As resettlement stalls, hopes run dry in Iraqi camp

People at Ashti camp for displaced Christians in Erbil, Iraq. Photo by: Elizabeth Dickinson / Devex

AINKAWA, Iraq — Ibrahim has been waiting since May 2, 2010. First, he waited in his home village of Qaraqosh while his daughter was whisked away with shrapnel in her head and a shattered shoulder. Then he waited while she was treated for three days in a better hospital in the nearby city of Erbil. Doctors there couldn’t do more, so he waited again while they transferred her to Turkey for a string of complex surgeries.

His daughter, one of six children, finally came home, but he knew she couldn’t stay. To be in Iraq was to be reminded of that day, when she boarded a school bus to Mosul University that was bombed twice, leaving her and 69 other students wounded. “The situation in Iraq was so bad, she was so scared,” Ibrahim recalls now. He sent his family back to Turkey, while he stayed in Qaraqosh, earning the salary that would pay their rent and bills.

Two years later, Ibrahim’s family got lucky. The United Nations had taken their case for resettlement, and the family was accepted by the United States. They moved to San Diego, where the six children and their mother study, work and wait for their father to join them.

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On December 27, 2015, Ibrahim interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for a reunification visa. He asked that neither his full name nor those of his children be used, for fear it could jeopardize his application. “Until now, I didn’t have any response,” he said. When he checks the status online, it still says “under review.”

Then suddenly, the waiting stopped in January, when U.S. President Donald Trump signed a broad immigration order initially barring Iraqis, and then in a revised order, suspending all refugees for at least 120 days. It was the opposite of the news Ibrahim had longed for.

“It’s like you shoot me here,” he said, pointing to his heart, “with a gun.”

Ibrahim is a Christian — a religious minority initially singled out for resettlement help by the Trump administration’s immigration rules. But the effect has been the opposite for this 53-year-old father, as well as many more refugees and displaced here who span the spectrum of religious beliefs.

On Wednesday, a judge in Hawaii temporarily blocked the latest executive order from being implemented. For many of those awaiting resettlement, however, the message — the inn is full — has already been sent.

In the years since Ibrahim’s family left, life grew more difficult in Iraq. By early 2014, Sunni militant groups started to reorganize in Northern Iraq, spurred on by the polarizing conflict in next-door Syria. In August of that year, the so-called Islamic State tore open the border between the countries, seized villages and towns across northern Iraq, and expelled or coerced residents.

The militants had a different name now, but to Ibrahim and his family, ISIS are the same extremists who bombed his child’s school bus. ISIS approached the mostly Christian village of Qaraqosh in May 2015 and killed two children nearby around the 10th of that month. “When we heard this story, we decided to leave and escape that same afternoon,” remembers Rania, Ibrahim’s 26-year-old niece. Also a university student in Mosul, studying geography, she and her mother fled with what little they could carry. Ibrahim, who had been in Erbil, met them there.

Today, Ibrahim, Rania, and her mother Badria, live in Ashti camp for 1,200 families of displaced Christians in the Ainkawa neighborhood of Erbil. Run by the Assyrian Church, the camp feels more like a trailor city than anything temporary. Grilled fish simmers at sunset, and men hash through the daily gossip at a coffee shop whose seats are all claimed by just after 7pm. For many, there is no thinking of ever going back. “Even if they rebuild it,” Rania says. “Life is difficult in Qaraqosh now.”

Photo by: Elizabeth Dickinson / Devex

Trump’s immigration order was ostensibly meant to protect Americans from the same enemies who chased these displaced families from their homes. Yet the first victims of ISIS — the Sunnis, Shias, Yezidis and Christians who fear for their live — have been among those most penalized.

Across Iraq, 3 million people have been forced to flee and now live in claustrophobic, tented camps or in the crowded urban homes of relatives. Children who escaped ISIS control found themselves begging to register in schools that couldn’t handle the influx of students, even with three shifts of class. Peers who lived under the militant group missed out on two years of schooling altogether.

The lucky and the wealthy have tried to go abroad, usually to Turkey and then by sea to Europe. In the first months of their displacement, many Christian families from Qaraqosh spent their life savings making journeys abroad, sometimes with visas and sometimes with only dreams, one of the camp managers, 51-year-old Thamer Gorges Bahnam said.

“All the religious minorities, we are not seeing a future for us in this land, the land where our ancestors lived in for thousands of years,” Hayder Shesho, commander of the Yezidkhan Protection Forces, told an audience last week at the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniya.

Iraq today is the third-largest country of origin for asylum seekers around the globe, with 98,100 new asylum applications in the first half of 2016, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. Germany received 56,100 of those claims. The United States resettled about 10 percent of that amount — 5,483 Iraqis — between October 2016 and February 2017.

America’s reticence to accept more refugees is hard to understand for a family whose greatest second chance came from the generosity of United States. Not every child hurt in the 2010 bus bombing was so lucky. At least one student died; another girl had her foot amputated — cause enough for her fiancee to call off their marriage, Badria recalls.

What Ibrahim least expected was for the United States to privilege sect and religion in immigration rules, so similar to the rancor that had ripped apart social cohesion of Iraq.

“We don’t have this discrimination, we don’t put these things as Islam or Christianity,” he said, fingering his Rosary the same way a Muslim here would his prayer beads.

“When we travel to another country, we just want security. We don’t come to hurt anyone.”

What Ibrahim least expected was for the United States to privilege sect and religion in immigration rules, so similar to the rancor that had ripped apart social cohesion of Iraq.

After the paradise of heaven, Ibrahim imagines the closest approximation must be the beachside city in California where his family lives. The United States is a dream, his children have told him. His youngest daughter’s only question is why Daddy can’t come.

Ibrahim’s life now is something different. He suffers from high blood pressure and feels an intense loneliness much of the time. During a visit to his niece’s and sister’s trailer in the camp, he imagined his son, who is studying computer science, and his daughter — the same one who was injured in Mosul — now going into pharmacology. He sat on the bed, folding his body into himself with every memory.

He works, and this takes up much of the day. Ibrahim is a salaried primary school teacher with the Ministry of Education and now gives classes in Erbil.

The wall of his white trailer is covered in the math lessons he now gives to his youngest daughter in the U.S., via Skype. He is teaching her multiplication tables. “When someone asks how she knows them, she will say ‘my father,’” he said.

Maybe the United States really is a dream, but not in the sense he first imagined.

“I don’t see my family. I don’t know where they go, what they do, what they need,” he said.

“I am just waiting. Until when I will wait?”

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About the author

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.