Iraqi Refugee Program Moving Slowly Syria and Jordan are appealing for help in dealing with a refugee crisis from Iraq. The State Department has promised to bring in 7,000 Iraqi refugees this year, but only 133 have arrived so far. Members of Congress are growing impatient.
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Iraqi Refugee Program Moving Slowly

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Iraqi Refugee Program Moving Slowly

Iraqi Refugee Program Moving Slowly

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

The human cost of the war in Iraq is often measured in casualty figures, but that's an inadequate gauge of the suffering. And it doesn't include, for example, the more than two million refugees who have fled the violence in Iraq. Most have escaped to Syria and Jordan. Others have gone to Egypt and Lebanon. Few have come here to the United States. The Bush administration has pledged to admit about 7,000 Iraqi refugees this year. So far, America has fallen far short of even that modest goal.

NRP's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Soon after her husband, freelance journalist Steven Vincent, was killed in Basra nearly two years ago, Lisa Ramaci worked to get his Iraqi assistant out. Now Nour al-Khal is living with Ramaci in New York, though Ramaci says nothing about the refugee process has been easy.

Ms. LISA RAMACI (Steven Vincent's Wife): The process took about 18 months. And I can sum it up in one word - arduous.

KELEMEN: Ramaci testified on Capitol Hill, made phone calls to the State Department, and got help from the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that helps resettle refugees in the U.S. She says ultimately Nour was given what's known as priority one status. But even so, it took four months to go through the final security clearance process.

Ms. RAMACI: It was absurd. It truly was. And for the millions of Iraqi refugees that are over there that do not have an advocate in America, who haven't worked with either a military person or a media person, who have nobody to fight for them, I have no idea how they're ever going to get here.

KELEMEN: There were about 63 other Iraqis on the flight that brought Nour al-Khal to New York, mainly U.S. military interpreters and their families. Khal says now that she's here, she hopes to raise awareness about the plight of Iraqi refugees.

Ms. NOUR AL-KHAL (Iraqi Refugee): Helping more Iraqis to get to States or anywhere in Europe countries. Just to give them the same chance I've been given to lead a normal life.

KELEMEN: In June, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, sent a cable back to Washington urging the U.S. to offer immigrant visas to all Iraqi employees who worked for the U.S. government. He wrote that Iraqi staff members are the targets for violence. And unless they know there is some hope of a visa, they may continue to flee.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack says the U.S. is working with Congress to address this. He also said the U.S. has brought in 133 Iraqi refugees this year. And the State Department hopes to get 2,000 more through the refugee procedures by the end of September.

Mr. SEAN McCORMACK (Spokesman, U.S. State Department): I give you all these figures to show that the United States government has mobilized on behalf of those individuals who have served well and faithfully the United States government in Iraq.

KELEMEN: But Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, says there's a disconnect between the administration's rhetoric and the reality. He raised the issue at a confirmation hearing for Under Secretary of State for Management Henrietta Fore, who's being promoted to run America's aid agency.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): Now, this administration is putting this kind of urgency on this issue. And we are saying all the things from the president on down that we owe this to these good faithful Iraqis. It seems we're not matching our words with our actions.

KELEMEN: Various bills are working their way through Congress on the Iraqi refugee issue. Jana Mason of the International Rescue Committee says lawmakers and the administration need to think about the big picture - not just aiding Iraqis targeted for their association with Americans, but also helping those with little hope to come here.

Ms. JANA MASON (Director of Government Relations and Advocacy, International Rescue Committee): They need various forms of assistance in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, wherever they are.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has generally been a leader in resettling refugees around the world, Mason says. But in the case of Iraq, the U.S. is taking in a tiny fraction. And even processing the Iraqis who do come is taking too long, she says, because there are not enough U.S. immigration officials in the field to do the security background checks in a timely way.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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