Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

Iraq Humanitarian Crisis Is Personal In San Diego

Iraq Humanitarian Crisis Is Personal In San Diego
Iraq Humanitarian Crisis Is Personal In San Diego
GUESTS:Mark Arabo, Lifelong El Cajon resident and Chaldean-American. Bob Montgomery, with the International Rescue Committee IRC — a group that's worked to resettle Iraqi refugees and immigrants. Colin Archipley, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Anbar province as part of his three tours in Iraq.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Sunni insurgents continue to move toward Iraq's capital. The latest takeover is the Northwestern city of Tal Afar. This weekend we learned the insurgents members of the group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, apparently conducted their first wholesale execution of Iraqi soldiers in the city of Tikrit. San Diego County is the home to nearly 80,000 Iraqis and thousands of the veterans from operation Iraqi Freedom. Two groups with a lot of stake in the future of Iraq. I would like to welcome my guests, Mark Arabo, lifelong El Cajon resident and spokesman for the Chaldean-American community in San Diego. Bob Montgomery is with the international rescue community, IRC, a group that has worked to resettle Iraqi refugees refugees and immigrants. Bob, what do we know about the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Iraq as the ISIS insurgents take of the cities and Northwestern country? BOB MONTGOMERY: The humanitarian response has been compounded. As you may know, there are about 200,000 internally displaced Iraqis at the beginning of this year. Since then, about 480,000 mostly from Anbar province that had been displaced, and now out of Mosul alone there are about 400,000 new refugees. The refugees from Mosul are fleeing to many different areas, some to Kurdistan where they have safety, but day-to-day needs are not being met. Because of the hostilities on the ground, it is difficult for organizations like the IRC, who is operating in northern Iraq to safely address the needs of new refugees as well as the old. And the impact on neighboring countries, Iran, Jordan, they have received many of the Iraqi refugees in years past and more recent refugees from Syria. These are small countries, countries that may not have the capacity to handle the wave of refugees that is coming now. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Isn't it true that typically if there are problems in the area of Iraq, a lot of Iraqis might flee to Syria, but right now they cannot because they are actually Syrian refugees in Iraq. BOB MONTGOMERY: That is the irony of the situation there. At one time, there was 1,500,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria. Some are still there. Now, as I mentioned, we have 200,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq. It is a very strange situation that we have there. Matter of fact, the refugees in Iraq, the Iraqi refugees in Syria, to get out of Syria they have to be bussed to Lebanon if they are going to be resettled in the United States or somewhere else because it is too dangerous for them to fly out there. That is what I worry about in Iraq, if this happens there as well, if Baghdad airport is closed, the ability for refugees to come to the United States or other countries will not be able to leave. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What are the concerns of San Diego's Iraqi Christian Chaldean community about what is happening right now in Iraq? MARK ARABO: This is a nightmare for the Chaldean community nationwide and in San Diego. Images are coming in of mass executions in Tikrit of Chaldean families. And Sunnis are actually working with Isis, because from the beginning of 2003 when they invaded Iraq, they did not let the Baath party participate in elections, which created a deep resentment between Sunnis and Shiites. So we have been very clear in saying that there is no safe haven in Iraq for Christians or minorities. We're calling on the UN and NATO to help with the passage of a mass exodus of all Christians from Iraq. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is the Chaldean community, do you know of people personally who have friends or relatives in that area of Iraq left contact with them? MARK ARABO: We know multiple families, one of which he actually was doing interviews yesterday and he lost connection with his family with his uncle and cousins six days ago. We're receiving hundreds of calls. The main thing, this is a humanitarian crisis. It is not about Chaldeans or refugees in a certain region. This is about worldwide implications. We need to be able to come to a big world community to make sure that no terrorist group can get a stronghold of Baghdad. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I remember when the war operations ended in Iraq, there was a feeling and I even read things that people in San Diego and other Iraqi refugees were thinking about going back, perhaps making connection with the new nation of Iraq, did that happen and what was the status of that now? MARK ARABO: I can tell you on behalf of the Chaldean community, America is the best country in the history of the earth. Every Chaldean who has come here with a one way ticket or was born here will never think to leave America. A lot of folks in 2003 were hoping to take their children to Iraq to visit, the community is similar to when the Italians came to New York they live in America, they love America, this is our country but they want to go there to visit or vacation. The reason why we are calling for a mass exodus, we are seeing with Chaldeans and all different groups that come to America that there is no other country better than the United States of America. We have freedom, opportunity, security, and we know that when they buy a one-way ticket here, they don't want to come back but they want to preserve the nation because of the ancestry. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Bob, I remember Iraqi doctors in San Diego were thinking about going back and starting clinics, things of that nature, did people resettled from San Diego back to Iraq? BOB MONTGOMERY: I think every refugee who comes to the United States harbors some hope they can return home safely. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Iraq. We have seen very few people return to Iraq whether they are doctors, or from other professions, it is just unsafe. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: On the line with us is Colin Archipley, a Marine Corps veteran who served in the Anbar province as part of three tours in Iraq. Welcome, thank you very much for joining us. COLIN ARCHIPLEY: You're welcome, my pleasure. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're hearing the names of cities that were part of the past, Mosul and Tikrit and Falluja, what you think of this takeover by Sunni militants? COLIN ARCHIPLEY: I think it is not overly surprising. A lot of us who served in Iraq were not 100% confident in the military, in fact I remember very clearly operating with members from the in Iraqi military and one of them saying before I left for my deployment that is soon as America was gone, this gentleman happen to be Shia, as soon as Americans are gone, we're going to kill all of the Sunnis. And we were operating in the Anbar province. We knew there was going to be a lot of friction, and with the exclusion of the Sunni populace and the governance, this was bound to happen. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You run an organic farm in San Diego now, but I know that you still talk with a lot of Iraq war vets, what do you hear from them about the recent events? COLIN ARCHIPLEY: I think the term is frustration, I think we all have our own sort of opinions on how to best move forward, but I think they're frustrated. There are obviously huge sacrifices being made. I think a lot of us feel that we created an opportunity, through years of work. There were free elections, some sort of stability, and with Maleki signing the agreement to keep the American forces there, I don't think we had much choice but to withdraw. That was the opportunity they did not take advantage of. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The Marines helped to train the Iraqi army, and what we are hearing now, many of the members of the Iraqi army seem to be giving up in the face of insurgent troops. What do you make of that? COLIN ARCHIPLEY: Well, I think there is not a sense of pride in the military that you would find here in the United States and elsewhere. I think for a lot of Iraqis, being in the military is more of a job as opposed to a service to the country and the government that they are proud to be a part of. Not to mention some of the enemies they are facing are familiar faces, sometimes that can be a lot to swallow. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Whose failure is this in your estimation? Is this a US failure or an Iraqi failure? COLIN ARCHIPLEY: That is difficult, ultimately I think it is Iraq's failure just because we cannot keep control of their country and provide them with things that they want, I think we did a pretty good job. It could be a question, should we have state longer or should we not have gone in the first place. It is a debate that will never end. Should be have been there longer, I don't think we had the opportunity. They asked us to leave, so to speak, and if we respected them as a sovereign country, we had to do so. I think in my opinion this is Maleki's fault more than anybody. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you for speaking with us. Mark, you have been talking about the humanitarian crisis among the Chaldean community in the North and West Iraq. You have been saying that there seems to be people who need to be repatriated, or there needs to be creation of an indigenous Iraqi nation. MARK ARABO: I think first we need to thank all of the soldiers for their extraordinary sacrifices. The Chaldean community agrees that Maleki's big blunder was when he did not allow community for our soldiers. For the Chaldean community, ideally if there was a part of the safe haven for them to live and be peaceful, we have seen since 2003 when they did not secure the borders and all of these insurgents fled into the country, there is never been an opportunity for Chaldeans and Christians to live peacefully. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are the divides so deep now in Iraq that even people who are from Iraq if they are Sunni or Shia they are now pitted against each other as well, it is not just insurgents from outside of Iraq? MARK ARABO: Is definitely a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis right now. It starts with 2003 when they did not allow the Baath party to be allowed as part of free elections. This has been a tinderbox that has been willing for a long time. Now we see Sunnis are to our spending with ISIS, that is even scarier. We're happy the president Obama told Prime Minister Maleki he needs to incorporate more people in his government, he needs to have Sunnis, a government for everybody that represents everybody. What was happening, the people and the victims are being the Christians in the Chaldean community being persecuted. This is a slow genocide of a tremendous proportion. The world wants to make sure that Baghdad can never fall, into the hands of a jihadist group. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is the role of the IRC group now in Iraq? BOB MONTGOMERY: We have two roles, first to help those displaced, we do that by providing protection, water, sanitation. I just learned that the water system in Mosul was partially destroyed by the fighting there. Obviously groups like IRC will be looking to rehabilitate the water system there. We work with youth and gender-based violence. Right now we're in a crisis situation so we're doing a lot to address the immediate needs that have been recently displaced. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Personally for you, I now have been working on this and you can working on resettling people for such a long time here, what is your personal reaction to this? BOB MONTGOMERY: I think we are concerned that there is such a new outpouring of refugees, and will we be able to handle all of the needs. As I mentioned earlier, many of the surrounding countries that have generously hosted the original ways of refugees from Iraq are becoming inundated not just with Iraqi but also Syrian refugees. Now here my concern is that yesterday a flight of sixty refugees coming to the United States had to be canceled because of the fighting. There are hundred more that were due to to go out today, it is unclear if they will be able to get out now or not. There will be some immediate impacts for families, like Mark has been talking about, with been waiting for months or years to reunite with family that was in harm's way, and that may be in jeopardy now. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to end up there, I want to thank my guests so much, thank you for coming in and speaking with us.

Sunni insurgents continue to move toward Iraq's capital.

Their latest takeover is the northwestern city of Tal Afar. The members of the group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, apparently conducted their first wholesale execution of Iraqi soldiers in the city of Tikrit this weekend.

San Diego County is home to nearly 80,000 Iraqis and thousands of veterans of Operation Iraqi freedom — two groups with a lot at stake in the future of Iraq.


On KPBS Midday Edition we heard from a spokesman for San Diego's Chaldean community about their concerns for the Iraqi people and what they are asking the U.S. government to do in response to the humanitarian crisis.

And we heard from an Iraq war veteran about why the takeover by ISIS in Iraq is frustrating.

Marine Corps vet Colin Archpley said the U.S. military gave Iraqis free elections and stability, but it was up to the Iraqis to maintain that and they squandered it.