By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

VILLANOVA – It doesn’t matter whether you are Muslim or Christian, the best thing to do when your life is seriously at risk where you live is get out of town.

Four young Iraqis who escaped the civil strife endemic in post-Saddam Hussein Baghdad told their stories at a Dec. 1 Villanova University panel discussion led by philosophy professor Joseph Betz. {{more}}

Nathera (Zina) Alshemry and Hamza Abahdily, a Muslim couple, along with their tiny daughter, had to seek asylum in the U.S. after Abahdily’s work as security guard for an American contractor became known.

Enas Tariq, also Muslim, was just a teen student when she fled with her parents to Jordan when soldiers of Saddam Hussein were taking over houses in her neighborhood during the closing days of the Gulf War.

Habib Habib, a Chaldean Catholic teen exchange student in the Philadelphia area, sought asylum in America with the help of sympathetic Americans (see story on page 24).

Work was scarce in post-war Iraq and the best Abahdily could do was to get a security job with Kellogg, Brown & Root, a U.S. sub-contractor in the “Green Zone,” the fortified section of Baghdad that had once been the seat of Saddam’s government and now served the same purpose for the American-backed coalition government. A special ID pass was needed to gain access into the Green Zone, but inside one was generally safe. Outside of the Green Zone, however, just carrying that ID could be a death sentence if one was stopped by the fanatic insurgents.

A careful man, Abahdily would always leave his Green Zone pass with a friend in a market near the zone and would only carry it in that immediate area. Still, he had friends in his own neighborhood who were murdered just for carrying the pass, and he was slightly wounded by an explosion one day after leaving work.

Eventually, suspicions about his work were aroused in his neighborhood, and when an envelope containing a warning bullet was left at his door, he knew he must leave. Through his supervisor arrangements were made for a flight to the U.S. with his wife and their baby.

Tariq was just a middle-class school girl not terribly affected by the increasing poverty of Iraq during the run-up to the war. Her mother was a physician, her father an artist in pottery, and they had a little shop. Whenever business took her father out of the country, everyone else in the family was placed on a no-fly list to be sure he would return. Tariq actually looked forward to the invasion with its promise of greater civil liberties.

Many families like hers fled to neighboring Jordan when the war broke out, but eventually Jordan wanted them to leave. They were given a choice: either apply for asylum in one of the countries willing to accept refugees or return to Iraq. Copies of their documents were given to five embassies, and it was the U.S. that accepted them for resettlement.

There were 3,000 applicants for one-year scholarships to the U.S. when Habib applied, and fortunately he was one of just 16 chosen. For his own safety he could not tell anyone for fear of reprisals; he was not even given the date until two days before departure. Only his family knew where he was going; he told his friends, cousins and classmates he was going to Jordan. Because of the increasing persecution of Christians in Iraq, he ultimately gained asylum in the U.S.

All four asylum-seekers agree that life was harsh in pre-invasion Iraq. There was a great deal of hunger among the poor, but there was law and order. People were left alone, provided they did not oppose Saddam or his regime. It was only after the collapse of his government that lawlessness broke out, especially religious strife.

Tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, which had been previously unknown, surfaced. Iraq had always been a nation where intermarriage between the two sects was quite common. Now because one’s ancestry as either Sunni or Shiite, which could usually be guessed through a surname, most people simply abandoned their surname and identified themselves with their first name and that of their father and grandfather.

Many Iraqis welcomed the Americans at the time of the invasion because they thought conditions would improve once Saddam was gone, but the opposite happened. Sentiment has turned against America and its allies.

This made it especially difficult for the Christian minority. As Habib explained, the Iraqis think most Americans are Christians, therefore the Iraqi Christians must be their allies. When a member of the audience asked what the Americans can do to help the Christians, he replied: “Nothing. Anything you do for them will make it worse. It is a lose-lose situation.”

At this point most Christians have already fled the country. Habib estimates that although they were once 4 percent of the population, they are now less than 1 percent.

Habib believes the anti-Christian prejudice, which has resulted in kidnappings, murders and church invasions, has become widespread among Iraqi Muslims since the American occupation.

Tariq disputes this; she contends most Iraqi Muslims are not anti-Christian and violence against Christians and the Sunni-Shiite conflicts are the work of a very small minority, many of them foreigners who have come in across Iraq’s porous borders.

When it was suggested by an audience member that the pre-invasion economic sanctions on Iraq impoverished the country, Habib noted it really goes much further back to Saddam’s policies. Especially disastrous was the almost decade-long war with Iran, and also the profligate spending by the dictator on palaces and other luxuries.

“Saddam was one of the worst rulers Iraq has ever had,” Habib said.

Probably because he attended an English-language school in Baghdad, Habib’s transition to American life has not been difficult. A student at Temple University, he is an active member of the Temple Newman Club as well as the Temple Knights of Columbus Council. He intends to continue studies to become a dentist.

Tariq admits the transition was harder for her family. “It took us a while to find our way,” she said. “Our neighbors didn’t know who we were but wanted to help. Sometimes I’m homesick but I don’t want to go back.”

“It was very hard because of the language,” Alshemry said. “I want to thank everyone who helped us.”

Interestingly, although all four agree America badly bungled the invasion and occupation by destroying the existing law enforcement structure, this is now their home, and they are looking past refugee status to full citizenship.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.