U.S.-Bound Iraqi Refugees Cleared to Leave Syria

With visa restrictions lifted for Homeland Security in Damascus, Syria, a huge backlog of refugee cases is moving — slowly. The U.S. government has pledged to resettle 12,000 Iraqis this fiscal year but has fallen short of those numbers so far. Some cases were finally cleared in Damascus, and the first batch of refugees is departing.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

Sixty-four journalists have been killed in connection with their work this year. That's an all-time high. Nearly half of those were in Iraq. Iraqis who work for Western agencies are at high risk and some are fleeing. A handful have qualified for resettlement in the U.S.

NPR's Deborah Amos has the story.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible).

DEBORAH AMOS: In a small, cold apartment in Damascus, an Iraqi family packs for a new life. They've made it through the United Nations refugee process, a U.S. embassy interview, required medical tests, and a rigorous security check, and more than a year of waiting.

(Soundbite of a TV broadcast in foreign language).

AMOS: The TV is tuned to an Iraqi channel, a reminder of life back home. The top news item? An attack in Baghdad. But it barely registers with this former Iraqi journalist, for the first time, willing to give his full name.

Mr. SALEH AL-QEYSI(ph): Saleh al Qeysi.

AMOS: Can I use it?

Mr. AL-QEYSI: Yes.

AMOS: It's no problem at all?

Mr. AL-QEYSI: I mean, I'm leaving to States, so let they do what they want to do.

AMOS: In December, Qeysi, his wife and two children were told they would be going to Atlanta, Georgia.

Mr. AL-QEYSI: I feel very happy and I feel very frightened. Happy because finally, I'll be living normal life.

AMOS: But frightened, he says, by what's ahead. Thirty-four-year-old Qeysi had never been outside of Iraq until he fled to Syria after death threats because of his work for Western news companies. He's beaten the uncertain odds of resettlement. He is preparing for an uncertain future in a country he knows little about.

Mr. AL-QEYSI: You're going to walk in the street. You don't have a memory. You're going to meet strange people. You don't know their personalities. So you need to be very careful and you need the God's help.

AMOS: Iraqi refugee resettlement is moving again in Syria. The Syrian government lifted a ban on U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials in November, issuing visas for a five-person team. Iraqi resettlement candidates have to be interviewed personally by the DHS before they're allowed into the United States.

Mr. AL-QEYSI: I think it did help my case to be moved when the Syrian government granted visas to those people.

AMOS: Saleh al-Qeysi is moving, but there are thousands more waiting, says Arafat Jamil(ph) with the U.N. office for refugees. The U.N. has referred more than 20,000 cases to the U.S. A little more than 2,000 have been resettled.

Mr. ARAFAT JAMIL (U.N. Office for Refugees): We welcome the cooperation. We're getting excellent cooperation with the State Department and DHS, but clearly, more could be done. It should go faster.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language).

AMOS: Most Iraqi refugees here live in the poorest neighborhoods. A new U.N. survey gives the first detailed picture of the community. More than a third say they'll be out of cash in a few months time. With the cold, winter months ahead, aid workers say many could go hungry, choosing to pay for heat rather than food.

Mr. JOEL CHARNY (Refugees International): My worry is that we're kind of in a permanent holding pattern.

AMOS: Joel Charny with Refugees International, a U.S. advocacy group, says the U.S. government still hasn't acknowledged the refugee crisis because, he says, it is an admission of failure in Iraq.

Mr. CHARNY: I think it's about the fundamental almost quasi-religious belief that we will succeed in Iraq. And when we succeed, people will return.

AMOS: But many Iraqis say they can never go home. Juan(ph) is an Iraqi who worked for the U.S. development agency, USAID, in Baghdad. One day last year, he says, he came home to find a letter wrapped around a bullet on his car's windshield - a death sentence for working with the Americans. He left for Syria the next day. He's still frightened even here and doesn't want his name broadcast. He knows some Iraqis are going back to Baghdad, but it's not an option for him.

JUAN (U.S. Agency for International Development): It's make me cry. In my (unintelligible) a lot of time there's my mom and my dad. It's make me sad.

AMOS: He's given up on resettlement and on the U.S. government that trusted him in Baghdad, but he believes doesn't trust him enough to admit him to the United States.

JUAN: (Unintelligible) you can't cry. (Unintelligible) something.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

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