Yesterday, on my first day as a volunteer for EPIC, Erik Gustafson handed me George Packer's New Yorker article about Iraq's refugee crisis, telling the story of Iraqis once employed by U.S. agencies who have had to flee or go into hiding because of threats against their life. Currently there is no mechanism to protect Iraqis who have helped America.
This is the first in a series of blog entries centering on the Iraqi refugee crisis in light of Packer's article and the stories therein.
It is not only our Iraqi allies who face danger, but other groups as well. Minorities, women and children are in particular danger. This has not gone unnoticed by peacebuilders in our government. Today, my second day of volunteering, I attended a press conference for Congressman Earl Blumenauer's (D-OR-3) bill, the Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act of 2007. This crucial legislation recognizes the moral obligation of the United States to assist Iraqi refugees and promises to bring 20,000 of them into the U.S. We praise Representatives Chris Shays (R-CT-4) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL-9) for joining Congressman Blumenauer in support of his bill.
Some Iraqis are coerced or extorted into paying for the release of a family member from militias and rival sects. Under the "material support" clause of the Patriot Act, such individuals are barred from seeking refugee status in the United States. Recognizing the perversion of this law, Blumenauer's bill will grant refugee status even if aiding and abetting an enemy occurs under duress. The bill calls for "20,000 unallocated refugee admissions...to be used for Iraqi refugees." In addition, the bill will provide 15,000 special visas each year for the next four years for those Iraqis who are in particular danger as a result of working for American and coalition forces and international organizations in Iraq.
One such Iraqi was Yaghdan, who worked with USAID. After receiving death threats and waking up a butchered dog in front of his home, he petitioned American forces to provide for his safety. The U.S. was unable to provide a safe place for both he and his wife, either through a transfer or by providing shelter in the Green Zone, so the couple fled to Dubai. But even in Dubai he was seen as a traitor, and so was unable to find work. Eventually, with their visas expired and unable to seek refuge in Jordan, Yaghdan and his wife faced having to return to Iraq. Fortunately, Yaghdan's former colleague in USAID, Kirk Johnson, convinced the pair to try Syria, where they are working toward resettlement in the U.S.
Not all Iraqis have been so lucky. In fact, the U.S. only admitted 68 Iraqis into the country in the last seven months. This is inexcusable given the enormous scope of the calamity, which Congressman Blumenauer called "the worst humanitarian crisis next to Darfur." EPIC recognizes that the Iraqi refugee crisis will only worsen in the years to come. We are encouraged by this new legislation that will establish a mechanism to protect our Iraqi allies. Personally, I am excited to advocate for the safety of Iraqi refugees with the EPIC team members, who, like myself, have a passion for altruism and the energy to address the issues surrounding Iraq.
From left to right in the foreground are: Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL-9), Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT-4), West Point graduate Terron Sims (speaking) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR-3). (EPIC Photo/Chris Breuer - 5/10/2007)