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Opinion: What does America owe the Iraqi refugees who risked their lives to work for the U.S.-led occupation?
America is a faith-based country.
Religion played a role in our founding along with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is how America has been perceived in the world, but “faith” in the Bush years has taken on a new meaning and came at the expense of the “reality-based community,” in journalist Ron Suskind’s famous coinage.
That, too, has become part of America’s image abroad, the inability to see the world as it is or to try to remake it to America’s overwhelming advantage. The new Obama era promises to resurrect reality in this uneasy age of extremism. Barak Obama has been shaped by his international upbringing and his personal understanding of hyphenated Americans. In this new era the world is watching for signs that Obama can see grey as well as black and white.
There are many big issues that demand President Barak Obama’s attention: the economy, Afghanistan, Palestinian-Israeli peace making, relations with Iran and Syria. But a lesser known crisis would also send a signal that the United States is back in the reality business and go a long way to repair America’s tarnished image in the world and revive what American stands for.
Iraq’s refugee and displaced population remains one of the legacies of the Iraq war. The exact numbers are “soft’ because the counting was difficult in the deadly chaos that forced Iraqis to flee home and country. Four million has become the standard accounting, but give or take a couple of hundred thousand and this still adds up to a crisis of human misery that has extended Iraq’s population throughout the Middle East.
President George W. Bush did not publicly acknowledge the Iraq refugee crisis, another reality deficit during his presidency. Nor did he concede that it was, after all, America’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq that led to the calamity.
His one reference came on March 4, 2008, while on a trip to the Middle East. After meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, President Bush said the King, “pointed out something which I knew, but I wasn’t exactly sure how it was affecting his country, that there are roughly three-quarters of a million Iraqi citizens who have moved to Jordan.
And we talked about a common strategy about how to make sure that those citizens ended up hopefully going home to Iraq as the security situation improved, but also, while they're in Jordan, not create terrible issues for the government.” Almost a year later, little has changed in the size of the Iraqi population that “moved” to Jordan, or the “terrible issues” of poverty and desperation and the lack of education for their children.
There is a deep suspicion among the exiles that the Shiite dominated Iraqi government does not want them back as they are disproportionally from Iraq’s Sunni and Christian population. We do we owe them? In the eyes of the region and the world we owe them a lot and our national reputation has suffered as their conditions have worsened. What do we stand for? At the very least, this country has always stood for helping those who helped us.
A long over-due visa program opened at the U.S. embassy in May, 2008 which provides in-country processing for Iraqis who apply to UNHCR and to those who quality for the 5,000 slots through 2012 for a Special Immigrant visa. The second category is defined as Iraqis that have “provided faithful and valuable service to the United States government in Iraq” and who have “experienced or are experiencing an on-going serious threat as a consequence of their service.”
So far, nearly six thousand Iraqis have signed up to leave the country since the program began. According to the U.S. refugee coordinator at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, about 350 additional applications arrive by e-mail each week. That remarkable number represents a persistent fear, a quiet warning of conditions inside Iraq as the inevitable American exit gathers pace.
I’ve spent the last few years interviewing Iraqi refugees in Amman, Damascus and Beirut, a depressing exercise carried out in cafes and hotel lobbies or on thin mats in bare, rented apartments. They are mostly unfailingly polite, hanging on to the middle-class values that have set them apart from many other populations of the dispossessed. They insist on serving endless cups of sugared tea while they pour out stories of rape, murder and kidnapping. There are few tears. Nevertheless, it is heartbreaking work, all the more so while the American response has been so disproportionately inadequate to their plight.
And now we are the brink of a new era in American policy — change we can believe in — the simple promise of a campaign pledge. This is also an opportunity to reassess what we stand for because the rest of the world will base its calculations on the answer. Candidate Obama addressed the Iraqi refugee issue early in the campaign, the only candidate to do so.
"This mass movement of people is a threat to the security of the Middle East and to our common humanity,” he told an audience a few days before the Iowa primary. “We have a strategic interest, a moral obligation, to act.” It was the statement from a candidate who sees the world as it is, keeping that pledge will so a long way to convince the world that there is change they can believe in, too.
(Deborah Amos is a GlobalPost Editor-at--Large and contributing columnist)