Iraqi Refuge: A Long Wait For Reunification
November 04, 2011

Iraqi Refuge Part 1

The arrival of about 60,000 Iraqi refugees in the Southwest has overwhelmed some local services, including schools.

Iraqi Refuge Part 2

It's hard to find a job in this tough economy. It's even harder if you've just arrived in the U.S.

SAN DIEGO -- Hazim Jajo punched the international access code from a phone card into his cordless phone. His wife, Hanaa Ishaq, sat next to him on an ornate couch, in their new, spacious home east of San Diego. Her eyebrows were scrunched into a painfully worried look.

Peering at a small address book, she dictated a phone number to her husband in Chaldean, the language of Iraq’s largest Christian group. They were trying to reach Ishaq’s 84-year-old ailing mother, Shami, in Syria.

Ishaq’s brother answered the phone and agreed to go to his mother’s apartment with his cell phone so she could take the call from San Diego County. She doesn’t have her own phone.

“He says her health situation now is very bad," Jajo said, ending the call with his brother-in-law. "Now she cannot see. She is suffering from the vision.”

Ishaq sucked in her breath, looking even more worried.

Ishaq's mother has been in Syria for more than two years waiting for the U.S. to approve her refugee application. She lives by herself, surviving mostly off a small monthly stipend and food rations from the United Nations.

"I signed a sponsorship for her. Now, it’s more than one year," Jajo said. "And we are still waiting.”

Processing refugees usually takes six to nine months, according to Larry Bartlett, head of the Office of Refugee Admissions at the State Department.

But for Iraqi refugees in Syria, the process has been held up since violence and unrest erupted there. Bartlett said Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers haven’t been able to enter the country to interview refugees – a requirement of the resettlement process.

“That program, frankly, has been stalled for months,” Bartlett said. “And I think until that situation stabilizes, we won’t be able to go back in and conduct interviews.”

Adding even more to the delays, security screening of all refugees was intensified last year. Now, US intelligence and other agencies run two background checks on most refugees: One when they first apply for refugee status and a second shortly before they board a plane.

“It makes sense, and I have to say we have seen results," Bartlett said. "We’ve been able to deny people based on new information that’s cropped up just before travel.”

Photo by Jill Replogle
Hazim Jajo and Hanna Ishaq have been waiting for Ishaq's 84-year-old mother, currently living as a refugee in Syria, for more than two years.

Bartlett wouldn’t give specific examples. But there have been reports in U.S. media of suspected terrorists who entered the U.S. as refugees before the new security measures.

Still, Hanna Ishaq wonders how her 84-year-old mother could be a threat.

“Why she’s waiting long time?" she asked, clearly frustrated. "She’s an old woman and she doesn’t have to wait a long time for security clearance. What they want to check exactly I don’t know."

People who work with refugees fear the added security checks may mean some legitimate refugees will be denied resettlement by the federal government. The number of refugees arriving in the U.S. dropped by 23 percent this past fiscal year.

Bob Montgomery, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in San Diego, said people who have to flee their homes often don’t have time to collect documents like birth certificates and marriage licenses.

“DHS has to take their story based on what they say,” Montgomery said. “And I fear that if they’re unsure, they’re probably denying (applications).”

Right now, hundreds of Iraqi refugees in Syria are awaiting resettlement to the San Diego area, according to local refugee resettlement agencies.

For Hanna Ishaq, and her mother Shami in Syria, their only choice is patience.

When Ishaq finally reaches her mother on the phone, the elderly woman assures her that her faith keeps her going. Ishaq tells her to keep that faith until they are reunited.