I am up hours before the sun speeding in a taxi to Ataturk Airport in Istanbul to assist Iraqi refugees who are headed to the country that I have voluntarily left behind.
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.
If I count the rednecks in America including some who have been in political office recently…nah, I probably still wouldn’t qualify as a refugee although I often feel like one.
So who are these Iraqi refugees and why are they leaving, and why are they headed to the USA?
They are Chaldean Christians, one of the world’s oldest religions, 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 burned 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 little and costs a night’s sleep, but I come at least once per week because it pulls me from my ant hill existence and lands me in an experience that is raw and real.
Fifty adults and children stand in line at the check out counters – next to 2 bags per person, each weighing a maximum of 23 kilos, containing all the belongings they will take with them into their new lives. They have waited for months, some for years for this day. It is 5 AM. They’ve been here since 2 AM after a 6-hour bus ride from various satellite cities throughout Turkey. They are excited like 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, “My life is in Iraq, 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 to Islam or she would be kidnapped and raped. It was then that we knew we had to go.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to 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.”
Arim and his family
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 bureaucrat hundreds of miles away in the Turkish capital of Ankara apparently transposed photos on the documents by accident. Calls are frantically made, but government offices are not open at this early hour. The International Office of Migration officer here with me tells the family that she is sorry. They will not be able to go.
The mother collapses to the floor, pressing her hands together in the universal sign of prayer and begs, “Please, please, help us. We have no money.” The officer looks away, there is nothing she can do. The woman’s sons and 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 shuffles out of the airport, 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 to a son she will likely never see again.
My son is in America and I am in Turkey. She will go to America and her son will remain in Turkey.
They pull apart as her name is called over the loudspeaker, and the old woman goes through the gate that separates her new life from the old one, turning to gaze one last time into the eyes of her son. At that moment she scans the crowd behind the barrier and our eyes meet. Unbelievably, she returns to where I stand, reaches over the barrier and wraps 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 because I am an American. And I vow to never, ever complain about filing my taxes again. (A vow I have admittedly broken since writing this article).
Postnote: The family that was turned away at the airport in this article, boarded a plane for America 6 days later.
How You Can Help:
Church World Service (CWS)
Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS)
Episcopal Migration Ministries
Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC)
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)
Bureau of Refugee Programs
Iowa Department of Human Services
International Rescue Committee (IRC)
Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service (LIRS)
U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI)
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)
World Relief (WR)