Iraqi Refugees — Why ‘Little Baghdad’ Won’t Form in the U.S.

January 25, 2007 by  


Courtesy New America Media, News Analysis, Andrew Lam

Editor’s Note: More than 3 million Iraqis have been displaced by the war in Iraq. Yet the U.S. has very few slots for those who fled their homeland to seek safe haven, even if it has a direct hand in their tragedy.


Children stand in the compound of a relative’s residence, at which they are now staying after their families left their homes in Baghdad for Arbil, about 350 km (220 miles) north of Baghdad, January 19, 2007. Tens of thousands of people have fled Baghdad, the epicentre of violence in Iraq. The United Nations, launching an appeal for aid for Iraqis who have fled their homes or left the country, said this month about one in eight Iraqis is now displaced. Many, including non-Kurds, have taken refuge in Kurdistan — a largely autonomous region in the northern mountains that has been a haven from attacks plaguing other areas since the U.S. invasion of 2003. Picture taken January 19, 2007. To match feature MIGRATION-IRAQ/ARBIL. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari (IRAQ)

Little Saigon in Orange County, Calif., and Little Havana in Miami, each built by refugees, are now thriving communities with growing political and economic clout. But they also serve as painful reminders of America’s failures in its overseas ventures. For this reason, don’t expect a Little Baghdad to appear on U.S. soil any time soon — even as huge numbers of Iraqi refugees continue to flee their ravaged land.

The United States had, until recently, reserved only 500 spots for Iraqi refugees in 2007 – though the State Department says it wants to allocate as many as 20,000 U.S. refugee slots to Iraqis. It would like to bring more in, but blames an unwieldy U.N. processing system. Perhaps the real problem has more to do with politics: Accepting Iraqi refugees would be akin to America admitting defeat in its efforts to pacify Iraq and a huge setback in its fight against terrorism in the region.

Nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees currently live outside the country, and another 1.5 million are displaced within. As conditions in Iraq worsen, more are crossing borders. Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia are all seeing a rise in Iraqi refugees. Syria in particular, which shares a 450-mile border with Iraq, is bearing the brunt of the mass exodus. Syrian officials estimated more than 700,000 Iraqis of all stripes are now living inside their country.
“We’re not meeting our basic obligation to the Iraqis who’ve been imperiled because they worked for the U.S. government,” notes Kirk W. Johnson in a recent New York Times article. Johnson, who worked for the United States Agency for International Development in Falluja in 2005, writes, “We could not have functioned without their hard work, and it’s shameful that we’ve nothing to offer them in their bleakest hour.”

Indeed, those working as interpreters for the U.S. and British armies and for foreign journalists — not to mention those hired by U.S. companies doing reconstruction and those working in the Green Zone — have been targeted by various insurgent groups. Their lives will be exponentially imperiled once U.S. forces pull out.

“In Iraq there’s no love lost between American soldiers and the locals,” notes Quang X. Pham, author of “A Sense of Duty,” who fought in the first Persian Gulf War. “Iraqi refugees, unlike Vietnamese refugees, have no champion like President Gerald Ford, and they will find much opposition to their immigration to the United States due to fallout from 9-11 and specifically, the Patriot Act.”

While congress debated whether to let in Vietnamese refugees in 1975 — Sen. George McGovern said it was better for “Vietnamese to stay in Vietnam,” and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) thought that “barmaids, prostitutes and criminals” should be screened out — President Ford threw his support behind the refugees.

Such an act today, from a president who still speaks of the war in Iraq as winnable, is unimaginable. How could President Bush accept Iraqi refugees when only last year he described post-invasion Iraq as a nation of “freedom” and “democracy”?

On the ground in Iraq, of course, the situation is dire. “The current exodus is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948,” according to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

In a news release last week, António Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees, says that, “the longer this conflict goes on, the more difficult it becomes for the hundreds of thousands of people displaced, and the communities that are trying to help them — both inside and outside Iraq. The burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous.”

But according Faiza Al-Arji, who fled from Baghdad to Jordan with her family recently, help is not forthcoming. She and her family keep a blog called afamilyinbaghdad.blogspot.com. “Here, in expatriation and dispersal,” she writes, “I have seen so many organizations, or heard about them. I spared no efforts to obtain some medical help for an Iraqi who was injured by shrapnel’s or burns, or to get some financial or material donations. But to no avail…All I found [were] lies and stalling.”

Al-Arji doesn’t spare her fellow well-to-do Iraqi refugees from criticism. “There are so many rich and millionaire Iraqis here, who turn their backs [on] the Iraqi poor,” she writes, “as if they do not know them, as if they do not belong to the same torn, wounded country. They meet each other in fancy restaurants and drive the most luxurious cars, but have no mercy in their hearts for their brothers.”

For the majority, life in exile is a life of poverty. The United Nations reported that women are increasingly forced to resort to prostitution. Child labor has become a scourge. It also estimated that an additional 2.7 million would be internally displaced in Iraq this year. In Syria, more than 30 percent of Iraqi children are without schooling.
During the Cold war, a refugee fleeing a communist country became an automatic icon for the West. President Ronald Reagan in his farewell address talked of boat people who waved their SOS flags to U.S. sailors — their rescuers — yelling, “Hello! Freedom man!” The story is a poignant reminder of the way the United States once symbolized freedom and sweet liberty in the eyes of the dispossessed.

That perception has been irrevocably altered in the age of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Homeland Security and the government-condoned torture and eroding human and immigrant rights. Few Iraqi refugees would contemplate America as an asylum country these days, and that speaks volume as to how the world views America.

Yet there is a clear moral if not geopolitical mandate for the United States to help Iraq’s refugees. In Vietnam, many of those who allied themselves with America during the war were sent to re-education camps, some were summarily executed and many stripped their properties. A far worse fate is likely for those who threw their lot with America in Iraq, and who have now quickly become victims of its latest foreign policy failure.

Andrew Lam is a NAM editor and author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora” (2005, Heyday Books) which recently won a PEN/Beyond Margins Award.

9-5



Print Friendly

Comments

Comments are closed.