by Robin Sparks
I am up before the sun speeding in a taxi to the Istanbul airport to work with Iraqi refugees who are headed to, of all places, the United States, the country that I have voluntarily left behind. I am a refugee from America.
Refugee: One who has crossed an international border and is unwilling or unable to return home because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
Well, if I count all the rednecks in America including some who have been in power recently… Nah, I probably still wouldn’t qualify as a bonafide refugee, although I certainly feel like one.
So who are these Iraqi refugees and why are they leaving, and why for the USA for god’s sake?
They are Chaldean Christians, reputedly the world’s oldest religion, in existence since the first century. They constitute what remains of the original, non-Arabic population of the Middle East. All use Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Despite successive persecutions and constant pressures, Christianity has continued in Iraq since brought there allegedly by Thomas the Apostle.
Before the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Christians and Muslims lived together peacefully in Iraq. Chaldean Christians were mostly middle and upper class professionals. But as a result of the US-led surge the struggle with al-Qaeda moved to the city of Mosul, the home of Chaldean Christians. In misplaced anger towards the West, Muslims have increased demands for Chaldeans to convert. Death threats, the looting of homes and businesses, kidnappings, bombings, and murder have become increasingly commonplace. This past March the Chaldean archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul was abducted and murdered. Numerous priests and deacons have been tortured and shot or beheaded. And at least 40 churches have been burnt to the ground.
I am here today because the United States requires an American be present at the airport for a final identity check of all political and religious refugees headed to the United States. The job pays next to nothing and costs me a night’s sleep, but I come at least once per week because it pulls me from my ant hill into an experience that is raw.
The 50 adults and children standing here tonight – next to all the belongings they will take with them contained in two bags per person, each weighing a maximum of 23 kilos – have waited for months, some for years for this day. It is 5 AM. They’ve been here since 2 AM after a six hour bus ride from various satellite cities throughout Turkey. Yet, they show no sign of exhaustion, only the palpable excitement of children the night before Christmas.
Sweden has taken in the most Iraqi refugees — 40,000 – while the United States, which had only taken 1,608 by the end of 2007, has implemented a program for receiving up to 15,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of 2008. Around 500,000 people have fled Bush’s new Iraq and its violence, mass abductions and economic meltdown and most of them have been Chaldean Christians.
Arim standing with his family of five says to me, “I did not want to leave Iraq. My life is there, my work as an English teacher. My home. My friends. But lately they are making it impossible for us to stay. When my daughter entered university to become a teacher like me, she was told to convert or she would be kidnapped and raped. It was then that we knew we had to go.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to simply convert to Islam?” I ask.
“We would never do that. Our fathers, our grandfathers, their fathers, for 2000 years we have been there. We will die before turning our backs on our ancestors, our faith.”
After hours in the checkout line shuffling through all the documents, checking passport photos with faces, police letters, sponsor letters signed, the group is ready to go.
But wait. There’s a glitch.
Someone notices that the photo on a security letter for one of the young men does not match the photo on his identity card. A government employee hundreds of miles away in the Turkish capital of Ankara has accidentally transposed photos. Calls are frantically made from cell phones, but government offices are not open at this early hour. The International Office of Migration employee tells the family finally that she is sorry. They will not be able to go.
The mother collapses to the floor raising her hands in the universal sign of prayer and begs, “Please, please, help us. We have no money.” Her sons and her husband try to console her, veiling their own disappointment behind cultural machismo. The IOM employee continues trying to call offices that are not yet open. She cannot find a solution.
After at least an hour of pleading and crying and desperate attempts to talk the IOM officer into letting them go, the family concedes that their worst fears have come true. The other passengers look on with a mixture of pity and relief as the family exits the airport slowly, the father and son holding up the mother by her elbows, daughters trailing behind, heads hung low.
“Where will they go?” I ask the IOM personel. “I don’t know, “ she says her face a blank mask, and turns back to processing the remaining 44 refugees.
They are checked through, documents combed repeatedly at checkpoint after checkpoint, and then the only remaining gateway is passport control where once approved, the refugees will be granted entry to the other side – the side of the airport full of glittering duty free shops and restaurants, a sort of paradise before getting on a plane to heaven. Even I, without an airplane ticket, am relegated to watching from outside the pearly gates.
One by one each passes through the barrier after saying goodbye to family and friends on the other side that wave them on. Only one elderly woman remains, melded to a young adult man, her tear racked face glued to his, bodies entwined as if to imprint a memory.
I’d been looking away all morning gulping down rising emotions and silently repeating the mantra: be professional Robin, be professional. But it’s useless now. The tears spill in a torrent and I gulp down sobs that rise up in my throat. I watch this mother saying goodbye for the last time to a son she will likely never see again.
My son is in America.
They pull apart as her name is called over the loudspeaker, and the aging mother goes through the gate that separates her old life from the new, turning to gaze one last time into the eyes of her son. At that moment she scans the crowd behind the barrier and her eyes lock onto mine. Unbelievably, she comes back to where I stand and reaches over the barrier to wrap her arms around me. We stand there, a woman whose name I do not know, whose language I do not speak, holding each other. And in this moment she knows me and I know her.
And then she is gone along with the others to America.
Today is Thanksgiving, and I will eat turkey in Turkey with American friends. I will celebrate Thanksgiving as never before, grateful that I am free to be here, precisely because I am an American. And I will never, ever complain about filing my taxes again.