Thursday, December 11, 2008

EPIC’s 2nd Annual Benefit for Humanitarian Action in Iraq

On December 4, our friends at the Pomegranate Gallery hosted EPIC’s 2nd Annual Benefit for Humanitarian Action in Iraq, bringing together EPIC supporters new and old. Among many notable attendees, we were joined by an Iraqi refugee who successfully made it to the U.S. less than 48 hours earlier and Iraq War Veteran Kevin Murphy.

EPIC Board President Nathaniel Hurd, a Government Relations Officer with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), shared firsthand accounts of EPIC’s vital leadership in the humanitarian community. He explains: “Thanks to effective advocacy over the past year, we have seen U.S. humanitarian spending for vulnerable Iraqis more than double; Iraqi refugee admissions jump from 1,600 to more than 12,000, and the most important legislation to date, Senator Kennedy's ‘Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act,’ pass into law.”

Award-winning NPR Foreign Correspondent Debora Amos spoke candidly about the deepening crisis facing displaced Iraqis. She stated that five and a half years after the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. and the Iraqi government claim the country is a safer place. But for Iraqi refugees in Syria, the upbeat assessments don’t count for much. In cities like Damascus, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees are running through the last of their savings and becoming increasingly desperate. With all the talk in Washington about the “success of the surge” and Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s public assurances that Iraq is now safe, why aren’t more displaced Iraqi returning to their homes? No matter the Iraqi government’s sunny assessments, the opinions that count are the reports family members – a mother - who warns – “it’s still not safe to return.”

Inside Iraq, more than 2.7 million Iraqis are displaced. Millions more are extremely vulnerable due to ongoing instability, poverty, and limited access to clean water and other essential services. Yet despite the deepening crisis for these vulnerable and displaced Iraqi families, the U.S., the Iraqi government and the international community is only reaching a fraction of those in need.

In many cases, militias and other armed groups have seized
properties. As a result, many returnees are finding their homes occupied by others. In addition, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) reports: “…there were several episodes of violence targeting Baghdad returnees during the past month, including murders of entire returnee families. Some families were forced back into displacement out of fear.”

Amos explains that there are still substantial exile communities in Jordan and Egypt and Lebanon. While there was some progress in the treatment of exiles in Lebanon in that the government policy has returned to what it was a year ago, if an Iraqi is caught without legal papers they are sent to jail. The only way out is to take a one way ticket to Baghdad. The difficulty for NGO's caring for this displaced population, Amos says, is that the exiles are drawn from Iraqi’s commercial and professional class as well as Christian minorities. They may be able to support themselves in the first few years of exile, but most are sliding into destitution.

The UN warned in its latest report that without immediate prospect of Iraqi refugees massively returning to Iraq and the rising cost of living in Syria, pressure is mounting to cope with growing needs. Amos describes that since this crisis began, most of the media attention has been on resettlement, especially in 2007 when the U.S. settlement numbers were dismally low. After a barrage of criticism by the media, humanitarian groups, and more quietly by the U.S. military, the number of resettlements is rising. There is a working system in place. The U.S. State Department exceeded the goal of 12,000 Iraqi resettlements in 2008 and is expected to resettle more than 17,000 in fiscal year 2009. But even at this pace, the back log of cases will take at least twenty years.

Amos interviewed many Iraqi refugees in a two week trip to the region in October. She met Khadim al Zawi at a coffee shop in Damascus. Sixty years old, al Zawi, a charming retiree from Iraqi’s oil ministry, told her he had fled Iraq in 2006 and despite the hard life in Syria, he has no plans to return home. His cars have been stolen; his farm outside of Baghdad was occupied by another displaced family who refused to leave. When Amos asked him about his Baghdad neighborhood, he said it was still a battle ground between the Shiite militias and al Qaeda.

Amos explains that the Iraqi government has a return program in which Iraqi’s are given a free bus ticket and about 800 dollars to get their lives started again. But the program fails in one fundamental way. Not only were some Iraqi’s threatened with death when they left the country, but somebody else was moved into their houses and a militia was then in charge of collecting the rent. Amos explains that in the Arab world, your home is the most valuable thing you own. If you lose your house - if the Iraqi government can’t protect you – can’t throw out the squatter - there is no reason to return home. There are many Iraqi’s who believe they can never go back. They have been traumatized in recent years and some have faced death threats for working with Americans.

For Iraqis who have managed to arrive in the U.S., Amos explains that they usually arrive almost penniless. They’ve spent their savings on surviving away from home. The transition in the U.S. is difficult and painful. Agencies working with Iraqi refugees try to get them employment as quickly as possible. Next year, about 17,000 more Iraqis will come to the U.S. and Americans can help. Groups are forming around the country to offer support for Iraqi refugees. More help is needed. They need all the help they can get.

Amos ended by stressing the road ahead. She states that the longer the refugee problem goes on, the more it's likely to harden. With desperate exile communities in neighboring states, this is not a prescription for a stable Iraq – or a stable region. She suggests that there are conditions that can be imposed on the Iraqi government, which has stubbornly neglected its citizens in exile. The Bush Administration did not try to find this leverage, but instead ignored the refugee crisis, hoping it would go away, Amos says. The Obama Administration has a chance to address the large numbers of Iraqis who are displaced and in exile. President-Elect Barak Obama was the first presidential candidate to put out a policy statement on the refugees. Amos stresses that this has to be part of the exit strategy or we’ll be back dealing with the refugees for years to come.

EPIC Vice President Selma Turgut, an RN at New York Presbyterian Hospital, presented a powerful clip from Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary “The Lost Generation” about Iraqis who have taken refuge in Syria and Jordan. In late 2007, Selma visited Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan. She spoke passionately about the families she met and what it’s like for them to run out of options. One particularly unsettling scene showed a woman in the crowded basement of a Christian church, which had been converted into a soup kitchen. Collecting soup for her family, she explained how back in Iraq, she did have a job. I noticed the expressions on viewer’s faces. They identified with the Iraqis in the film, the key difference being that the Iraqis were impacted by a war that may never allow them to recover. EPIC board member Rebeen Pasha, a refugee himself from Sulaymaniyah in Northern Iraq, appealed to attendees by explaining the plight of Iraqi refugees. He emphasized that Iraqi families simply cannot move forward without our help.

Throughout the night, I found the music captivating. Legendary singer and oud master Rachid Halihal and drummer Najib Bahri (Darabuka) warmed the room with soulful Iraqi music. Attendees were treated to a traditional Iraqi maqam, a 400 year old genre of music, and the contemporary music of Kazem Al Saher who is known as the “Elvis of the Middle East”.

On this unforgettable night, we raised over $5,000 - and a generous EPIC supporter has agreed to match this number. These generous contributions will support our work to reverse the war and end the humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

You can also support a more prosperous future for Iraqis.

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