In the Shadows of War - Iraqi Article Series
During 2007-2015 Pamela Hartman wrote about the asylum journeys and immigration legalities of refugees from the war in Iraq. As conditions worsened, more Iraqis sought refuge here; we have a moral responsibility to assist those whose lives we have upturned.
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Make Way for the Iraqis
Los Angeles Daily Journal, January 2007
Hope for Iraqi Christians
Los Angeles Times, February 2007
In the Shadows of War
Getting an Asylum Interview
Long Waits for Iraqi Refugees
Make Way for the Iraqis
Refugees from the war in Iraq are resettling in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, bringing with them little more than the shirts on their backs and harrowing tales of kidnap and murder, lives threatened and futures destroyed.
Over the past year, I have filed asylum claims for about a dozen Armenian Iraqi refugees. They have resettled in Glendale, which is about 40 percent ethnic Armenian. These Iraqis are fortunate because they were able to secure U.S. visas and begin new lives here. But many of their relatives remain trapped in Iraq, unwilling to leave behind elderly relatives or unable to find a country to take them in. Each day as the struggle to survive in Iraq grows grimmer, more Iraqis consider fleeing.
The United States has not liberalized its refugee policy to accommodate the growing needs of Iraqi refugees. More than one million Iraqi refugees already have fled to neighboring countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Only a handful have made it to the United States. Just 202 Iraqi refugees were resettled in the United States in 2006, according to Larry Yungk, a senior resettlement officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
It is time our nation adopted a new Iraqi refugee policy. Not only because more Iraqis are likely to flee as conditions worsen, but also because we have a moral responsibility to assist those whose lives we have upturned.
Trouble in Iraq began almost immediately following the U.S. invasion in 2003. One client, a young, single woman, struck up a friendship with American soldiers immediately following the ouster of Saddam. The woman brought food and drinks to the soldiers and snapped smiling photos of herself and them in front of an Army tank. But her innocent flirtation soon ended. A neighbor informed her father that he had joined Moktada al Sadr’s Shiite militia, and it was his duty to kill the young woman if she continued talking with the American infidels.
Still, the woman’s family remained in Iraq. Her father received death threats for working with an American subcontractor. When he ignored the threats, his factory was destroyed. The family was able to get the young woman out of Iraq, but her parents remain trapped there, unable to work because it is too dangerous, but with nowhere to go.
Another client, a young architect, worked for an American contractor in the Green Zone. Because she worked in the Green Zone, she was a target for insurgents. She often shared a taxi to work with another Christian woman. The women tried to vary their methods of transportation and routes to work so they would not be followed. But one day in late 2004 the architect’s friend did not come home. Her body was found several days later with one word scrawled on it, “traitor.”
A month later, the young architect received a death threat at her home. “We are notifying you and sending you a warning,” the threat from the Islamic extremist group said. “If you don’t confess your mistake and turn back to God and quit working with the Americans we will sever your neck and behead you in God’s name. Stop and leave your work immediately or we will get our hands on you wherever you are and you will be punished without mercy.”
After receiving the threat, the architect spent months in hiding. She was able to obtain a work visa in the United States and has since applied for asylum.
Few Iraqis are so lucky. It is extremely difficult for Iraqis to obtain a U.S. visa. The clients I see have obtained U.S. visas through their jobs, by marrying, or by convincing American Embassy officials that they merely plan to visit the United States as tourists. Once here, obtaining asylum is relatively easy. But there is no easy way for Iraqis to obtain refugee status while living abroad. Currently, many Iraqi refugees lead precarious lives in Jordan or Syria, countries which allow Iraqis to stay for only three-month periods and offer no path to residency or right to work.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is in charge or resettling refugees worldwide. Mr. Yungk of the UNHCR said the U.S. State Department would like to increase the number of Iraqi refugees it accepts, but would like this to happen through UNHCR and not through unilateral U.S. action.
“It is fairly well known that UNHCR is very limited in the region in terms of staffing and resources considering that there estimated to be more than 1 million Iraqi refugees in the Near East,” Mr. Yungk said. “Any UNHCR resettlement process to identify and refer a few thousand persons amidst such a large number of person would present a major challenge. Most of the one million Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan are not registered with us, and have a temporary status that at a minimum allows them not to be forced back. None of the countries in the Near East region, except for Israel and Yemen, have signed the refugee convention. This means none of these states formally grant asylum to refugees. There is concern that any steps taken on resettlement not lead to host countries to abandon the temporary protection they are now offering.”
Mr. Yungk said discussions are ongoing in Washington to try to find a feasible approach that will allow more Iraqis to resettle here.
For my clients whose friends and relatives remain in Iraq, finding a new approach is urgent. Each day, the situation grows graver.
In December, an Iraqi client living in Glendale forwarded an e-mail to me. In March 2006, Iraqi police had kidnapped my client’s girlfriend, a doctor. Her family paid a large ransom to secure her release and the girlfriend was able to obtain a visa to the United States after marrying my client. Now my client had another friend in Iraq who needed help.
Photographs of the friend accompanied the e-mail. The friend was stripped to his underwear to reveal huge red welts on his back. He had been released after his family paid a $50,000 ransom.
“The Iraqi police kidnapped him in a police car in Baghdad last month, with no reason,” the e-mail said. “As u can see he was tortured & beaten badly …. even abused … For more information you can e-mail his brother. He has his own story too because he is working in an American company in Baghdad.”
These stories are endless in Iraq and endlessly upsetting. It is time for our nation to do more to help the very people who helped us in Iraq.
Hope for Iraqi Christians
Hope for Iraqi Christians; An Armenian church in Glendale is part of an effort to allow more refugees persecuted in part for their faith into the U.S.
They were dressed as police officers, but Iraqi physician Nina Grigor knew something was dreadfully wrong when they threw her into a car, blindfolded her, tied her wrists — and ripped the cross from her neck.
For five days last March, the Iraqi Armenian Christian was held somewhere in Baghdad. When she was finally freed after her family paid $100,000 in ransom, she was immediately spirited away to Armenia for safety and then, in July, to Glendale.
Now she is free — one of a growing number of Iraqi Armenians who have found safety in Southern California amid spiraling sectarian violence in their homeland. Grigor, 26, has received political asylum and is studying for her U.S. medical licensing exam.
Grigor’s sleepless nights and frightening dreams have finally stopped. But the widespread kidnappings, killings, rapes and church bombings — atrocities that have become almost routine — continue to terrorize hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians left behind, she said.
“I have a safe life here,” said Grigor, who asked that an alternative first name be used to protect her and her relatives. “But the other Iraqi Christians need our help.”
Now, at last, more of them will get it. After months of mounting violence; the U.S. government recently announced it would accept 7,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of September — a big increase from the few hundred accepted so far since the war began in 2003.
Locally, St. Peter Armenian Church in Glendale kicked off the Lenten season last week with a candlelight service and letter- writing drive urging greater resettlement opportunities for Iraqi Armenian refugees. The letter, which will be sent to elected officials, said Armenians have lived peacefully in Iraq for centuries but that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism since the war began has made them open targets of killings, harassment and discrimination.
The Iraqi Armenian Relief Fund in Glendale is raising money to move families from Iraq to Armenia, where it supports them for one year. But so far the group has only managed to relocate nine families in the last two years, according to vice- president Rafi Ohanes Garabedian. The group is aiming for 15 families this year, he said.
Southern California is home to at least 300,000 Armenians, one- fifth of whom may have ties to Iraq, community leaders say. They estimate that a few hundred Iraqi Armenians have come here since the war began, mostly on tourist or work visas, and may be seeking political asylum or other ways to stay.
Despite those efforts, many people are calling for far greater measures amid what experts say is the largest mass exodus of Iraqis from their homeland in modern history. Earlier this month, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) called on the United States to pledge at least half of the $60 million requested by the United Nations for Iraqi refugee resettlement. So far, the U.S. has pledged $18 million.
“Our invasion of Iraq led to this crisis, and we have a clear responsibility to do more to ease it,” Kennedy said this month on the Senate floor.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants says $250 million is needed for a more comprehensive resettlement effort.
For their part, Iraqi Christians say that a far larger quota for refugees is needed.
The Chaldean Federation of America said Christians make up about 200,000 of the 2 million people who have fled Iraq since the war began. Joseph Kassab, federation executive director, said Iraq’s Christian population has dwindled from 1.1 million during Saddam Hussein’s regime to 600,000.
Christians are routinely targeted for violence and accused of being American collaborators, Kassab said. But unlike their Arab and Muslim neighbors, Christians lack tribes or militias to protect them, he said.
State Department official Ellen Sauerbrey said the 7,000 quota was not a ceiling but an initial number that could be adjusted annually. She said priority would be given to Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government, are members of persecuted religious or ethnic minorities or are members of other vulnerable groups.
Ultimately, however, U.S. officials want to stabilize Iraq so people who flee can return, Sauerbrey stressed.
However, Kassab said many Christians no longer regard Iraq as their homeland and do not expect to return. For Chaldeans, who trace their roots to the descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia and who predate Muslims by centuries, the forced departure is particularly appalling, he said.
Many Armenians, who represent a far smaller group of Iraqi Christians, voice similar sentiments. Although they have lived in Iraq for centuries, their numbers particularly grew after the Turkish genocide against them in the early 20th century, community members say, and came to total perhaps 60,000. (The government of Turkey disputes that what occurred was genocide.)
Many say they are grateful to the Arabs of Iraq who welcomed and sheltered them. Under Hussein’s secular regime, Grigor and others said, most Christians were allowed to work, worship and socialize at Armenian clubs largely without interference as long as they did not challenge the political status quo.
Now, all of that has changed, they say.
Pamela Hartman, an Encino immigration attorney, has won political asylum for a dozen Iraqi Armenian clients. Clients have reported death threats, kidnappings, vandalized homes and letters telling them “Christians, go home,” she said.
The uncle of one client, she said, was told by his kidnappers that “they will get all of the Christians out of their neighborhood or kill them because they’re friendly with Americans.” Another Christian client in a Shiite Muslim neighborhood received a letter demanding that all non-Shiite families leave immediately or face death.
Hartman and some refugee groups argue that Iraqi Christians have a prima facie case for refugee and asylum status. The United Nations, however, does not agree and reviews all claims individually.
For now, many Iraqi Armenians are relying on prayer and political appeals to help their loved ones.
At St. Peter Armenian Church, pungent incense and chanted Armenian prayers filled the sanctuary as more than 250 parishioners gathered last week in support of the refugees.
One of them, Marine Abrahamyan Abdasho, wept as she held a candle in prayer. The Glendale teacher is not of Iraqi descent, but she said the long history of persecution against Armenians compelled her to support all victims of violence. “Our history as Armenian people has made us able to feel the pain of anyone suffering now,” she said.
After the service, parishioners gathered in the reception hall to sign letters of appeal for Iraqi refugee aid and shared story after story of families fleeing atrocities, of being scattered around the world. Nearly 70 percent of the church’s 500-member Sunday congregation are of Iraqi descent, according to Pastor Vazken Movsesian.
Noobar Zadoian, 32, trained as a computer programmer, said he arrived in Glendale two months ago after too many bombings, murders and kidnappings made him lose hope in his country’s future. His elderly father remains alone in Jordan, where he had gone in late 2003 to say goodbye to another son who was leaving for the U.S. The father ended up staying in Jordan because the situation in Iraq had begun to deteriorate too badly to risk returning.
Another parishioner said a relative was stoned as he walked down a formerly peaceful neighborhood street because his sister had married an American.
“You guys have to leave; this is not your country anymore,” she said he was told.
“Armenians have been caught right in the middle,” Movsesian said. “We were a respected class as a Christian minority in Iraq. Now, Armenians are left without homes and nobody wants them.”
Times staff writer Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.
In the Shadows of War
A visit to Glendale can offer more insight into the worsening situation in Iraq than a month’s worth of news reports.
As an immigration attorney in Encino, I see clients from all over the world. Over the past year, a steady stream of Iraqi Armenians has come to my office to apply for asylum in the United States. Many live in Glendale, a city whose population is about 40 percent ethnic Armenian.
As months go by, each new applicant brings a tale more disturbing than the last. These Iraqis are professionals, shopkeepers, Christians, all ordinary people who led ordinary lives before the war began. They should have been the beneficiaries of the new Iraq. But now they are its victims. As we debate how to disentangle our nation from the debacle in Iraq, we should consider our responsibility to those whose lives this war has turned upside-down.
The first to appear in my office in August 2005 was Zabell, a young, highly intelligent woman from a well-to-do family. Like all the Armenian Iraqis I’ve met, she was pro-American. When the war began in 2003, she and other Armenians greeted the American troops as liberators, happy to be free of the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Westernized and well-educated, they quickly found jobs with the American Army and American contractors.
Zabell got administrative work with a British nonprofit agency and in her spare time helped her father with his engineering contracts with the American Army. But things began to sour almost immediately.
After looting broke out when the Americans seized control, Zabell’s family began paying a monthly protection fee to a local Muslim gang. As the insurgency gained steam, Zabell’s co-workers began criticizing her for wearing Western clothing and for working outside the home. They began loudly playing CDs of extremist Muslim preachers on their computers at work.
Outside, Iraq was unraveling. The bombing of the United Nations, the murders of the four American contractors in Fallujah – each grim event signified a further descent into chaos and extremism.
The Armenian community center closed – its pool facility allowing boys and girls to swim together did not belong in the new Iraq. Armenian churches were bombed; it was too dangerous to attend church anyway.
The British nonprofit where Zabell worked began changing the times and locations of its meetings to foil would-be attackers. But one of the most insidious realities in the new Iraq was that co-workers could no longer be trusted. Some now sided with the terrorists and spied on their own colleagues.
In November 2003, the British nonprofit closed its office in Iraq and its international staff fled. But local Iraqis had nowhere to go. The local staff struggled to keep the nonprofit afloat. In December 2004, al-Qaida kidnapped a guard at the organization, and the following month Sunni extremists attacked another worker.
Two weeks later, the terrorists targeted Zabell. A carload of gun-toting extremists followed her car one day from work. She and her bodyguard managed to escape in Baghdad’s rush-hour traffic. But then she began receiving horrifying death threats on her cell phone. Finally, Zabell’s family smuggled her out of the country to Jordan. With recommendation letters from U.S. Army officials who had worked with her family, she was fortunate to obtain a tourist visa to the United States.
Zabell’s case was somewhat exceptional because her work with a European organization made her an attractive target. But after Zabell, more Iraqi Armenians began showing up at my office. Some were only recently out of college and had not begun to work.
Noor Karim was just 22 years old when she and her family received death threats from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia. The militia targeted them because her brother had accepted a job with an American contractor. Another client, a septuagenarian widower who owned a repair shop, had lived a long, quiet life without disruption. Now he, too, became the target of death threats.
Every day it seemed more Iraqis woke up to death threats tossed into their carports. At first the death threats were handwritten, but as kidnappings became a daily occurrence, the kidnappers grew more brazen and organized. The terrorists now issue generic, computerized threats with the organization’s name as letterhead. Only the name of the victim is written by hand.
“To the traitors cooperating with Americans,” began one typed death threat received in 2005 by a young architect employed by an American contractor working in the Green Zone. “If you don’t repent, the Mujahideen will punish you and behead you.” The frightened architect, who asked not to be identified, has escaped, leaving some of her family behind.
Criminals and terrorists – and police who may be members of both groups – are siphoning the wealth of Iraq from the doctors, engineers and businessmen who earned it.
In March 2006, Iraqi traffic police brazenly kidnapped a young doctor, Aleen Serob, who was on a medical rotation in Baghdad. They turned Serob over to cohorts who detained her for three days, hands bound and eyes blindfolded. Her family paid a large ransom to secure her release. She, too, was fortunate enough to escape through marriage to an Iraqi living in the United States.
In one of the cruel ironies of this war, Iraq, the cradle of Christianity, is being emptied of its Christians.
Before the current war, about 3 percent of Iraq’s population was Christian. Estimates are that tens of thousands have fled. Many go to Jordan or Syria. But those countries only allow Iraqis to stay for three-month periods and offer no path to residency.
The United States has not liberalized its refugee policy in response to the worsening crisis in Iraq. More than 1 million Iraqi refugees of all religious backgrounds have poured into Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. In fiscal year 2006, just 202 Iraqi refugees were resettled in the United States.
The Iraqis I see have had a very difficult time getting to the United States. Only a few are fortunate enough to obtain tourist or employment visas, which can routinely be denied by U.S. Embassy officials who, often rightly, suspect the Iraqis’ real intent is to immigrate to the United States. Everyone who makes it here has left family behind in Iraq.
Noor Karim, now 24 years old, is the only member of her family to make it to the United States. Her parents and siblings have spent the past two years shuttling between Jordan and Syria every three months, surviving solely on the income of her brother, who continues to work for the American contractor. Noor’s uncles in Glendale are caring for her.
The Christian population that was poised to take advantage of a truly democratic Iraq instead is being dispersed into a diaspora that is reluctant to accept it. Perhaps, like Vietnam, we will end up with a new generation of refugees from another failed war. We owe at least that much to a people whose lives we have disrupted forever.
Getting an Asylum Interview
A client from Iraq had filed for asylum more than two years ago and was still waiting for an asylum interview. This is typical these days, as across the country asylum offices are running huge backlogs in scheduling asylum interviews. The long wait is related to the surge in crossings of mothers and children from Central America. Unable to cope with the sheer amount of people seeking asylum, USCIS has diverted resources to handle the crisis coming out of Central America. This has led to extremely long backlogs for people waiting for their asylum interviews.
Fortunately for this client, we were able to obtain an interview by filing a lawsuit in federal district court, known as a “mandamus.” This lawsuit demands that the government act in a timely fashion. Indeed, once the lawsuit was filed we were able to quickly schedule the client’s interview.
Happily, this client has now been approved for asylum. On another positive note, a USCIS official indicated to me that the asylum interview backlog was fast diminishing. This would be great news.
However, you never know how ongoing events will impact the asylum process. A federal judge just ruled that the U.S. government cannot continue to detain Central American families. This is great news for the moms and kids who have been locked up in prison-like condition. One of the unknowns, however, is if we will now see another surge in refugees coming from Central America. If that happens, the asylum system will continue to bog down, and waits for interviews could be even longer. That is, unless the government devotes more resources to managing the crisis and beefs up its asylum system, which would be the best solution for everyone.
Long Waits for Iraqi Refugees
In recent days and weeks I have been contacted by Iraqis eager to bring their family members to the United States. Unfortunately, the waiting period for refugees and their families can stretch into years before a visa becomes available. This is due to bureaucratic hurdles and a ceiling on the number of refugees the U.S. is authorized to accept each year. This recent article in the New York Times explains it well:
*Note: You must be a NYT subscriber to read the above article.
Here are a couple of excerpts from that article:
“The Obama administration has promised a gradual increase in the total refugees it resettles — from a current ceiling of 70,000 each year to 85,000 next year and 100,000 in 2017. That falls far short of what refugee advocates are demanding, but American officials say even the current goals will not be easy to pull off…”
“At least 18,000 Syrians and 55,000 Iraqis are in the pipeline, having been vetted by the United Nations and now waiting to have their cases examined by the United States — Adnan among them. About half are children.
They are part of what the United Nations calls a historic global displacement, with nearly 60 million people forced to flee their homes because of war and persecution. Hundreds of thousands, including Syrians and Iraqis, have poured into Europe in recent months in the Continent’s worst refugee crisis in decades.”
Recently I have been referring people to a refugee organization that I have worked with in a volunteer capacity as a supervisory attorney for UCLA and Loyola Law School students. The organization used to be solely for Iraqis and known as the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. With the worsening violence in Syria and throughout the Middle East, it has expanded its mission and changed its name to the International Refugee Assistance Project. They will conduct intake for potential refugee cases.
Currently, my practice involves assisting people applying for asylum in the U.S. I am researching to see if there is more I can do on behalf of refugees as well. However, if the only option is to keep waiting, then there is little assistance that I or another attorney can provide.