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First big wave of Iraqi refugees heads for the US

7,000 immigrants are expected before year end. About 2,000 will go to Michigan.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 26, 2007

Amman, Jordan

Adnan Abbas – with his poor English, four young daughters, and little money to speak of – shrugs when told that making a new life in the US will be hard.

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"I know that a new country, new language, is difficult and that America isn't going to say, 'Welcome, Adnan, here's a million dollars,' " he says. "But life in Iraq? That's impossible. We're one of the luckiest families in the world."

On Tuesday, the Abbas family will take their five small suitcases, close the door on the small flat they've rented for the past year in Amman, Jordan, and start a journey that will eventually taken them to Lansing, Mich. They are in the vanguard of what's likely to become – if the history of American wars is anything to go by – the latest wave of immigrants to have an impact on the demographics of the US.

In February, the US agreed to accept 7,000 Iraqi refugees this year, a large jump over the fewer than 700 Iraqis accepted by the US in the first three years of the war but a drop in the ocean when measured against the estimated 2 million Iraqis who have fled the country since the war began. About 2,000 of those Iraqis coming this year, say refugee officials, will start their lives anew in Michigan.

For now, the Abbases are among the exceptions that prove the rule. Adnan, a driver in Baghdad for this paper, was witness to the murder of Allan Enwiyah and the kidnapping of reporter Jill Carroll in January 2006.

The family fled the country because of fear of reprisals from the Iraqi jihadis who had murdered Mr. Enwiyah, and because Abbas had been publicly identified as connected to an American organization, something that has proven a death sentence for hundreds of Iraqis in the past four years.

One of Abbas's brothers was murdered at his small shop in Baghdad earlier this year, and witnesses said the masked killers shouted "Where's Adnan?" before pulling the trigger. A nephew on his wife's side of the family was murdered in 2005 after being kidnapped while delivering supplies to a US base in Anbar Province. His killing was filmed and posted on the Internet.

The Monitor's efforts to secure immigrant status for the family, and the simple fact that he had some American ties, helped move the family to the front of the line of those seeking entry to the US. Interviews with other refugees in Jordan made it clear that most heading for America now either have ties to the country through family, or because of their work in Iraq.

This week dozens of other Iraqis will be joining the Abbases on their journey to the US, after months of delays vetting their applications and creating processing mechanisms. A spokeswoman for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Amman says she wasn't certain how many Iraqis had already gone to the US this year, but said that the vast majority of arrivals will be during the next six months. About 2,000 of the Iraqis coming this year, say refugee officials, will start their lives anew in Michigan.

While 7,000 remains tiny when measured against the US population and human need, the history of war-driven immigration to the US is that it is generally backloaded: The US accepted only about 600 refugees from Vietnam between 1954 and 1974. The floodgates opened after the fall of Saigon, with the first wave composed largely of Vietnamese who had worked with Americans in that country.

By the 1980 census there were 245,000 Vietnamese living in America, and that number had grown to 614,000 by 1990. The second wave was fed by the exodus of boat people fleeing communist rule and reeducation camps.