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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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