By Pamela Hartman
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.