In US, Iraqi refugees shed tears for homeland

By Andy Goldberg, IANS

Oakland (California) : Of the more than four million Iraqis displaced since the US invasion in 2003, few are as lucky as Hana, Wafa and Sana Toma.

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Their family home in Fallujah, Iraq, was shelled, burned and looted. They languished for two years in Istanbul, Turkey.

But eventually, the three sisters found a home in Oakland, California, where their brother Shamil had lived for 15 years after paying a guide to lead him and a cousin through the mountains of northern Iraq to the Turkish border.

Now the sisters are safe but confused, living in a small apartment in the gritty city in northern California. “We are glad to be here to see our brother. We are also glad to be in a safe place to live in peace,” said Wafa, who like the rest of her family is a Chaldean Christian.

“America is the reason for us to leave, yet America brought us here,” she says poignantly.

Such conflicted feelings are common among Iraqi refugees in the US – though they can be hard to find. At the start of the year, the huge country had admitted just 466 refugees since its armed forces overthrew Saddam Hussein.

That prompted widespread criticism and a decision to let in a further 7,000 this year and a total of 18,000 by 2010.

However, those numbers are not even close to being met.

The US admitted only 1,608 Iraqi refugees this past year, according to a New York Times study, which found that even Iraqis working with US forces find it almost impossible to get permission to move to the US.

Despite their service to US forces they often have to wait approximately six years for a visa. With militants targeting on a daily basis, many have taken to sneaking in to the US illegally and then applying for asylum.

Mustafa Al-Bayati also fled to the US after his father Hasan was kidnapped and killed. Hasan’s crime: he was the brother of Hamid al-Bayati, now Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations and formerly a prominent member of Iraq’s Shia-dominated government.

“I was afraid of death. It was impossible to stay in Baghdad,” Al-Bayati, 21, said.

But life in America also has its problems. Al-Bayati wants to be an engineer someday and had been studying at Baghdad’s University of Technology.

Due to US regulations his education is now in jeopardy: as the government expects all working-age refugees to find employment within 30 days, al-Bayati has put his studies on hold to look for work to support his mother Eman, 51, and younger brother Mohammed, 10.

Assad, who asked that his family name not be used, trekked from Iraq to Turkey and from Turkey to Greece, before flying on to Spain, Brazil, Guatemala and Mexico and eventually sneaking across the US border.

He was one of over 500 Iraqis who applied for asylum this year, but his family remains in Syria and Assad is bitter at their fate. “I worked with the United States Army. Now my family has to pay the price,” he said.

Assad lives in El Cajon, a small town east of San Diego, a region that is home to up to 40,000 Iraqis, many of them Chaldean Christian, according to refugee worker Lejla Voloder.

Many of them tend to gather at the El Cajon Shish Kebab restaurant where they discuss the political situation in their homeland and eat traditional foods.

Over plates of food, discussion and debate are rife among them. And disagreements about politics are allowed without anyone having to pay dissent with their life, they say.

“Saddam was a terrible man who killed thousands of people,” said Hassan al-Maalaki, 48. “It is good that he is gone,” he adds.

“Not so”, said Nael Tito, 29, another Iraqi native. “When Saddam was president, there were no terrorists,” he says and adds: “Now when somebody leaves home, they don’t know if they are going to come back.”