Between Iraq and a safe place

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The way Tony Yousif sees it, the deportation order the U.S. government is trying to impose on him is the equivalent of a death sentence.

"If I smell like I lived here in America, I’m dead. No question about it," the Iraq native says.

Yousif, 30, is among about 600 Iraqi Christians living in the Detroit area who are facing deportation to their war-torn homeland. Yousif came to this country five years ago seeking refuge from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. By that point, Iraq’s minority Christian population — Chaldeans and Assyrians who speak the ancient Aramaic language — and other non-Arabs had suffered for decades under a program known as "Arabization." Many were forced from their homes and relocated; others had to change their names as part of an attempt to undermine their cultural identity.

Yousif says he sustained an even harsher fate, claiming he was tortured by government agents after initially refusing to join Saddam’s ruling Ba’ath Party. He fled shortly afterward, and was smuggled through Turkey and South America before entering this country illegally in 2000. He’s been seeking asylum here ever since.

Now, with Hussein sitting in a jail cell and a new government elected, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is trying to deport Yousif and other Iraqi Christians seeking asylum. There are no figures indicating how many such people nationwide are being affected.

The tragic irony of all this, according to Yousif and others, is that conditions for Christians in Iraq are even more treacherous than those that compelled these refugees to leave during Saddam’s long reign of terror.

Daily news stories reveal an Iraq in chaos, with Muslim insurgents producing a steady stream of suicide bombings and other attacks. In the midst of this carnage, Iraq’s Christians say they are particularly at risk.

"The Iraqi Christian community has been under attack for the last two years," says Eden Naby, an adviser to the Assyrian Academic Society in Chicago. "They are seen as automatic allies of the U.S.-led coalition. Anytime there is an insurgency — especially an Islamic insurgency — the easy targets, when there aren’t Westerners, are Christians."

Which is why those like Yousif, now being threatened with deportation, are in such a state of high anxiety.

"These people are sitting on pins and needles," says Steven Garmo, of the Southfield-based Chaldean Federation of America. "Every day they wonder when immigration will come and pick them up."

None of these asylum-seekers has been deported yet, U.S. officials say. But that’s not because of a lack of effort.

There are five categories that qualify someone for asylum, says Rob Baker, field office director for Detention and Removal Operations for Immigration Customs and Enforcement in Detroit.

"Persecution based on race, religion, political activity, membership in a social group and nationality," Baker says. "It doesn’t have to be at the hands of the government."

To this point, though, neither the Department of Homeland Security, which administers immigration policy, nor the judges evaluating asylum claims have recognized Iraqi Christians as being especially in danger.

Those targeted for deportation have been wending their way through the legal process, climbing the appellate ladder as they battle to stay in America. But for many, the final rung is fast approaching, and the U.S. government is showing no sympathy for their plight.

"We’re just enforcing the law as it’s written," Baker says.

Iraqi Christians like Yousif, a casino dealer who lives in Harrison Township, are at a unique disadvantage, says Bill Frelick, refugee program director for Amnesty International. "Because the system works so slowly, you have people who initiated their asylum claims while Saddam Hussein was still in power," Frelick says. "Now the U.S. is in the position where it can argue there is a change in country conditions and these people can be sent back."

It is an odd position for the U.S. government to hold since conditions are so perilous in Iraq. As Frelick says, "It’s still too dangerous to assess the situation and corroborate what’s going on."

However, those familiar with the situation in Iraq say Christians there are being targeted for kidnappings and murder. Their homes, businesses and churches are being bombed, ransacked and occupied.

Assassination and attacks "are a fact of life for these people," says Edward Odisho, a professor of linguistics at Northeastern Illinois University and a consultant on Chaldo-Assyrian affairs for the U.S. State Department. "The threat is not coming from a highly organized political party. It’s coming from a total lack of security. Thousands of Christians have fled since Saddam fell."

No one knows for certain how many of Iraq’s 800,000 Christians have left that country since the U.S.-led coalition invaded two years ago.

Just last year, however, following a string of church bombings in October, more than 40,000 Iraqi Christians fled to Syria, says Shamiran Mako, an analyst with the Council for Assyrian Resources and Development in Toronto.

Among those who’ve fled are Yousif’s mother, brother and two sisters, who escaped to Syria. They left after the security situation in their predominantly Christian neighborhood in Baghdad became intolerable. The final straw came when Islamic militants firebombed a neighbor’s house. Like other Iraqi Christians trying to escape the persecution, their application for asylum in the United States has been denied.

The plight of his family produces even more stress than the prospect of his own deportation, says Yousif, who dreads the phone calls attempting to explain to his relatives why they are not being allowed into this country.

"I’m not so much worried about me so much as for my family," Yousif says. "Whenever they call, they keep asking if there’s something I can do. I can only talk about the situation to my brother. I’m afraid I’ll have to hear my mother cry."

Robert Dekelaita, a Chicago immigration attorney who represents Chaldo-Assyrians in Michigan and Illinois, sees politics as the reason these asylum requests are being denied.

"It seems to be the willingness for people to say, ‘Look, if it’s good enough for the U.S. soldiers, it’s good enough for you.’ And that’s absurd," Dekelaita says.

Rhonda Shore, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. State Department, says America is working closely with Iraq’s transitional government to ensure a better future for Chaldo-Assyrians in Iraq.

"Iraqi community leaders have called for a government that respects the rights of all its citizens; this respect should include a guarantee of freedom of religion for all Iraqis, including non-Muslims," she says.

"The U.S. government does not provide assistance to particular religious groupings. However, it is our understanding that the Chaldo-Assyrian community has benefited from approximately $33 million in assistance programs to their communities."

But that aid provides little comfort to asylum-seekers such as Fahrida Hirmiz.

Hirmiz, 78, first tried to flee Iraq in 1996 when her son, working as a sentry for the U.S. military in the northern part of the country, was evacuated. That effort was thwarted, however, and it was not until 2002 that she was able to slip across the Iraqi border into Jordan. Once there, a group of fellow Iraqi Christians helped her obtain a tourist visa and a plane ticket to Detroit. Since then she’s been living in Dearborn with her son, Eliya Nissan.

Hirmiz, who suffered a stroke several years ago, doesn’t have to look far to provide an example of how dangerous life is back in Iraq for her fellow Christians. In June last year, she says, her niece and uncle, along with five other Chaldeans contracted by the military to provide food and laundry services for U.S. troops, were gunned down by insurgents. None survived.

Last year an immigration judge ruled that, while Iraq "is a dangerous place," Hirmiz could not prove that she would be singled out for reprisal because of her religion. Her case is now pending before the Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls Church, Va. That board is her last hope of staying in this country. If her appeal is denied, she will be placed under final order of deportation and returned to Iraq.

Time is running out.

"The Bush administration has not acknowledged there’s a problem," immigration attorney Dekelaita says. "And I’m afraid it’s not going to do so until it’s too late."

For Hirmiz, the prospect is chilling.

"If they send me back to Iraq, I’ll be executed," she says, dabbing tears from her eyes with a folded tissue. Along with this fear, however, is her faith.

"I believe in the power of prayers," she says, speaking through an interpreter. "I have faith in God. God will protect me."

Joseph Kirschke is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact him at [email protected] or call
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