Cover Story


"Stalked" Continued...

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

Four hours after the distribution begins George and other church workers have given away nearly 180,000 Syrian pounds ($4,000) and about 110 food ration bags. It's too late to finish: Workers tell the remaining Iraqis to come back on Saturday.

George has been helping Iraqi families for over 10 years, starting after the first Gulf War. He says the UN and many private relief groups helped refugees then but have done comparatively little this time; meanwhile, rents have gone up "and food prices have doubled this year. We help them but we don't know how long we will be able to."

George makes regular visits to Iraqi families. One routine stop is with Nisreen, a widow whose husband died from injuries in the Iran-Iraq war. Mosul terrorists after Sunday evening services on June 3, 2007, murdered her 24-year-old son and sole financial support, church deacon Besman Yousef, along with a Chaldean priest and two other deacons. She grieved the traditional 40 days, she said, then left for Syria. She has relatives in Sweden and hopes to move there, but like many Iraqis who register with UNHCR in Syria, she waited six months for her first interview with the agency and since that time, now nine months later, has heard nothing else about her request for asylum.

George also visits Raad Ghanem Youssef, who came to Aleppo with what remained of his family three months ago after his son and daughter were kidnapped: Terrorists already had killed his brother and another son. "We are looking for leaving Iraq and Syria for good, and going to Europe or America," Youssef told me: "We have applied to the UN and have had two interviews, but we count only on God."

Youssef has tried unsuccessfully to get medical treatment for his son, who has memory lapses and shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder following his kidnapping. Like many heads of families, Youssef keeps copies of the family's refugee documents in a plastic Ziploc bag tucked inside his shirt-ready at a moment's notice should there be a sudden break in his case.

Despite the trauma and well-founded fear for families like Youssef's, the numbers are against their being accepted for emigration to the United States. And so is U.S. policy.

Even a decade after the Vietnam War ended, the United States accepted refugees from Indochina at a rate of about 14,000 per month, according to refugee expert Winter, who at that time worked on refugee resettlement at the State Department. Back then the United States interviewed refugees and processed asylum cases directly, taking into account U.S. interests as well as adherence to the Geneva Conventions on refugees. Now contact with refugees seeking asylum in the United States is likely managed by UNHCR, and because the agency employs case officers from the region, asylum cases are more likely to be determined based on local conditions-or bias-than U.S. interests. Officers do not have to say no to applicants; they simply do not process their applications. "This international approach makes refugee resettlement the last option," Winter says. "In other words, it is supposed to not happen."

For all the hardships, in many ways that is just fine with longstanding church leaders in Syria. They see dwindling church populations in Syria, Lebanon, and now Iraq, and know they are fighting for the survival of Christian orthodoxy in the Middle East. Their dilemma: They want to help Iraqi refugees, just not all the way to Europe or America.

"It is very important for us as oriental churches to have this presence in the lands of revelation of our faith, for ourselves and for other Christians," said Antoine Odo, president of the Chaldean bishops of Syria. "We as churches have the experience of living with Islam. It will be very negative if we go abroad, and if we no longer have the presence of Christianity with Muslims. It is important to give Islam the opportunity to live with another religion."

Odo predicts that when the Iraqi refugee crisis subsides, 70 percent of those living in Syria will have emigrated to other countries, 15 percent will remain in Syria, and 15 percent will go back to Iraq, where Odo traces his own family history to the town of al-Qosh, once the ancient Jewish town of the prophet Nahum, later a Christian village, in a region now majority Sunni Muslim and Kurdish. "Even the Muslims need historical references. Even if they are in opposition, Christians represent something that comes before them," he said.


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