Seeking Refuge

Tina Ramirez March/April 2013

Imagine you are a Christian living in a society permeated by religious fanaticism and extreme intolerance. With few rights in your own country, you are seeking the liberty to live in a country that was founded upon freedom. Yet the little dignity you have left is stripped away, and your hopes and dreams are crushed by false allegations from the very extremists who are holding you captive in the first place.

This story is not hypothetical; it is surprisingly common. Let me tell you of an Iranian Christian refugee family that fled to Iraq. Their situation reflects the situation that thousands of other refugees face daily in the Middle East as they try to escape religious persecution and find freedom in America.

To avoid the extreme punishment of being sent back to Iran, this family petitioned the United Nations for help. They did this for eight years. As they waited for good news, they were kidnapped by other Iranian refugees and Iraqi government officials. Their father, who stayed behind in Iran, was murdered by Iranian officials when his sons refused to return to Islam. The local government where they fled for protection threatened to deport them several times for practicing their faith. Since they were not permitted to register their church, they worshipped secretly in their home. Then they were forced to move when neighbors complained about a private Easter celebration in their home.

When the U.N. finally recognized the imminent danger facing this family from both their own country and their host country, their case was referred to the United States for immediate resettlement. As the U.S. began the process to resettle them, the family could finally believe that there was a light at the end of this tunnel of suffering—the difficult part appeared to have passed. Yet, their story was far from over.

When they finally had a chance to tell their story to the U.S. representatives, they were punished for being around the very people who persecuted them. Their conversation went something like this:

“Why do you feel unsafe in Iraq?” asked one of the Department of Homeland Security interviewers.

“We’ve had to move many times because people we lived with attacked us for our faith,” replied the refugee.

“Where did you live when you were attacked?”

“We first lived in a building with Communist refugees that hated Christians. They kidnapped me and were going to kill me because we had a picture of Jesus hanging in our room and were sharing our faith with others there.”

“Did you pay rent?”

“Yes, we worked hard and didn’t want to live in a refugee camp, so we paid our own way.”

“Thank you.”

Then they waited. The persecution increased each day. At one point, one family member was hospitalized following the psychological trauma created by several hours of interrogation by the local government over his faith and religious activities.

Months after their interview the family finally received a letter from the U.S. government, but it only exacerbated their trauma. In summary it said: “I’m sorry; we believe you’ve engaged in a commercial transaction with a terrorist group, so we will have to review your case more thoroughly; you may want to consider withdrawing your case and trying another country.”

Weeks turned into months, and one year later they are still waiting, still persecuted, still living in daily fear for their lives. This family, like hundreds of other persecuted refugees seeking freedom in the U.S., have had their cases placed on a permanent hold because as the law currently stands, persecuted peoples overseas can be designated as terrorists simply for being targeted by terrorists.

Until the president clarifies that the persecuted are not terrorists simply by virtue of being around the very terrorists who persecute them, America will never be the refuge it once was.

In 2001 the USA PATRIOT Act created a new category—“undesignated terrorist organizations”—which redefined “terrorist activity” as any group made up of two or more persons engaged in violence for purposes other than personal enrichment, whether organized or not. This poorly defined third tier covers anyone not already listed by the U.S. government and was later expanded under the 2005 REAL ID Act to include any organization with a subgroup that engages in terrorist activity.

Any engagement in terrorist activity or “material support” to all three levels of terrorist organizations automatically initiates the “terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds” (TRIG), which bars the individual from immigrating to the U.S. Since the law took effect, thousands of refugees persecuted by individuals in this ambiguous third tier or its subcategories have been barred entry or placed in a bureaucratic black hole by the Department of Homeland Security, where they hang in limbo for years—forgotten rather than offered the protection needed to escape their persecutors.

The fact that there is no known list for this category or their subgroups is extremely problematic. How can a refugee know if they’ve associated with a terrorist if anyone can ambiguously be defined as a terrorist organization? And what constitutes “material support” or association with these groups?
The instances of refugees being caught in this web of ambiguity are many and varied. The refugee could have been persecuted by the undesignated terrorist group, or they could have served them unwittingly at their hospital or restaurant. In the case of this Iranian family, they may have lived in the same building with them and been associated by having undertaken the obligations of paying rent or an electricity bill. Any such contact automatically triggers the third tier terrorism bar, and the applicants are deemed to have engaged in a commercial transaction with a terrorist group, despite never intending to or even knowing that they were doing so in the normal course of their peaceful activities.

Accusations of terrorist connections they never had and cannot challenge only exacerbate the psychological trauma persecuted refugees experience daily while waiting for relief.

Something is deadly wrong when our refugee process creates an ambiguous standard that bars the very people it was intended to protect, such as this Iranian family.

American lawmakers have recognized this problem, and in 2007, just before President Obama took office, senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) passed legislation with broad bipartisan support, authorizing the president to exempt persons with no actual connection to terrorism from the overly broad definition of terrorism created under the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001.

In light of the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (July 2011), dozens of nongovernmental organizations and faith communities from across the nation sent a letter to President Obama (June 2012), urging him to fulfill his promise to clear up the backlog of cases, issue the regulations needed to fix this problem, and help persecuted refugees work through this process more quickly. They hoped the president would keep his administration’s promise. In the five years since Congress authorized the president to fix the problem, those critical, lifesaving changes have still not been made, and the number of refugees in the black hole has grown.

On August 10, secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano took one small step. The secretary cleared some 4,000 of the nearly 4,700 people who have already passed the difficult test to prove they are refugees and are living peacefully in the United States.

But thousands of refugees remain in dangerous situations abroad. They are eager to be put to the test of proving to the Department of Homeland Security and other U.S. security agencies that they pose no terrorist or security threat to the United States.

As this Iranian family has experienced in Iraq, the problem has been particularly acute for religious minorities throughout the Middle East. Social hostility only exacerbates their inability to find refuge in neighboring countries, leaving many no other option but to seek refuge in the U.S. and the West. Communities dating back to biblical times that have survived—albeit as inferior minorities—for centuries in the Middle East are now under severe threat.

In the years following the U.S.-led war in Iraq, a massive displacement of religious minorities has occurred in the region. While no one has been immune from the violence, the political vacuum created in the wake of the overthrow of Iraq’s government and subsequent rise in terrorist activity has disproportionately affected religious minorities—the most vulnerable members of the society. As political instability has engulfed other countries in the Middle East, including Egypt and Syria, the region’s religious minorities have been similarly targeted because of their religious identity.

Iraq’s 1.6 million Christians made up 3 percent of the population before the war, but have been reduced by two thirds since. Other minority religious communities have faced similar devastation to their communities—the Ezidis have been reduced by a third, the Mandaeans have lost 90 percent of their community, and the Jewish community is struggling to maintain just seven members, down more than 75 percent of the prewar numbers. Sadly, because of their disproportionate targeting by terrorists, these minorities make up 17 percent of the refugees that have fled Iraq. Many were still waiting to be resettled to safer countries when the violence erupted throughout the Middle East from Egypt to Syria.

As Coptic and Syrian Christians now experience turmoil in their own countries, they wonder whether the same tragedy awaits their communities. If it does, will America embrace them or treat them as terrorists? These minorities now live as second-class citizens, dependent on the arbitrary goodwill of a strongman like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad or a group like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. They wonder if America will ignore them as they seek to escape the inevitable wave of persecution and death that other minorities have faced in the region in the past decade.

As I traveled throughout the Middle East—in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey—in 2010, just months before the revolutions that changed the region, the indigenous Christians in those countries asked me, “Will you forget us like you’ve forgotten the Iraqi Christians?” Sadly, this reflected a common concern among religious minorities in the Middle East—the failure of U.S. policy either to prevent persecution of religious minorities or to help them escape.

U.S. policy in Iraq, Egypt, and now Syria has failed to consider how changes would affect the millions of Christians and other religious minorities who have survived for centuries as persecuted groups. Now they are in even greater danger.

Unlike some other persecuted groups, there is no country in the Middle East that welcomes Christians and other religious minorities with open arms. In 1948 Jewish communities throughout the Arabian peninsula fled to Israel for refuge. But Christians, whose communities in the region predate the rise of Islam, have been marginalized by most governments.

For instance, Iraqi Kurdistan has welcomed Christians fleeing Baghdad, but only if they support Kurdish nationalism and leave behind their ethno-religious distinctions. Lebanon has been the most welcoming country in the region, but is neither large enough to host the region’s persecuted Christians nor strong enough to protect them from extremists.

Some leading Christians in the region have actually called for designated states for ancient Christian communities within each country in the region, but such calls have been ignored. One proposal for a governorate in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains for the Christians and other religious minorities has never been taken seriously by the Iraqi or U.S. governments. The fear of being ghettoized has led some Christian leaders, such as Bassam Ishak of Syria, to call for express inclusion of Christians as equal citizens in the nation’s new constitution. Religious leaders in Egypt have made similar calls for equality of citizenship, but the newly empowered Muslim Brotherhood leadership has squelched these attempts.

Without protection from their governments for these vulnerable communities to live normal lives as equal citizens, terrorists have targeted them with impunity, attempting to force them out of the region. This has crippled the religious minorities’ ability to work and maintain their churches, threatening the very survival of their rapidly dwindling communities. At risk is the very face of ancient religious history in the Middle East.

And while erasure from their ancient homelands would be an international tragedy, even more disturbing is the failure of foreign governments such as the U.S. to offer these vulnerable refugees the lifesaving protection of resettlement to escape imminent danger.

For many of these ancient communities, survival now rests on resettlement outside their homeland. Sadly, the cry for refugees to find asylum in the U.S. has fallen on deaf ears.

Being faced with extinction from terrorist violence and shut out from refuge has created a hopeless situation for many religious minorities. However, if the president would carry out the changes called for by a bipartisan act of Congress in 2007, those in the most imminent danger could find hope in the lifesaving protection afforded through refugee resettlement in the U.S.

Article Author: Tina Ramirez

Tina Ramirez is of president of Hardwired, Inc.