AIUSA "Adopts" War-Weary Iraqi Refugees

September 13, 2007

AIUSA "Adopts" War-Weary Iraqi Refugees

Fall 2007

AIUSA "Adopts" War-Weary Iraqi Refugees

By Alyssa Misner

Iraqi Refugees

Iraqi refugees in Damascus, Syria, where many Shiite Iraqi refugees fled.
© Joachim Ladefoged/VII

Since the war in Iraq began in 2003, tens of thousands of Iraqi families have fled to safety and stability abroad, mainly in neighboring Syria and Jordan. But these war-weary refugees are often unable to work, and the cost of hosting them is straining the economies and infrastructure of recipient nations. As the war rages on, money and hope are running out for many Iraqi refugees, and their hosts are growing impatient.

In July, Amnesty International USA launched the groundbreaking Iraqi Refugee Pilot Project, in which AI members are paired with an individual or refugee family who has fled Iraq. Program participants send their "adoptees" basic necessities and messages of comfort, and they do direct advocacy on their behalf in the United States. "A lot of these people have given up hope," said Sarnata Reynolds, AIUSA Refugee Program director and the program’s founder, "so to know that there are people here in the U.S. that care—that provides moral support."

What distinguishes this effort from other AI campaigns is its direct advocacy approach and its ultimate goal: to ensure the permanent protection of these refugees in the United States or another country. Program participants receiving training on how to lobby for laws that offer protection to more Iraqis and are taught to advocate for the people they have adopted abroad. "Protection from persecution is a human right," Reynolds says.

In light of the complexities of the refugee-adoption program, the political climate in certain parts of the United States, and the collaborative nature of the training, no one expects the adoption process to be quick or easy. Indeed, no one is sure the idea will even catch on. But with AIUSA’s three- to five-year commitment and the selection of the first 10 adopters to receive training from the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, a significant effort is under way.

"We have to make people understand that the United States has a duty to these people," said Joe Pompei, a longtime AI member from Concord, Ma. Pompei and his wife, both professional stained-glass artists, have adopted a 30-year-old Iraqi architect who fled to Jordan because she was persecuted for working on USAID projects. AI groups across Canada, Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom may soon be joining the effort.

The Iraq Displacement Crisis

Approximately 2.5 million refugees are struggling to survive outside Iraq. Forced to flee because they follow a disfavored religion, were born into a marginalized minority, or agreed to work on behalf of the U.S., many of these refugees have no access to housing, health care or education. Although many of the refugees had temporary permission to remain in Jordan or Syria, they have now overstayed their visas. The refugees live in constant fear of being returned to Iraq, where they face death threats and worse. Many have already lost spouses, parents, children and siblings to kidnappings and executions.

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