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Los Angeles also has an Iraqi community, but it is smaller and has not seen a dramatic increase in the number of new arrivals. The community has been extremely worried about its relatives still living in Iraq or displaced throughout the region.
“Everybody has had somebody either killed or maimed or taken hostage,” says Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a public-service and advocacy organization based in Los Angeles. “So everybody is concerned about the security of their family.”
About 400 Iraqi and Iranian families belong to the St. Paul Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church in North Hollywood, according to the church’s priest, Father Noel Gorgis. He says most of the members of his church have family displaced by the war. The church members have been trying to bring their relatives to the United States, but most have been unsuccessful. “They try, but it’s very hard to bring them here,” Father Gorgis says. “Very, very hard.”
Chaldean Peter Abdulahad left Iraq in 1994 and now lives in Pomona. The Iraqi diaspora can be viewed through the prism of Abdulahad’s family alone — his relatives are now displaced around the world: San Diego, Sweden, Jordan, Syria, Baghdad, northern Iraq and Los Angeles. Abdulahad’s brother and his family fled to Jordan about two years ago and resettled in the United States as refugees last summer. “They left everything behind, their house, their furniture, their car,” Abdulahad says, “and now they live with me.”
Immigration attorneys working with Iraqis also report the difficulties refugees face in bringing their family members to the United States and out of harm’s way. A lawyer who handles Chaldean refugee cases in the Chicago area, Robert DeKelaita, says that he has had family-reunification cases in which a mother is in one country, a father in another and the children left in a third place.
Social-services workers in San Diego say that Iraqi refugees who resettle in the United States face the challenge of dealing with trauma, loneliness and depression from the war. Chaldean Middle Eastern Social Services provides mental-health services to Iraqi refugees who come to San Diego.
“The majority of them have posttraumatic stress disorder and have experienced extreme hardship, have seen brutal murders and killings or kidnappings,” Salem says. “There is a death in every family that walks in through the door.”
About half of the displaced Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries like Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt. There they wait, jobless and insecure, often hoping to be resettled in a third country like the United States. But with millions displaced and only thousands admitted into the United States, the numbers are not on their side.
Zahra Rifaat, 13, fled to Syria with her family in 2007 after the violence became unbearable. When a bomb exploded close to their home in southern Baghdad, they decided to leave. They moved to Damascus, where Zahra now attends middle school. Her three brothers cannot go to school because they must work to support the family.
“I am worried about my [children’s] future here,” her father, Cheng, says through a translator. “Three of my young can’t continue to study here. They are working seven days a week.”
Zahra told her story to Firas Majeed, a teacher in Syria. Majeed translated it for his organization, Native Without a Nation, which sets up Web conferences between Iraqi children in Syria and students around the world. Zahra says she misses her friends in Iraq and wants to return, but the memories of violence still haunt her.
“Every time I remember that group of armed men who came into my school with big frightening guns, I get scared,” she says. Zahra describes how she loves reading and playing soccer, and she wishes to one day learn how to use a computer and speak English.
It is impossible to say exactly how many Iraqis have fled to Syria, but the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates 1.2 million Iraqi residents with current valid visas live there, according to the UNHCR Syria Update for November 2008. It does not know how many Iraqis live there without valid visas.
The Syrian government does not recognize United Nations refugee status. It therefore treats all Iraqis, even those registered as refugees, as “guests,” so they cannot work legally and could be kicked out at anytime.
“Without that legal protection that is recognized by the government, Iraqis live in a state of fear that they are going to be jailed and perhaps even forced to go back to Iraq. It hasn’t happened in large numbers, but people are still afraid,” International Rescue’s Hurd says. “Men, who are most at risk of being detained or expelled, often stay in the apartment where they live or immediate neighborhood. Many families don’t use services that are available to them, like public education or health care, because they think that coming out of the shadows will put them at greater risk.”