By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Silewa came to America in order to gain permanent residency and bring his wife and two sons, who ended up in Germany. But he hasn’t seen his family in three years. The family-reunification process can stretch on for many years, and even if all their papers were in order, Silewa says, he has no idea how he would pay for their airfare from Germany. With no car and no job, Silewa sits in his apartment and thinks about his family.
“I still can’t sleep,” he says through a translator from the local Chaldean Middle Eastern Social Services office. “I am still thinking a lot about my family. What really makes it worse is that I’m not finding a job to support myself and to help my family [come here].” He and Denho, Silewa says, “both sit all night and just cry. I really want to cry just to release it.” Almost every night is the same, their American dreams just out of reach.
About 4 million Iraqis, forced to flee their homes after death threats and bombings, have been displaced by the ongoing violence. About half are displaced inside Iraq and often languish in camps without proper security or enough food and aid. The other half have fled to neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan, living in constant fear of deportation or imprisonment in places that do not recognize them as refugees and might at any moment kick them out. Taken as a whole, the current Iraqi diaspora is considered one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our times. Silewa is but one local face of a monumental and mostly ignored global crisis, which also embodies perilous national-security concerns.
Of the millions displaced, the United States will resettle about 17,000 new Iraqis this coming fiscal year. While that is a relatively small number of arrivals compared to the number displaced, about a third of them will end up in El Cajon and Greater San Diego. More than 5,000 new Iraqis will arrive in San Diego County during the fiscal year ending September 30, 2009, according to Catholic Charities in the San Diego Diocese. Getting jobs, homes and visas to reunite the families of the new arrivals — many of whom put their lives and their families’ lives at risk by helping the U.S. military — is a monumental task.
As the Iraq War played out, the Bush administration seemed to do everything in its power to ignore the refugee crisis. Former President Bush, reluctant to admit to a failed war policy, never mentioned the plight of the refugees and for years refused to allow Iraqis fleeing the war zone to resettle in the U.S. Only after significant political pressure from members of Congress and advocacy groups did the administration’s policy begin to change, and refugees began gaining access to the United States.
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to address the humanitarian crisis caused by the war. He vowed to increase the amount of aid given to countries like Syria and Jordan, which harbor most of the displaced people, as well as expedite the process of resettling refugees here.
“The Bush administration made every effort they could to try to minimize the issue [of Iraqi refugees] in the debate on the war,” Amelia Templeton, a refugee-policy analyst with Human Rights First, says not long after the presidential election. The Obama administration, on the other hand, she says, has made the issue an explicit policy priority. “Obama has said this is a major problem, that we are responsible for this problem and we will try to change this.”
But as Obama’s administration came to power, the country was experiencing the worst economic crisis in decades. The financial crisis threatens the goal of providing more assistance to displaced Iraqis in the Middle East, and it throws the refugees who have already arrived in the United States into an even more precarious situation. The economic crisis, says Jacob Kurtzer with Refugees International, makes it extremely difficult for the Obama administration to ask for a large-scale infusion of funding for resettlement.
Human-rights advocates say the Obama administration must address two main challenges: It must provide safe haven for more Iraqis fleeing ongoing violence and persecution, and it must provide the resources necessary to ensure that when the refugees arrive in the United States, they have enough assistance to find jobs and secure housing and basic needs.
“The previous administration was unwilling to deal with this issue — even with resources,” Kurtzer says. “Now we have an administration that is willing to deal with it, but the economic situation makes that difficult. There is a political will but, on some level, a lack of resources.” And with Obama’s recent reversals on torture issues, one wonders about the steadiness of the current administration’s political will.
“I do think we have a moral obligation to these people, whether we’re talking about it in good economic times or bad,” says Bob Carey, the vice president for resettlement and migration policy at the International Rescue Committee, a global relief and humanitarian-assistance organization. “I don’t mean to minimize the economic downturn,” he says, “but is this a time to turn our backs on people we’ve placed in danger?”