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Iraqi Refugees Heading for the U.S.


So it is Friday. This is when we like to take a little time to check in on what's been happening in Iraq over the past week. We call it The Week In Iraq.

And this week, the U.S. military released videotapes found during a December raid in Diyala Province showing al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents training young boys. Roughly 20 children can be seen in the videos climbing walls and holding assault rifles.


Here's Rear Admiral Gregory Smith describing what's going on in one of the tapes.

Rear Admiral GREGORY SMITH (U.S. Navy): They're being told by a male instructor off the camera here, how to interdict a car, how to take the passengers out of the car. You can see they're all heavily armed, and one boy in the back has a grenade in his hand. You see all the adults in the background there watching. These are the boys. They're just young children, many of them below age 11.

STEWART: The military has said they do not if the children shown on the tapes were actually being used as fighters in the insurgency in Iraq.

A top U.S. uniformed officer testified Wednesday the U.S. military is tired and stretched thin. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that tours of duty must be shortened.

Admiral MICHAEL MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): The well is deep but it is not infinite. We must get army deployment stand to 12 months as soon as possible. People are tired.


STEWART: Admiral Mullen appeared with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to discuss the proposed $588 billion military allocation in the new Bush administration budget.

And the U.S. said it's received more than 1,300 Iraqi refugees here in the U.S. since October 2007 and expects to bring in 12,000 by October of this year. More than two million Iraqis have fled the country since the war began in 2003, with most going to Syria and Jordan; that's according to the U.N. refugee agency. No secret that living in Iraq is hard, but so is leaving. Iraqis seek refugee status, and there are thousand of them that face tremendous challenges both in getting out of the country and in adjusting to life elsewhere.

Here with us now it Reverend Joseph Roberson. He's the director of the Church World Services Immigration and Refugee program. Thanks for being with us this morning.

Reverend JOSEPH ROBERSON (Director, Church World Services Immigration and Refugee Program): Glad to be here. Thank you.

STEWART: Good morning.

Reverend Robeson, it seems like just even getting to be a refugee, just trying to attain that status is difficult. You work directly with many of these refugees coming to the U.S. from Iraq. You've heard their personal stories. Can you explain, what does it take to get out of the country? What are the challenges that these people are facing?

Rev. ROBERSON: Well, many of the people leaving had close connections with the U.S. government, serving in the embassy, serving in protection roles, with the U.S. troops as translators, and then they were threatened, or family members killed in Iraq. And simply they traveled across the border to Syria, to Jordan to be safe and so that their families would be safe.

Over the past few months, and some for the past few years, they've been waiting for something to happen, either that they could go home, that things would improve, or that there might be opportunities in other countries for them. During this time they're not allowed to really integrate into the society of the countries that they're in, so it's a time of sitting, waiting, children are not always able to go to school and work on their education, jobs aren't available for the people. So very, very difficult situations for them, not only leaving the country and giving up their homes, but being in a place where they're really not accepted and wanted.

STEWART: So it sounds like it's a two-step process to get to the U.S. Most of these people first go to Syria or Jordan. Some of them stay there.

Rev. ROBERSON: Right.

STEWART: Wait for things to get more stable so they can return home. Others of them are pressing forward, trying to get to the U.S. How difficult is that process?

Rev. ROBERSON: The process is a slow one, and one that takes a long time. The U.S. has a commitment this year of accepting 12,000 refugees. And as you know, the number has been very low from October on. Last year the U.S. was trying to work on 2,000 refugees coming in and accepted 1,600. The security arrangements to make sure that people who are being interviewed are very stressful and really very severe because we want to make sure that no one enters in that may be connected with the terrorists or a security risk to the U.S. So those are very, very slow.

There's also been difficulties in having U.S. people from the Department of Homeland Security go into a country such as Syria to do the interviews because the U.S. relationship with Syria is very tenuous.

STEWART: What does it take them, what criteria do these people have to meet in order to get that all-so-coveted visa or refugee status to the U.S.? These are all people who have had some, or most people who have some connection to the U.S.; what distinguishes someone who's going to get in and someone who's not?

Rev. ROBERSON: Well, there are several criteria that are looked at, and with a refugee, inherent in the definition of the refugee is that they fled their country. So someone who's in Iraq now is not going to be resettled in the U.S., so they had to have fled their country. So we're looking at people that had close connections with the U.S. as translators, transportation people, worked in the embassy; we're also looking at religious minorities that have been threatened, family members killed or not allowed to get back to their homes because their neighborhoods were cleansed of people of those religions. And last, but certainly not least, we're looking at widows and children, very vulnerable people, women whose husbands may have been killed and they're left alone and no way to really support themselves.

STEWART: When you describe people fleeing their home and fleeing their country, what do they take with them?

Rev. ROBERSON: Most refugees take a few precious items with them. I mean, very few precious items. They can't carry a lot. You can't obviously move furniture with you or your china or anything like that. But some pictures, some clothes, some documents that tell who you are, and that's about it.

STEWART: You - essentially you're talking about people whose job it is to sit down and listen to these horrific stories; everyone has a horrible story. So is it someone's job to literally sit there and decide this person is at more risk, this person is not?

Rev. ROBERSON: You're correct on that, and the initial interviews, say in Jordan or Syria, would be done by the International Organization of Migration, who would put together the case information and get it all ready. And the Department of Homeland Security interviews then decides on the adjudication, whether the person comes to the U.S. or not. And yes, those people have to listen to the story, see that the story that they're being told at that time is exactly what was told before; there are no changes in the story and they've been consistent with the story they're telling, and yes, decide this person is in need of resettlement, or no, this person does not.

STEWART: Well, while it sounds harsh, you have to imagine there are people who are trying to, could be trying to game the system or not telling the truth...

Rev. ROBERSON: Sure.

STEWART: ...or not giving full disclosure, maybe out of desperation, maybe out of other reasons.

Rev. ROBERSON: Right, you're correct on that.

STEWART: Where does your organization come in and organizations like it that are based here in the U.S.?

Rev. ROBERSON: Our organization resettles refugees and every week the Department of State allocates the cases, the refugee cases that are available, every Wednesday. So each of the agency sit down with the Department of State and get a certain number of cases. And we receive those cases, we bring them back to our office here in New York. We look over the sites where we're resettling Iraqis and decide where these cases will be resettled.

STEWART: So you and your organization essentially are responsible for creating the historic communities of Iraqis in the U.S.

Rev. ROBERSON: Yes, we are. And the resettlement of Iraqis in this go-around, we've tried very hard to look at existing Iraqi communities in the U.S. and do our resettlement in those communities rather than creating new communities.

STEWART: Where are they in the U.S.?

Rev. ROBERSON: Pretty much spread all over the country, but for us, cities like Phoenix; Austin, Texas; Dallas, Texas; small town of Harrisonburg, Virginia.

STEWART: How often do you deal with families that have been split apart?

Rev. ROBERSON: In refugee work, that's something that happens all too often. Mothers and fathers split, so mothers go with the kids or fathers go with the kids and one is left behind. That happens all too often. And in many cases, part of the family will escape from the country of origin and one person doesn't make it out at that time and then they're reunited later on down the year.

STEWART: And is it easier for someone to get into the U.S. if they already have had family that have gone before them?

Rev. ROBERSON: The U.S. program does a lot with family reunification. It may not be quick, but they are able to file for their relatives and get in that way; yes, ma'am.

STEWART: You got me looking up Harrisonburg, Virginia now, population 40,000 sort of in the north sort of central part of the state.

Rev. ROBERSON: In the Shenandoah Valley.

STEWART: Yeah, Shenandoah Valley.

Rev. ROBERSON: Right.

STEWART: And finally, Reverend, I do want to ask you, yours is a Christian faith-based organization.

Rev. ROBERSON: Right.

STEWART: There are many of these organizations like yours that do this work with refugees; how is your work impacted by your organization's affiliation and by the faith that your organization imbues?

Rev. ROBERSON: Well, I want everybody to know that when refugees come into this country, most of the refugees that are coming in are of the Islamic faith. We do not proselytize. We do not try to put our beliefs on other people. We work with congregations in local communities to volunteer and to assist with the families coming in. They're also in the understanding that they're doing this because of their faith, but they're not doing this to share their faith with other people.

STEWART: There's a difference. Reverend Joseph Roberson, director of the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program. Thank you very much for being with us this morning. We appreciate it. Thank you.

Rev. ROBERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.