists and seeks to do something about it.

Unlike Somalia or Darfur, most Iraqi refugees have settled in urban environments in neighboring countries. Not officially recognized as refugees, they become invisible, ineligible for government services, at the whim of arbitrary local laws and policies that shift like the sands, and unable to plan for the future. These neighboring countries are too small to absorb the increase in population, and Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, thereby further limiting legal options for displaced Iraqis.

The vast majority of these refugees cannot return home. Sectarian strife that followed the U.S. invasion has so recast the landscape within Iraq that homes and neighborhoods once deemed stable and peaceful have been rendered unsafe and volatile.

In 2009, 200 Iraqi refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan were interviewed by eight American artists commissioned by Intersections International, a Manhattan-based nongovernmental organization that addresses the consequences of conflict. The goal: to create theater and dance performances that would sensitize American audiences to this underreported humanitarian crisis.

One of the artists, playwright Kim Schultz, in her one-woman show “No Place Called Home,” recounts the horrors experienced by individual Iraqis. She tells of the conditions that drove Iraqis out of their country — the man who found a human head on his fence post one morning, to intimidate him into moving; another whose friend had one leg tied to the bumper of a car and the other to a tree, whose body was torn in two. And she recounts the experiences they have had since they left — the mother who had an imaginary conversation with her husband on the phone each night so that her children would think their dead father was still alive.

These refugees can’t stay put, and they can’t go home. The lack of political will — here and elsewhere — also means they can’t move on. For the United States, the moral imperative to respond is particularly acute, since many of these refugees risked their lives and sacrificed their futures working as interpreters, drivers and administrative staff for our troops. They bet that we would support those who supported us. That’s what we did after the fall of Saigon, when the United States resettled more than a million Vietnamese. What has become of our generosity and gratitude? A basic sense of justice calls us to convince our legislators and the Obama administration to increase humanitarian aid to organizations assisting Iraqi refugees, expedite visa requests, ease restrictions for entry into this country and better equip our allies to secure permanent settlement for displaced Iraqis.

As we turned the calendar page to 2012, we marked the end of this endless war. But, as scenes of U.S. soldiers who bravely bore the burden of this conflict return to their loved ones, we must add another New Year’s resolution to our list: to remember that more than 4 million Iraqis are still stuck — day after day, year after year — wondering when, how and where they will be able once again to experience that simple idea we call “home.”