So Far From Home

A former Iraqi railroad worker, Salim Hamad had to leave almost everything behind to get where he is right now.  Yarmouk in Syria is, or at least was, largely a Palestinian refugee camp, with gray flats stacked upon each other like disused boxes, and sometimes packing in as many as fifteen refugees per unit.

Just for he and his family to get there, Salim had to sell off his car and his furniture, leaving behind an empty shell of a house he is unsure if it still stands or not.  Even more tragic, Salim’s fate is one that is in varying forms of similarity shared by millions of Iraqis.

For many of us, it is not difficult to remember the promises given us when the Administration made the decision to march to war against Iraq.  Amid the fear of a nuclear attack, and the hope of freedom for a people oppressed by a ruthless dictator, we entertain such memories bitterly, each promise in succession falling completely apart before even having a chance to take root.

Among the jilted hopes were the promises that US units would be welcomed as liberators, and that Ahmed Chalabi would help turn Iraq into a beacon of freedom and democracy in the Middle East; a virtual paradise in a region of the world whose cultural and political ways have muched baffled Western Civilization for ages.

This hope did continue to exist at least momentarily following the fall of Saddam’s regime, and while the sweets and flowers may not have been particularly abundant, Iraqi sentiment towards the US then did not even come close to the kind of rancor that exists there now.  There was a window of opportunity to save a country, most notably represented by the people working in ORHA who had taken the little time and few resources available them to try and turn Iraq into a success story.

But ORHA, much like the positive opinion of Iraqis towards the US, was fleeting and was soon replaced by the CPA, an organization whose failings and short sided irresponsbility plagues the country to this day, most notably in the news as of late in regards to the excessively wide latitude granted to private military contractors such as Blackwater.

While it was possible to engage Iraq, topple Saddam, and provide stability for the twenty-six million citizens in country, we did the opposite.  A combination of failures within the Administration and the CPA, from ignoring General Eric Shinseki’s advice on troop strength to disbanding the Iraqi Army and de-Ba’athification, we not only failed to prevent widespread violence in Iraq, we caused and facilitated it.

In our national debate on what is going on in Iraq, it is often a matter of whether what we are doing is right or wrong, and how many soldiers have perished over there.  We debate strategy almost non stop, and rue what we have lost, yet little consideration is given to what the Iraqis themselves have lost.  The number of civilian Iraqi deaths is so insignificant in our debate that officially we have no metric to record them, and finding any kind of usable data having a wide rage that puts the death count upwards of 800,000

And what of the refugees?  Largely due to violence in the aftermath of Hussein’s fall, over four million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes.  About half of them have sought refuge in other countries while the other half have sought shelter in country, or worse, in the barren no man’s land between Iraq and its neighbors.  Here, in these camps where refugees stay in tented communities hours away from the closest place to attain supplies, life must be particularly harsh.

Not that those lucky enough to make it through the Jordan or Syrian borders have it that much better.  Often times they have to liquidate all of their posessions just to make the journey only to settle in slums with little or no money.  Making survival even worse, it is difficult for these people to find jobs, and those seeking to flee the violence they left behind them are in a constant state of fear that Jordan and Syria might close their borders.

In fact, Jordan has undergone extensive overhauling of its visas to minimize the influx of Iraqi refugees while Syria annoucned earlier this month that it will close its borders.

What is perhaps the most biting aspect of this as an American is that while we were the ones who invaded, while we are in large part responsible for the chaos that has resulted in so many people being driven so far from home, we seem to be shouldering an embarrassingly low portion of the burden.  Syria has to date taken on over a million Iraqi refugees making those refugees about seven percent of the population, and while Jordan has only accepted between seven and eight hundred thousand, this would account for ten percent of the Jordanian population.

Meanwhile, the most favorable estimate of refugees the United States has taken on doesn’t even clear twenty thousand.  This in the face of the fact that we have accepted about a million Vietnamese refugees following the Vietnam War, six hundred thousand from the Soviet Union, and almost one-hundred-sixty thousand refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo.

It is hard to find a stance where the crisis that these refugees embody is not directly a result of our policies, and yet we seem to have absolved ourselves of our responsibility to them.  Why is this?

It would seem that the largest obstacle in the US taking responsibility would be our own political and cultural climate.  On one side you have the extremely vocal anti-immigration movement headed up by the laughable presidential candidate Tom Tancredo.  For a highly active bloc that sees immigration into this country as an evil that will ruin our economy and compromise the integrity of our National Security, it is clear to see that these people absolutely will not budge on the idea of taking in millions of Iraqis.

If they are so opposed to what is going on with Mexican nationals, the tone could only get worse when you are dealing with Muslim Arabs, or those who in the mainstream consciousness, at least resemble Muslim Arabs.  This because while there is an active anti immigration movement in this country, there is also a wildly anti-Arab, anti-Muslim movement in this country that is still acting on knee jerk impulses from the terrorist attacks that occurred over six years ago.

Again, Rep. Tancredo provides a shining example of how insensitive and utterly absurd a significant portion of our population has become on this subject when he suggested that we should bomb Muslim holy sites to deter terrorist attacks against us.  While this may be an extreme endorsed by a small few, anti Arabic sentiment has run high particularly among conservative circles in America, and it continues to spread throughout the national community.

One aspect of this movement that is partially displayed in Tancredo’s assessment is the fact that far too many people have simplified the issue to a fault.  Similarly, Rudy Giuliani in his rhetorical attacks aimed at Democrats has been quick to point out that Democrats have not uttered the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” during the debates as a way of illustrating how little they understand the conflict we are in.

In a fit of unintended irony, however, Rudy’s attack only shows how little he actually understands the conflict at hand, at that those who would be our enemies are not easily lumped under one label, but are of many differing factions, many of whom are antagonistic towards each other.  The other side effect that is germane to this conversation, however, is that what we see Rudy doing is transmitted through wide swaths of the American public, where an oversimplification of the demographics have led too many people to link Arabic Muslims, Non Arabic Muslims, and Middle Easterners of neither the Islamic faith, or Arabic descent towards terrorism and the enemy.

In the rush to define, label, and persecute an enemy, the result is that empathy for the vast majority of the people over there who are not our enemy are still seen as such.  And in the case of the millions of refugees driven from their homes in Iraq, because of our woefully ignorant political and cultural climate, we are turning away from the crisis we helped create.

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