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Iraqi war refugees need more help

ARLINGTON, Va. (Arlington Catholic Herald) - With a turquoise scarf wrapped around her head and dark sunglasses, a 27-year-old Iraqi refugee recounted her struggle of being forced to flee her country when threats were made on her life. Employed as a translator on the U.S. military base in her hometown of Baghdad, the young woman fled to Jordan.

After a long ordeal including a trip back to Iraq, she has temporarily resettled in the United States. Although she is relatively safe, she is still a refugee, forced against her will to stay out of her country, perhaps never to return.

Her story is one shared with millions of displaced Iraqis since the war began five years ago. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency and International Organization for Migration, nearly 5 million Iraqis have been displaced by violence, half of which are dispersed within the country while others have fled to mainly Syria and Jordan, but also Lebanon and Egypt. Many who have returned to Iraq have found their property occupied.

During a Villanova University School of Law-sponsored forum on the Iraqi refugee crisis at the National Press Club in Washington last Friday, panelists examined the current situation. The all day-event, co-sponsored by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), included four panel discussions about issues facing Iraqi refugees. Panelists discussed the current crisis, the world’s response, laws and policies governing refugee protection and humanitarian aid for refugees.

Senseless violence

People are fleeing because of indiscriminate violence, according to Kristelle Younes, an advocate with Refugees International. “People are terrified at the idea of going back,” said Younes, who has traveled to Iraq. According to her observation, “people have been highly traumatized.” Many have been kidnapped, raped, threatened and tortured, she said.

Addressing the issue of Iraqis seeking refuge in neighboring countries, Younes noted that they are being treated as guests and tourists instead of refugees, and finding it hard to establish legal residency in many of those countries.

Many are in the host countries illegally at the risk of deportation and cannot access social services.

“The long-term effects of trauma and torture are beginning to rise and domestic violence is beginning to increase,” said Mark Schnellbaecher, CRS regional director for the Middle East.

Blaming the escalating number of domestic violence cases on the inversion of domestic roles, Schnellbaecher noted that because women and children are less likely to be picked up off the streets, they have become the breadwinners and husbands are staying home. The drastic change in the Iraqi traditions and customs are having “deleterious effects,” he said.

The educated and middle class citizens are becoming impoverished, he said. Refugees are running out of their savings, but are reluctant to return to Iraq due to continued violence. Thousands of people are leaving the country every day, but the thousands who cannot afford to travel face terror every day.

The world’s response

Syrian Ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha said with the number of Iraqis fleeing to Syria, the “burden is enormous.” Visibly exasperated and frustrated, Moustapha said the country has been inundated and is running out of resources for themselves and their “guests.”

“Our difficulties are nothing compared to theirs,” said Moustapha, but he pleaded that the United States make a better effort in aiding the refugees.

According to the Department of State, the U.S. government humanitarian assistance for displaced Iraqis has gone from $43 million in 2006 to nearly $200 million in the first half of 2008. According to the Web site, “The U.S. government has been the single largest contributor of humanitarian assistance for displaced Iraqis.”

Syria, which has a free school system, has opened it to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. However, social services and other resources are not enough for the more than 1 million refugees seeking to resettle temporarily or permanently in Syria. Even drinking water is a scare commodity, he said.

“It is an extreme human condition and the burden on us has become intolerable,” Moustapha said.

Due to the circumstances, a new visa regulation was imposed on Iraqis coming into Syria simply because there was no other choice, he said. “It contradicts our nation’s identity. We are not proud that we ask Iraqis to apply for a visa.”

He urged the U.S. to aid in the crisis caused by the war. The U.S. policies in Iraq have failed, said Moustapha, who called the war “the grandiose project of nation re-engineering.”

It is the responsibility of the U.S., to share the burden and help “alleviate the suffering.” During 2007, 1,608 Iraqi refugees arrived in the U.S. for permanent resettlement and as of Feb. 20, 1,646 have arrived this year.

Having 20 percent of the entire population displaced is not helpful to stabilization of country. “Iraq today is a failed state. It is not only unsafe, but a failed state,” he said.

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zed Al-Hussein, Jordanian ambassador to the U.S., whose father was an Iraqi refugee, said they too are being overwhelmed with the number of refugees. It is an enormous strain on stability, he said. Although they want to help neighboring Iraqis, it is becoming impossible at the rate they are entering the country.

“They are human beings that we care for, but the volume is too much for a small country to bear,” Al-Hussein said.

“The essential point is that we must do the utmost to preserve the dignity of each person,” he said. “We need help. We need countries to come and share the burden. We cannot underscore that enough.”

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees is also working to aid refugees in countries through various operations.

CRS in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt provides boxes of staple foods for Iraqi refugees, rent payments, mobile clinics, school fees and counseling.

(To learn more about the current situation go to: crs.org, refugeesinternational.org, and state.gov.)

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Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Arlington Catholic Herald , the official publication of the Diocese of Arlington, Va. (www.catholicherald.com).

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