Tag Archives: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

A long road from Baghdad: Iraqi refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders in the U.S.

Muhammad Hassoon never heard the crack of the rifle.

The force of the bullet that grazed his scalp four years ago knocked him out cold as he was leaving the gift shop he worked at on Forward Operating Base Falcon in Baghdad, Iraq. His attackers left him for dead – one less collaborator with the Americans. When he came to, Hassoon knew he had to flee the country.

“I didn’t have a choice,” said Hassoon, who is the sole provider for his mother, sister and two younger brothers. “I couldn’t stay in Iraq because they’d kill me, and my family needed the money.”

In June 2011, after the attack, Hassoon was able to find asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where he lived and worked doing laundry for Americans.

He applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, a U.S. government program designed to fast-track Iraqis for repatriation to the U.S. beyond regular refugee quotas allotted to the region. These are Iraqis who had worked for Americans in the country and whose lives were endangered because of this.

The program has brought 13,000 Iraqis like Hassoon to the U.S. since it was initiated in 2008, according to the Department of State. Of these, over three thousand – or 23 percent – have gone to Texas, more than any other state.

The SIV program was slated to end in 2013, but when it became clear that thousands of qualified Iraqis remained, it was extended under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014.

The NDAA made a special allotment to bring 2,500 additional Iraqis to the U.S. To date, approximately 1,500 SIVs have been issued, and less than currently 1,000 remain.

Hassoon waited for over a year, and was finally notified in July 2012 that his SIV had been approved. Within a week, the American government had put him on an airplane and flew him alone to Fort Worth, Texas.
“I arrived here with nothing, spoke really bad English, and didn’t know where to begin,” Hassoon said.

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Like Hassoon, Samah Azeez and her family arrived in the U.S. from Iraq with only their immediate luggage.

Her father died in 2006, when she was 17 years old, leaving her mother to provide for Azeez, her four sisters and two young brothers in the heart of the sectarian violence tearing Baghdad apart at the time.

When the Jaysh al-Mehdi began threatening them – her father had been a project engineer for the new Iraqi government – her mother fled with them to Syria and applied for refugee status to the U.S.

After a year and a half of living in what Azeez modestly described as “economically tough” conditions, their visas were approved and the U.S. flew them to Chicago.

Separate from the SIV program, the U.S. government maintains a region-based quota system to admit refugees such as Azeez and her family to America.

121,321 Iraqi refugees have fled Iraq to the United States since 2007, according to the State Department. Almost half of these – 45 percent – have been relocated to California, Michigan and Texas. California alone has received over 20 percent, or 25,391 refugees.

Despite her siblings’ impeccable academic and professional qualifications, they found even minimum wage employment difficult to come by. American universities would not recognize their academic credentials, and prospective employers were too wary.

“It was a shock: you expected something different, completely opposite,” Azeez said. “The U.S. is supposed to be the land of opportunity, but the only kind of jobs we could get were cleaning offices.”

For many Iraqi refugees, coming to the U.S. has meant a new struggle to survive: poverty, lack of employment and language barriers prove for many to be almost insurmountable barriers.

According to a 2010 Georgetown University Law Center study, these Iraqi refugees are “not faring well” in the U.S.

“Most are not securing sustainable employment, and many are not able to support themselves or their families on the public assistance they are receiving. Some have become homeless,” according to the report.

Furthermore, Iraqi refugees arrive in the U.S. already deeply indebted to the government.

Under the terms of the inter-agency United States Refugee Admissions Program, which administers resettling of refugees, new arrivals must repay the U.S. government for the cost of their airfare to the U.S. This interest-free loan is recouped from garnished wages once a refugee finds employment.

In the case of large families, this can run several thousand dollars.

USRAP contracts with non-profit organizations across the country to provide initial resettlement services to newly arrived refugees, including apartment rentals, English-language classes and job training.

Through USRAP, the State Department provides resettlement agencies up to $1,800 per person each month for up to 90 days for basic housing, food and essential services.

For Hassoon, this aid was critical. It allowed him a stable beginning in the U.S., and the chance to develop his basic-level English.

“The government gave me $1,700 and got me an apartment,” Hassoon said. “The first year was really, really hard; I don’t know how I would have made it without it.”

Once this public support begins to fade, however, it becomes increasingly likely that Iraqi refugees will slip through the cracks, making support to this vulnerable population difficult.

“It’s often the case that, as refugees seek to integrate in their community, they relocate to a secondary residence to be closer to fellow refugees and ease linguistic difficulties,” said Jamie Diatta, a Department of Homeland Security Special Assistant who deals with refugee issues.

“This ‘second-tier’ migration makes keeping local refugee statistics difficult within metropolitan areas,” Diatta said.

Azeez considers herself lucky to be thousands of miles away from the current strife in Iraq.

Hardly had the U.S. withdrawn combat units from Iraq, the battle against the Islamic State tore through the fabric of the country, perhaps irrevocably.

According to the UNHCR, there were 88,991 registered Iraqi refugees in the region as of February 2014. The actual number is actually much higher: there is no internationally agreed-upon number of Iraqi refugees or Internally Displaced Persons, as it is impossible to accurately count them.

The Iraqi government’s Ministry of Migration and Displacement estimates an additional 440,000 Iraqis have fled their homes since January 2014 due to the conflict with the Islamic State.

Upon her family’s arrival, the scarcity of decent jobs for her and her siblings meant they constantly struggled to make ends meet.

“The first year here was the hardest because we didn’t speak any English,” Azeez said. “We learned English in school in Iraq, but it wasn’t enough.”

Although she missed several years of schooling in Iraq and Syria, Azeez was able to enroll in a year-long English program at Truman Community College in Chicago. She worked diligently to learn her adopted language, even while laboring in minimum-wage jobs.

With her improved language skills, she was able to find a well-paying job translating Arabic for school children in Hyde Park, and was soon able to help improve her family’s finances.

“It took two to three years for things to get better,” Azeez said. “It was a completely new life.”

Now in his third year in the U.S., Hassoon is also beginning to feel like he’s finally made it.

Starting out as a dishwasher in a local restaurant, he’s worked his way up service industry jobs to become a mall security guard, a position which pays well and offers decent hours.

Hassoon is now regularly able to wire money back to his mother in Iraq, and is helping his brother negotiate the lengthy visa process to hopefully join him.

“This is the U.S.,” Hassoon said. “You have to take it day by day; it’s the only way.”

For both Hassoon and Azeez, the last several years have consisted of constant change and an on-going struggle to improve themselves and the well-being of their families.

Azeez has returned to school, and is now a senior studying biology at Roosevelt University in Chicago. She’s preparing to take the MCAT, and intends to go to medical school. Her dream: to become an orthopedic surgeon.

“This is my passion,” she said. “I really want to make this happen.”

Hassoon is talking with U.S. Army recruiters, and wants to join the Army.

Although he couldn’t understand most of what the American soldiers were saying when he was at FOB Falcon in Baghdad, he loved working with them. More than anything, he wants to join their ranks.

“America’s done so much for me,” Hasson said. “I just want to do something for them back.”

Is Syria beyond the point of no return?

WASHINGTON – Nearly four million Syrians have weathered the storms of political instability and violence by fleeing their country and pleading for sanctuary and official recognition as refugees in neighboring states – and far beyond.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is responsible for leading and coordinating international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. It “for the end of violence, for accountability, [an] end to impunity. Because failing this, those responsible for human rights violations and crimes are emboldened,” said Karen AbuZayd, former United Nations Under Secretary-General and UN commissioner of the Inquiry on Syria.

“The war will go on leaving more destruction. It will destroy lives, destroy society, destroy institutions including education, and it will destroy culture and heritage in its wake,” Abuzayd said in a Middle East Policy Council panel on April 21, 2015.

As the civil conflict treads into its fifth year, half of Syria’s pre-war population has been displaced, according to data compiled by the United Nations. In addition to those who have fled the country, more than 220,000 civilians have been killed, 6.5 million are internally displaced and more than 12.2 million civilians in the Syrian Arab Republic are in need of humanitarian assistance. Syria is in a state of crisis, and it is spreading throughout the region.

Twenty-five percent of Lebanon’s total population is Syrian refugees. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has only accepted 143 Syrian refugees, according to a May 2015 UNHCR report. Neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are sheltering millions of refugees. Turkey alone is harboring 1.7 million refugees.

The UNHCR has so far submitted 12,140 Syrian refugees to the U.S. for resettlement consideration as of May 2015. After resettling only 105 refugees in 2014, the United States has accepted 651 refugees as of April 2015, according to a State Department refugee admissions report.

State Department officials released a statement that the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, “violently suppressed expressions of popular dissent” and his sustained reign only incited extremism and instability, according to a State Department September 2014 press release. Ever since he assumed office in July 2000, his country entered the Syrian Civil War and he has been accused of crimes against humanity by the United Nations.

The United Nations has identified and is investigating the Assad government for violations of human rights under international law. The UNHCR has submitted numerous reports that multiple agents have explicitly targeted civilians – including the Assad regime, terrorist groups, anti-government armed groups and extremists. Since last year, Syria has been criticized for silencing journalists and activists, and committing other violations of international law.

Since Syria first established relations with the United States in 1944, the relationship has been precarious at best. Syria has been identified as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979 because of its support for various terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah.

In order to counter that kind of activity, the Obama administration has slapped economic sanctions against Syria, and taken steps to eliminate its chemical weapons stockpile.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the international community established a legal framework to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, which were used by the Assad regime to attack Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013.

The unrest from the Syrian uprising, in early 2011, spawned a full-fledged civil war, which increasing armed conflict between the Assad government and insurgents trying to displace it. According to the latest U.N. report, those fighting Assad now include proliferating terrorist groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS, which have gained traction through tactics such as public executions, torture, disappearances and mutilation.

The infighting between so many groups that are unfriendly to the United States, including terrorist groups and the Assad regime, have made it more complicated for Washington to intervene. But some Syria watchers say any kind of intervention is better than the current U.S. position, which is to mostly watch from the sidelines.

“We need to plant the American flag among other flags around the world and say this issue is important, and we need to mobilize all of these resources and move on it now,” said Denis Sullivan, director of the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies. “That means dealing with a bizarre cast of characters,” he said, including the EU, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He urged global leaders to come to the table for diplomatic negotiations.

However, the United States has not furthered negotiations or drawn up a comprehensive legal framework to persevere in addressing the Syrian crisis, albeit providing $2.9 billion in monetary assistance as of September 2014.

“It’s the political overlay- it’s the political solution- it’s the parties who have a political interest in the region who are the ones who in the end come together to affect some sort of result,” said Ford Fraker, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and president of the Middle East Policy Council, in a Q & A session at the panel.

The lack of U.S. progress toward pursuing a functional political solution in Syria is due to other issues on the White House’s agenda, principally the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement, Fraker said. He said that the Iran nuclear talks have “prevented any useful dialogue happening between the United States and Iran on any kind of Syrian solution.”

But, is it our job to intervene, and deploy U.S. troops to fight for people they’ve never met? Is the United States supposed to be the world’s police force, flashing its badge to save the day?   Does the deterioration of the lives of 17 million people affect the United States and international affairs?

AbuZayd appealed at a Capitol Hill conference demanding enforcement of international law, referral of the Syrian plight to the International Criminal Court, reformation of the national justice system, the halt of child recruitment for terrorism, increased foreign assistance and establishment of regional tribunals.

Humanitarian aid may only function as a tattered band-aid to Syria’s perpetual conflict, instead of an enduring political solution. “Will Syria’s displaced be condemned to relief instead of progress?” asked Sara Roy, a research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.

“The issues to track are the political ones,” Fraker said. “Until you see certain events having occurred that will allow the principal actors then to turn their attention to Syria, you won’t see any progress there.”