Immigration

Meet the Iraqi Christians Trapped in Immigration Limbo

Chaldean-Assyrians aren't safe in their home country. But reuniting with family in a new one feels impossible.

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|||MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS/Newscom
MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS/Newscom

AMMAN—"Can you believe that I will be the grandson of an American?" Although he's in the Kingdom of Jordan, 24-year-old Iraqi refugee Remel Somo is thinking of Detroit. His relatives have been living there for years, and his grandmother is about to be naturalized.

A week later, Remel has much more sobering news. Two of his classmates, brothers, have just had an accident while illegally crossing into Europe. One of them died, and the other is severely injured. They had waited four years in Lebanon, exhausting all legal means of leaving the Middle East.

Chaldean-Assyrians, also known as Syriac Christians, have fled Iraq en masse, targeted over the past few decades for their ethnicity (neither Kurdish nor Arab) and religion. But rising anti-immigrant sentiments in the West have separated more recent Chaldean-Assyrian refugees from their relatives in the diaspora, with many families waiting for years—or risking their savings and lives—to reunite.

Remel's aunt Reva fled Iraq in 2000—then 21 years old—when her brother was going to be conscripted into Saddam Hussein's army. "There was no future in Iraq," she complains, describing a climate of paranoia.

Remel, who was a young child at the time, says that unsuccessful escapees from the draft were often mutilated.

Reva's family traveled through Jordan to Austria, but eventually settled with their relatives in Michigan's decades-old Chaldean-Assyrian community.

Reva is adamant that she and her siblings did not receive any welfare, even paying back their plane tickets. She initially worked ten hour days to pay off her debts.

However, the hard work eventually paid off. Reva brought over her husband Hani from Germany. He now works six days a week in construction.

Although she's friends with people from Detroit's many ethnic groups, Reva spends much of her time with the Chaldean Catholic Church: "it brings people together. It's like your Chaldean space."

After volunteering daily at her children's school, Reva was offered a job there, where she now does a variety of tasks, including caring for special needs children.

"I appreciate this country a million times," Reva says, "I did all the things here I couldn't do at home."

But Remel's immediate family stayed in Iraq longer than any of their relatives, losing two people during the US occupation. Remel finally fled with his parents and siblings in 2016 after Islamic State (ISIS) conquered much of Iraq, as Remel's vocal stances on minority rights made him a potential target.

The State Department recognizes ISIS' violence against Shiite Muslims, Yezidis, and Chaldean-Assyrians as a genocide, but at the same time, the U.S. has become less welcoming to Iraqi minorities.

"[Iraqi Muslims] think it's easier for Christians, but the immigration process is random," Remel says.

Despite the Trump administration's rhetoric about protecting Middle Eastern minorities, it has reduced the number of refugees the U.S. admits—including Christian refugees—to historic lows. President Trump has also attacked pathways for family unification as "chain migration."

After the administration removed Iraq from its controversial travel ban, Immigration and Customs Enforcement aggressively went after Chaldean-Assyrian and Kurdish communities across America.

Remel points out that Chaldean-Assyrians are victims of the very terrorists America is fighting. "[Chaldean-Assyrians] are thirsty to live free, pray free," he says.

Reva has tried to bring her relatives from Jordan to America, but describes a Kafkaesque bureaucratic process that's only gotten stricter over the past few years. Hani is also trying to bring over his own niece, who worked with U.S. forces in Iraq.

Trapped in Jordan, he has watched his future evaporate. Remel has a degree in civil engineering, but Iraqi refugees aren't allowed to work in Jordan.

The Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) provides some aid to these refugees. CNEWA regional director Ra'ed Bahou says it's only a short-term solution. The papal agency recently stopped taking in new families due to a shortage of funds.

Reva sometimes pools money with relatives around the world to send to Remel's parents. But there's not always cash to spare. "I have children, too," Reva laments.

Many refugees work illegally, according to Ra'ed. Remel claims that most illegal workers suffer wage theft and other abuses, since they're too afraid of deportation to take their employers to court.

Deportation could be a death sentence. Even though ISIS has been defeated on the battlefield, Remel still fears its supporters—as well as the sectarian and Kurdish nationalist forces who pushed ISIS out. He also cites anti-Christian discrimination and damaged infrastructure in the historic Chaldean-Assyrian homeland of Nineveh.

In addition to material difficulties, waiting takes a psychological toll on refugees. Remel tries to stay busy, writing about secularism and constitutionalism, documenting human rights abuses against Chaldean-Assyrians, and teaching classes on the vernacular Assyrian and liturgical Syriac Aramaic languages of his people.

But uncertainty over his immigration applications casts a long shadow. "You can do your activities, but you're stuck in a loop," Remel says. "You don't know the future, whether you will be American or Canadian or Australian."

Remel's family is looking to move to Canada, a common alternative for Chaldean-Assyrians who want to live near Detroit. Reva believes their chances are better there, although the bureaucracy is similarly complex.

Scammers sometimes prey on this complexity. Last year, Ontario-based priest Amer Saka was arrested and suspended from the Church after gambling away $500,000 meant for refugee sponsorships. The Chaldean Catholic Church is helping affected families, an act Reva says she appreciates.

Reva's own relatives lost money during the Persian Gulf War, when a con-artist promised to get them to America for $12,000.

As for Remel's grandmother, the family is hopeful about her upcoming naturalization interview, which was rescheduled for health reasons.

Along with Remel, many Chaldean-Assyrians—including Reva's sisters—remain scattered across the world. "It hurts bad, we're all separated," Reva says. "There is a war, and the war does not let us be together."