Iraqi refugees look to U.S. to fulfill pledge

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Ban Saadi Abdallatif still has trouble sleeping some nights, remembering her uncle and cousin, shot dead by the militia, or thinking about her brother's narrow escape from kidnappers. But it's nothing like the fear she lived with back in Diyala, where law and order broke down after U.S. forces invaded Iraq, and insurgents targeted her mixed Shiite-Sunni family.

"I feel relief to be in the United States," said the 31-year-old former teacher, who arrived in Laurel with her 9-year-old son in September. "I will not plan to go back to Iraq."


Abdallatif is one of the lucky few. Of the more than 2 million Iraqis who have fled the country since the 2003 invasion, fewer than 3,000 have been allowed to resettle in the United States.

The Bush administration has acknowledged a "moral obligation" to protect Iraqis displaced by the war but fell far short of the 7,000 admissions that officials pledged by the end of September - sparking criticism from refugee advocates.


"The numbers that the U.S. has taken in so far are just minuscule compared with the need," said Ralston H. Deffenbaugh Jr., president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a resettlement agency based in Baltimore. "I would think the overall number that would make a difference for the U.S. to take in would be more on the level of forty or fifty thousand a year."

Even as administration officials promise a significant increase in resettlements, Kristele Younes, an advocate for Refugees International, sees a "lack of political will."

"If we saw the highest level of this administration - President Bush, Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice - truly engaged on this issue, we would be seeing things happening much quicker, much more efficiently," said Younes, who travels between Washington and the Middle East. "Right now we have several departments of the U.S. government blaming each other. ... In our opinion, the U.S. should be showing the same leadership in response to the refugee crisis as it did in response to what it perceived as a security threat in Iraq."

The White House says the United States - the largest donor to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the recipient of the most resettled foreign nationals - is committed to assisting refugees from all over the world, including Iraqis.

"Recently, we've devoted more money and personnel to assist Iraqi refugees," spokesman Scott Stanzel said. "We recognize we also have an obligation to ensure American laws are upheld and the American people are protected."

U.S. officials say the numbers are about to grow rapidly. After months of setup work, they say, they are prepared to bring an average of 1,000 Iraqi refugees to the United States each month. They are pledging 12,000 resettlements over the next year.

U.S. efforts have been complicated by the violence in Iraq, where security concerns have prevented the processing of all but a few candidates for resettlement, and strained relations with some of its neighbors. Syria, for example, has accepted 1.2 million refugees but offers limited U.S. access to them.

The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, conducts checks on refugees seeking to come to the United States. Bureau agents have processed candidates in Jordan, Egypt and other Iraqi neighbors friendly to the United States.


U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon says that the countries involved in the war should do more for the refugees, and the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs says that the United States should take in more. But a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the United States has shown leadership in addressing the crisis.

"The United States is taking more than anyone else at the moment," spokesman Tim Irwin said. "The United States has responded quickly and in a substantial way. ... We need other countries to get involved."

The United States gave nearly $200 million to the United Nations refugee agency and other organizations that work with Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to the State Department. And it resettled 1,608 Iraqis during the fiscal year, including six who were placed in Maryland.

Abdallatif tells her story while sitting in a booth at Gourmet Shish Kebab, her uncle's restaurant in Laurel. She lived in the United States as a child, spending a year here when her father was a cultural attache in the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, before the first Iraq war.

Back in Iraq, life was "normal" before the 2003 invasion. The U.N. embargo had created financial difficulties, "but at least there was security." She described her hometown northeast of Baghdad as a community of Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians, living in peace.

"After the invasion, there was no government," she said. "Then the militia started coming in from outside. There was kidnapping and killing."


Her parents, brother, sister, aunts, uncles and cousins fled to Syria in August 2006. All registered with the U.N. as refugees; Abdallatif and her son - she is divorced from his father - were the first to be referred for resettlement. Now she is living with her uncle and waiting for a Social Security number so she can begin working. Her son has entered school in Laurel.

She is hopeful that her family will be allowed to join her here.

As U.S. officials accelerate resettlements, they say they have cut the processing time to as little as four months.

"There are people who have been waiting for 10 years in camps in Thailand," said Paul Rosenzweig, deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security for policy. "We went from zero to 60 in six months."

Not all Iraqi refugees are candidates for resettlement. The goal that international officials hold for the great majority is that they may return to a stable Iraq, or settle safely where they are now. But a small percentage, found to meet one of several criteria for vulnerability, will be recommended by the U.N. High Commissioner for removal from the region.

Through Oct. 5, the agency had referred 16,327 Iraqis this year for resettlement, Irwin said. Of those, 11,911 were referred to the United States.


Through Sept. 30, the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship Services had interviewed 4,550 Iraqi refugees, approving 3,164 for admission to the United States and rejecting 833. The rest remained under consideration.

Basil T. Majdi is one Iraqi hoping for resettlement.

A member of the minority Mandaean Sabian sect - adherents of John the Baptist - Majdi was working as a security assistant for the United Nations in Baghdad when the U.S. invaded in 2003 and later managed a trucking company that worked with the coalition forces.

Majdi, 33, says he received threats from Sunni insurgents and the Shiite Mahdi Army for both his religion and his association with the United States. When his father's Baghdad office was bombed, he fled for Syria.

Now Majdi and his parents are living on savings in a suburb of Damascus. He expects the cash to run out early next year.

"You feel that you are really, really homeless, with all the meanings that this word might catch," he said from Syria. "We don't have any tribes to protect us."


When he reached Damascus in January, he says, he took an armload of recommendations, from Americans with whom he'd worked in Iraq, to the U.S. Embassy. Officials there sent him to a United Nations outpost, he says, where he was issued a refugee identification and put on a list.

Now he is waiting to hear whether he has been referred to a country that is taking Iraqis.

"Maybe my story, my threats are not important to them, because maybe there are other people who have stories that are bigger and harder than mine," he said. "But still it's my own story, the life that I've been living for the last three years. So it's the biggest thing in my life."

Sun reporter David Nitkin contributed to this article.