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Iraqi Refugees Don't Spare Much Thought for U.S.

Chris Herlinger | Religion News Service | Monday, December 8, 2008

Iraqi Refugees Don't Spare Much Thought for U.S.

December 8, 2008

DAMASCUS, Syria (RNS) -- With his decidedly Middle Eastern middle name and his status as the first American president of African descent, Barack Hussein Obama has captured the world's imagination, if not its heart.

Just ask people like Milad Kaktoma, a 24-year-old Iraqi refugee who fled the chaos of his homeland with his family in search of stability -- however fleeting -- in Syria.

When conversation in the family's cramped apartment here turns to U.S. politics, Kaktoma gives a hearty thumbs up to Obama and spreads his arms wide when asked where he would eventually like to live.

"America!" he says, a wide grin crossing his face.

Yet among the throngs of refugees coping with the loss of family members, homes and careers, as well as local religious leaders doing their best to respond to the mounting humanitarian problems caused by the Iraq war, there is noticeable caution in discussing how a new U.S. administration will deal with the challenges of Iraq and of those uprooted by the Iraq war.

One reason: Refugees like the Kaktomas have other things to worry about -- like the simple exigencies of starting life over in Syria and awaiting word about possible final destinations.

For refugees like the Kaktoma family, the intricacies and personalities of U.S. foreign policy are distant matters -- though they do not criticize the United States or the war. Instead, they are focused on the future, although the here-and-now often proves challenging.

While allowed to reside in Syria, Iraqi refugees do not have legal working status. As a result, their days are spent at "off-the-books" jobs and visits to register with United Nations refugee authorities.

More than half of Iraqi men living in Syria are unemployed; families depend on UN food assistance to get by.

Kaktoma's family -- which includes his three sisters and two parents -- is waiting to hear if they will be allowed to join relatives who earlier immigrated to Michigan and Canada.

The Kaktomas are among the 1.2 million refugees who have fled Iraq for Syria; some say that figure is even higher. They were among the estimated 800,000 Christians who lived in Iraq prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion.

It is estimated that as many as half of those Christians have since fled the country because of violence that is alternately described as sectarian, ethnic cleansing or as Ayaki Ito, a Beirut-based protection officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, described it: "gangsterism with a religious facade."

"We left with nothing and we start from zero," said Kaktoma, whose father, Basil, was abducted by Muslim gunmen on a Baghdad street in 2006 and held for a week, tortured and physically assaulted until a ransom was paid.

For his part, Basil Kaktoma, is adamant, as are many Iraqi refugees living in Syria, that he and his family will never return to their home country.

"I'd rather go to hell than go back to Iraq," he said. "What I saw was so horrible that I can't even look at a map of my own country."

Another reason some here are little concerned with the new U.S. administration is deep-rooted weariness with U.S. foreign policy, which many here describe as historically meddlesome, often ham-fisted and too heavily weighted toward Israel and oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia.

Some believe that even with good intentions, a new administration may simply be unable to move U.S. policy in new directions -- that U.S. policy is simply too entrenched in historical patterns or grooves to change.

If one thing could change, Christian leaders in Syria said in recent interviews, it would be ending the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, which they said could help improve the image of the United States and also serve as the foundation for lowering tensions throughout the region, if not the world.

"If you solve that conflict, you solve the problem of peace," said Bishop Joseph Absi, the patriarchal vicar of the Greek Melkite Church in Damascus.

Another Christian leader, Antoine Audo, the Chaldean Catholic bishop in Aleppo, Syria, called the Israeli-Palestinian standoff "the heart of the problem" in the Middle East, and said that in many ways that issue is of even greater importance to the region than the Iraqi conflict.

Even so, he believes the United States has a clear moral responsibility to assist those displaced by the Iraq war and hoped efforts by a new U.S. administration to end the Iraq conflict will succeed.

"This war has become very, very dangerous," Audo said, and if it is not stopped "violence will spread throughout the region. It's like a fire."

Samer Laham, director of ecumenical relations for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus, said his experiences with Americans have led him to believe that they are at heart idealists, though perhaps not as attentive as they might be to the human costs the Iraq war has inflicted on Iraqi civilians.

"You have a role to play in peace and stability," Laham said of U.S. policy in the Middle East. "But you're leading the world into challenges, problems and instability."

Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Chris Herlinger, a New York-based correspondent for RNS, was among the recipients of Catholic Relief Services' 2008 Eileen Egan Award. The award from the Baltimore-based humanitarian agency included a recent trip to Syria and Lebanon.