Despite rosy statistics released by the State Department this week, families and children who have been approved to legally immigrate to the United States are still waiting in misery in Amman for U.S. embassy officials to process their visas, refugees and community leaders told Newsmax.
Iraqi Christian refugees who had been approved for immigration to the United States because they had close relatives who were U.S. citizens have been told at the embassy to hurry up and wait — if they have been lucky enough to hear anything at all.
“The U.S. embassy told us that they don’t have a process for reunification now,” said Father Raymond Moussalli, who heads the Chaldean Catholic Vicariate in Amman. “They told us the only way is by the UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] or the IOM [International Office of Migration]."
The Department of State is paying over $50 million per year to the UNHCR to process the refugee claims of Iraqis who have been displaced by the sectarian fighting. And by all accounts here on the ground within the refugee community, the UNHCR office in Jordan has not been up to the task.
Some refugees complain of outright prejudice against Christians by UNHCR employees. Others complain of indifference. "Peter Janssen, the head of resettlement at the UNHCR in Amman, tells us not to complain,” a Chaldean relief worker told Newsmax.
In a confrontational meeting with a delegation of Christian aid organizations and a Newsmax reporter last fall, Janssen expressed the view that Iraqi Christians were privileged as compared to other Iraqis forced to leave their homeland and that “they shouldn’t complain.”
Raymond says some things have changed since the delegation led by former South Carolina Gov. David Beasely, Keith Roderick of Christian Solidarity International, and William Murray of the Religious Freedom Coalition met with U.S. embassy officials last October.
“One month later, Ambassador David Hale came here to our church along with his staff,” Raymond told Newsmax in an interview in his church on Thursday. “Before your trip here in October, we never had anyone from the staff of the U.S. embassy come visit us in this church,” he added. “Never.”
An embassy official handling refugee issues told the delegation it “wasn’t my job” to go to churches, even though that’s where the Christian refugees go for help.
Since then, the embassy has been meeting with representatives of the various Iraqi Christian communities on a bimonthly basis. Raymond was invited back to the embassy on Thursday. “I thanked Ambassador David Hale for his visit, and asked him, can’t you get the UNHCR to come to our church and meet the people, same as you?”
Until now, he added, no official from the UNHCR has ever reached out to the refugee community or visited one of the churches or schools where Iraqi families congregate.
“I am not allowed to work,” said Boutros Danka, 44, who met with a a reporter and a documentary filmmaker in a cramped basement apartment, where he lived with his wife, their three children, and his sister. “My mother helps us from the U.S. We live on faith and food aid, heaters, and clothes we get from Pastor Wadia and our church,” he said.
Danka’s mother fled from Saddam Hussein’s regime and has been living in the United States since 1994. His brother is a U.S. citizen and has been in the U.S. for 30 years.
Despite this, the UNHCR has never suggested that he ask his family members to apply for an I-130 visa, which allowed for family reunification. “Instead, we back to the UNHCR every six months to renew our refugee document, but they have never called us in for an interview.”
Earlier in the week, the State Department coordinator for Iraqi Refugee issues, James Foley, said the U.S. was continuing to step up approvals of Iraqi refugees seeking to immigrate to the United States.
In March, 751 Iraqi refugees entered the U.S., up from 444 in February and 375 in January, he said.
These latest figures bring total admissions for the fiscal year, which began in October 2007, to 2,627, according to a State Department fact sheet, although President Bush has given instructions for 12,000 Iraqi refugees to be admitted before year end.
Foley said that another 5,000 Iraqis had been approved for entry to the United States, and that interviews with another 8,000 were scheduled. But even approval for immigration does not mean an actual immigration visa.
Lufti Zamona, a Baghdad merchant who fled after his liquor store was fire-bombed by Islamic extremists on July 7, 2004, says he can’t understand the document he received from the United States government. “I have gone through UNHCR. I have been interviewed by IOM. I have even signed the oath,” he said.
Lutfi was interviewed and approved for immigration several months ago by a Department of Homeland Security team of “circuit riders,” who travel from embassy to embassy interviewing potential refugees to determine if they pose a security risk. They determined that Lutfi posed no threat to the United States, and sent him a “status report” of his application. A box was checked, showing that final approval was pending a review by “HQ.”
“What is ‘HQ’?” he asked me in Raymond’s office.
No one had ever thought to explain to him that DHS will run a review in its U.S. databases before clearing him for immigration. Once that review is complete, Lutfi must go to the U.S. embassy in Jordan to get his visa, a process that could take many months more.
“We thank the U.S. embassy for giving us more information on the new procedures” that allow for rapid resettlement of Iraqis who had worked for the coalition, Raymond told Newsmax.
He showed a clearly-worded, one-page fact sheet, that William Murray had asked ambassador Hale and his staff to produce last October. “It would be very helpful if the embassy could give us similar instructions for refugees waiting for family reunification,” he added..
Beneath the rosy statistics, thousands of Iraqi Christians are waiting for answers and information. “I can never go back to Iraq,” said Dalya Eskander, 34. “I am afraid they will kill my daughters.”
Eskander and her husband fled Iraq with their daughters after Islamic extremists kidnapped her husband’s brother and threatened to kidnap their oldest daughter. Their 10-year old daughter, Miriam, cried and prayed during the entire 24-hour journey by road to Jordan in 2006. “I prayed, God help us, God help us, over and over,” Miriam said.
Their driver told them that Islamic militants were lurking along the route. Despite the trauma, Miriam now wants to study to become a chemist, like her mother.
“We pray to Jesus, just for the phone to ring for the U.N. to say we can go to America,” Mrs. Eskander said. “We are illegal here. We want to build our future in another country. “
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