Kathy Kelly: Refugee Dreams

By Kathy Kelly

Sr. Rose Leo, the principal of the grade school I attended, was also a talented musician who could have had a career as an opera singer. Three days a week, after school, our girls’ chorus assembled for practice, singing musical exercises until Sr. Rose Leo swept into the room. Then she would distribute sheet music for unusual pieces, dramatic and emotional songs rarely heard beyond our rehearsal room. We were enthralled by the sheer beauty of her voice, no matter what music she chose.

One year, Sr. Rose Leo taught us a musical rendition of Emma Lazarus’s lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

My voice quavered and sometimes cracked as the soprano section surged toward the highest notes in this piece. Sr. Rose Leo kindly instructed me to lip sing. But nothing deflated my idealism. I was swollen with happiness because I lived in the land that welcomed and cared for these huddled masses.

Growing up in the U.S. has meant coming to grips with realities about America that don’t square with patriotic childhood fervor. Today, we must hope that U.S. grown-ups refuse to be treated like big children as they listen to President Bush’s latest speech about Iraq.

A responsible approach to Iraq demands U.S. accountability toward hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled Iraq since the U.S. invasion and occupation.

Let’s be clear. The U.S. hasn’t responded to Iraqis yearning to be free by shedding light on a golden door beckoning them into a better life. Doors slammed shut throughout decades of U.S. indifference toward Iraqi suffering. Almost no U.S. leaders tried to shed light on diseased and starving Iraqi children during a 13 year state of economic siege waged against Iraq. The U.S. and the UK tightened the thumbscrews of murderous economic sanctions that primarily punished Iraq’s most vulnerable people. Economic sanctions directly contributed toward the deaths of 500,000 children under the age of five. This was an ominous foretaste of just how much the U.S. government cared about what happened to Iraqis.

Now, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees huddle in overcrowded housing, their most basic human needs barely met, in Jordan and Syria, the only neighboring countries that would allow them entry. Within Iraq, in the past ten months, the UN estimates that 470,000 Iraqis have fled their homes because of sectarian violence, criminal gang attacks, and spiraling reprisals. Prior to February, 2006, when the Askeria shrine was attacked, over one million Iraqis were internally displaced. Increasingly, especially in the south of Iraq, displaced people flee to communities that are already overburdened by refugees. In these communities, even public buildings government buildings, mosques, youth centers, schools are crowded with refugees. Knowing this, some Iraqi families are choosing not to flee. Instead, with no option for resettlement, they are left to fend for themselves in the face of relentless violence and peril.

The U.S., which still clings to its tarnished image as a refugee haven, has not offered significant assistance to help the only neighboring countries that have admitted refugees, Jordan and Syria. Both countries have meager resources. Jordan has tried to dissuade more refugees from coming by ruling that if the UNHCR grants refugee status to any Iraqi, the UNHCR must resettle the refugee in a third country within six months. This has created a terrible catch 22 for the UNHCR, since there are no countries willing to open their doors to Iraqis for resettlement.

Is there even a sliver of light in statistics regarding U.S. admission of refugees since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003? The door opened ever so slightly: in 2005, the US took fewer than 200 Iraqis and in 2006 only 202. This year’s quota is set for 500.

Who can blame other countries for being reluctant to raise their quotas when the U.S., responsible for so much of the chaos and violence that is destroying Iraq, seems oblivious to the alarming crisis?

A vital surge is needed in financial assistance to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, (UNHCR). Overworked administrators and staffers in UNHCR offices have repeatedly issued compelling pleas for assistance from international donors. Their knowledgeable reports deserve careful study and swift response.

Another surge should occur in the U.S. quota for receiving Iraqis into the United States. But these matters are not high priorities for President Bush’s new forward thinking.

I was shamefaced when Sr. Rose Leo asked me to lip sing the verses inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Certainly I don’t regret childhood dreams about living in a land enhanced by hospitality and a glowing commitment to share its wealth. But now, I can only manage a wry smile, wondering if the U.S. could ever redeem itself for shameful treatment of Iraqis, people who never meant us harm, whose hopes for refuge grow dimmer in light of surging U.S. commitment to war.

Even if we’re only speaking to the choir, Voices for Creative Nonviolence heartily recommends a good starting point for singing a new tune: the Occupation Project, a campaign of sustained nonviolent civil disobedience seeking an end to U.S. funding for war. See www.vcnv.org for more information.

-Kathy Kelly (kathy@vcnv.org) is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence

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