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
Addressing the issues of Iraqi translators and others who helped the U.S. Army and are now targeted by extremists is also critical to improving our relationship with the Arab world. “This is going to be a major issue,” says Kirk Johnson, who worked for USAID in Iraq and subsequently founded the List Project, which aims to resettle in the states those Iraqis who aided the U.S. war effort. “There is no more immediate opportunity that exists to send a signal to the Arab world and to the rest of the world and to those of us in our country, that after eight years of President Bush and after the difficulties that we faced in Iraq, our moral compass hasn’t been shattered.”
President Obama has the choice to either leave the displaced Iraqis to continue fending for themselves, or to implement a number of policies that would assist them. He has the power to dramatically increase the number of Iraqi refugees allowed into the United States; to influence the amount of humanitarian aid given to countries hosting refugees; to pay for social services; to encourage nations in Europe and elsewhere to resettle more Iraqis; to pressure host countries to temporarily recognize United Nations refugee status for the Iraqis; to pressure Iraq to take responsibility for its internally displaced citizens and develop a plan to address their needs; and to prioritize this crisis and thereby send a strong signal to all government departments working on the issue to speed up the bureaucratic process of resettling Iraqis. Or not.
Extremists in Iraq targeted Silewa and his family because they are Chaldean Catholic. Since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, porous borders and ineffective security forces have created an environment in which Muslim insurgents have had free rein to persecute Iraqi Christians.
In 2005, Silewa was living in Iraq and received a letter that warned him he would be killed if he did not convert to Islam. Silewa fled to Turkey and then Greece. When he couldn’t get permanent residency in Greece, he decided to go to the United States to seek asylum and pave the way to bring his wife and children. Silewa left Greece in June 2007 and paid a smuggler 6,000 euros (about $9,500) to bring him to Spain and then Mexico. He walked with other Chaldeans from Tijuana to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“When we arrived,” Silewa says through a translator, “we went to the officer and told him: ‘We need you to save us; we need safety from you. Please let us in. We are Chaldeans, we are refugees, we are asking for asylum.’”
The smuggler had told Silewa that he would immediately be granted asylum and allowed to live in the United States freely. Instead, U.S. officials detained Silewa for eight months in overcrowded, prisonlike conditions until his asylum case was processed. He spent the first three months in a private detention facility near San Diego, operated by Corrections Corporation of America. The facility was so severely overcrowded that the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against CCA, arguing that the growing number of detainees in the limited space was creating inhumane conditions. The case was only recently settled.
“In CCA, I was really depressed, and I was not sleeping all night. I was thinking about my family, plus thinking about the war,” Silewa says. “I know how the war is now, how people there are killing each other, and there are a lot of bombings. All this news, it really affected me because my family was still living there.”
After CCA, Silewa spent the next five months in the government-run El Centro Detention Facility, where he was allowed to go outside for only two hours a day. Desperate, he borrowed $4,000 to hire an immigration attorney, and eventually won his asylum case.
The tenuous situation in host countries, mixed with the near impossibility of gaining resettlement in a third country, causes many Iraqis to illegally flee to nations like the United States. In 2007, 427 Iraqis applied for asylum in the U.S.; about two-thirds were granted it, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Like Silewa and Denho, these asylum seekers pay smugglers thousands of dollars — usually all of their savings — to take them on long, sometimes deadly journeys around the world, until they are abandoned in Mexico and must walk through the desert to surrender themselves to U.S. border authorities and seek asylum.
“If we have a refugee program that’s underutilized, or we create so many barriers that we are not resettling the numbers that really need to be resettled,” says Kathi Anderson, executive director of Survivors of Torture, International, a nonprofit based in San Diego, which has treated Iraqis who have fled to the United States, “then desperate people figure out other means to come.”
Iraq has seen a reduction in violence, but many Iraqis still face death threats, kidnappings and an overall state of terror. Competing estimates put the civilian death toll at 100,000 to 1.3 million. Millions have already fled their homes and now live in limbo.