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.
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Though there are 3.5 million Arab-Americans now, according to an estimate by the Arab American Institute, the 2000 census counted 1.3 million and of those only 38,000 identified themselves as "Iraqi." What's more, 63 percent of Arab-Americans are Christians, reflecting decades of migration from Levantine countries such as Lebanon.Skip to next paragraph
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Though it's still easier for Iraqi Christians to get into the US because of family ties, and the estimated 1 million Iraqi Christians are disproportionately represented among refugees, they still make up, at most, 5 percent of Iraq's population. So if the United States does decide to take in a large number of Iraqis, the traditional Christian tilt of Arab Americans will be substantially shifted.
While a defeat like the one the US and its south Vietnamese allies suffered in that war is unlikely in Iraq, US military commanders, including Gen. David Petraeus, have estimated the fight there could last another decade. In addition to the 2 million Iraqis living in limbo, mostly in Syria and Jordan, the UN estimates another 2 million Iraqis have been internally displaced.
So far, the Iraqis have had few options. One of the major recipients of refugees since the war began has been Sweden, which accepted 9,000 Iraqis last year. This year, Sweden's migration minister estimates 20,000 will be accepted. But people working on refugee issues in the region say there's a dawning awareness that what was at first thought to be a temporary problem now needs durable solutions. "At the start of the war, there was still this notion that most of those who'd left Iraq would eventually be returning home," says Rana Sweis, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Amman. "But it's become clear that we need to face reality."A member of another group who works with Iraqi refugees, who asked not be named said: "It's never as fast as you'd like, and the US is so far doing very little to open its doors. But is it getting faster? Yes."
For the moment, the vast majority of Iraqi refugees have yet to register with the UNHCR, the first step in legal immigration to a third country, if they make a convincing case they would face reprisals if they return home. In Jordan, only about 33,000 are registered and in Syria, which is host to 1.4 million Iraqi refugees, just 89,000 have registered. But the pace of registrations is surging. On a typical day last week, about 200 Iraqis lined up outside UNHCR's Amman office to begin the process.
Accepting refugees isn't as simple as giving them a visa. Families coming to the US receive free plane tickets and a living stipend while they get on their feet, but they're expected to start paying this money back once they get a job. In all, the US spends about $800 million a year on refugees, though much of this is to improve living conditions in refugee camps overseas. The US will accept 70,000 refugees in total this year.
For now, the Abbas family is apprehensive about what lies ahead, but are glad to be getting out of Jordan. "I can't work here; we can't become Jordanian citizens, so it's a relief to get away and start rebuilding," says Abbas. His biggest worry is his wife, who doesn't speak English. "She's like a tree with her roots in Baghdad, and we've pulled up the roots."
The family is receiving a small fund of money provided by Monitor readers but left behind a Baghdad home and land that Abbas doubts they'll ever be able to sell.For her part, Mrs. Abbasis worried about school for their 12, 11, and 6-year old daughters: Will they fall behind until they learn English? Will Suzanne, almost a year old and born in Jordan, ever learn Arabic? The family is also a little worried about the reputed frigid Michigan winters – all accept for 6-year old Manar: "I'll be able to make snowballs and throw them at my sisters," she says with a giggle.