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Iraqi refugees in mortal fear at home can't get entry into United States

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Alyaa said she was the first woman in her neighborhood to sign up to work with the U.S. government after Saddam Hussein fell.

She used to stand shoulder to shoulder with an American soldier in front of the U.S. military's Camp Scania in the Rashid section of Baghdad. As a translator, Alyaa, 24, talked to Iraqis who lined up at the entrance seeking compensation for dead relatives and destroyed homes.

Now, because of that work, her life is in danger and in limbo.

Alyaa, who asked that her last name be withheld out of fear for her safety, fled to Jordan with her cousin Shaimaa after insurgents killed an uncle and kidnapped Shaimaa and another cousin. Alyaa hoped to find a haven in the United States but discovered the State Department isn't resettling refugees from Iraq. She's lost her faith in the country she once loved.

"We gave them our friendship," Alyaa said during a recent interview at an Amman restaurant, wearing jeans and smoking cigarettes. "We gave them our hard work. And they don't even help us to have a new life." Is it so hard, she asked, "for America to give a visa to Iraqis to have a new life that they took from them?"

Refugee aid workers and U.S. and U.N. officials said the United States had turned away Iraqi refugees because it was trying instead to create a democratic society from which no one had to flee, and was sacrificing plenty of American lives in the process. To succeed, it needs the talents of the very people who want to leave.

"The whole purpose of being here is to create an environment of stability and security so that's not an issue," said Joanne Cummings, refugee coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Cummings said the embassy valued people who'd put themselves at risk and it kept a close watch on them.

More than 700,000 Iraqi refugees live in Jordan and Syria; 15,000 of them arrived in Amman after the American invasion two years ago, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. They include religious minorities, doctors and other professionals who fear being kidnapped for ransom, and a growing number of Iraqis who were threatened because of their work with the U.S. government and its contractors.

Nongovernmental organizations first became aware of the problem as U.S. soldiers approached them for help in getting their translators out of the country, only to be told it was impossible.

In Alyaa and Shaimaa's case, the soldier was Army Capt. Patrick J. Murphy of the 82nd Airborne Division, their supervisor and an Iraq war veteran who's now working as a lawyer in Philadelphia.

"They fought just as bravely as we did over there, and I think we owe it to them as a grateful nation to do everything we can to help them become Americans," he said.

So many former employees have sought protection in other countries that UNHCR recently rewrote its guidelines for Iraq to include those ties as reasonable grounds for fear of persecution, said Marie Helene Verney, a spokeswoman for the agency in Geneva.

"Such people should be of special humanitarian concern to the U.S.," Bill Frelick, the director of refugee programs for the human-rights group Amnesty International, wrote in a letter to U.S. officials in February.

The letter, signed by more than a dozen human-rights, church and refugee aid groups, called on the State Department to resettle Iraqis, including those targeted by insurgents who view them as U.S. collaborators.

The American government has evacuated a small number of Iraqis through humanitarian parole, a mechanism usually used to let people into the United States temporarily for medical care. A few who reached American shores on tourist or other visas have been able to win political asylum. A former Knight Ridder Newspapers translator whose family was gunned down on the streets of Baghdad received asylum in the United States. But the United States hasn't resettled any Iraqis as refugees, a category that would allow for a permanent stay, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"In principle, there is no blunt refusal," said Verney, the UNHCR spokeswoman. "The few cases in the pipeline are taking a long time."

The threats against Alyaa and her family arrived last June in sealed envelopes at their homes in Dora, a Baghdad neighborhood that's rife with insurgents. There were six letters, one for each member of the family who was working for the United States.

"`You help the people you're supposed to fight,'" Alyaa said they read. "`You deserve death.'"

The letters, signed by a group calling itself the Jihad Units, instructed the family to post signs at the local mosque within three days saying they'd quit their jobs—or face beheading. But before the deadline passed, her uncle, a construction contractor for the United States, was ambushed on his way to work and shot in the heart with a pistol.

The slaying scattered the family. Alyaa went into hiding, hop-scotching from house to house and finally fleeing north. While she was away, a gang of men kidnapped two female cousins, the ones whose father had just been killed.

They held one of them—Shaimaa, 26, who also worked at Camp Scania—for six weeks in a one-room mud house near Ramadi that served as a weapons storehouse.

Shaimaa said the men taunted her with specific details about the young women's friendships with soldiers at the base. They disparaged Alyaa, asking Shaimaa if Alyaa made love to a captain when she worked behind closed doors with him. And they killed Shaimaa's fiance while they held her captive.

The family sold their properties to pay $60,000 for Shaimaa's release. She emerged "almost crazy," Alyaa said. For a long time after her release, Shaimaa wouldn't sit in the same room with her brother and wouldn't watch television because her abductors believed it was un-Islamic to do so.

She still has dark bruises on her right forearm and incisions in the nails of both middle fingers, where the insurgents had attached cables to administer electric shocks. And she still wakes crying from nightmares.

The cousins flew to Amman in December. They joined a community of Iraqi expatriates that's swollen to such a degree that one commercial road in the Jordanian capital has been nicknamed Tigris and Euphrates Street. The influx has inflated real estate prices and tightened the job market, leading the Jordanian government to crack down. Iraqis can't work or study there. And they can't live there continuously for more three months unless they have hefty deposits in Jordanian banks, because every day beyond that carries a fine.

Alyaa and Shaimaa registered as refugees with the UNHCR office in Amman but returned to Baghdad in frustration in early April, as their three months came to a close.

"I cannot stay in Baghdad," Alyaa said. "I cannot go to another country. I cannot stay in Jordan."

Even advocates who are urging the United States to offer sanctuary to former workers recognize the challenges that a formal refugee program would pose.

"It's a really tough thing," said Amnesty International's Frelick. "If you let all the interpreters leave the country, then what are you going to do? ... If we start evacuating Iraqis because it's too unsafe for them there, is that going to create a backlash in the U.S at a time when we're sending U.S. soldiers to Iraq and they're dying?"

Pascale Isho Warda, the Iraqi minister for migration and displacement, doesn't think a refugee program is a solution: "Patience is the best solution for everybody. ... It's not new for us to be in a life of fear."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+REFUGEES


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