Iraqi Chaldeans in Lebanon Lining Up to Leave

A woman lights a candle for the siege victims at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, Iraq, on 9 Nov 2010. (Photo: AP - Khalid Mohammed)

By: Rajana Hamyeh

Published Thursday, November 1, 2012

Caught between asylum and return, an estimated 10,000 Iraqi Chaldean Christians try to make a temporary home in Lebanon, but not without difficulties.

Three years after fleeing Baghdad, Tamer Elias was barely making ends meet with his wife and three children in a small room in the “Iraqi quarter” of Sad al-Baouchriye, a Christian village outside Beirut.

Elias is just one of an estimated 10,000 Iraqi Chaldean Christians living in Lebanon. Most of them, like Elias, are awaiting resettlement in a Western country.

Two weeks ago, a letter arrived from the US Embassy via the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and Elias thought the wait was finally over.

The long-awaited letter changed everything, but not in the way Elias thought: It split his family in half.
“The US destroyed our hopes for having a life together by opting to give a green card to my son, but not to me, my wife, or my daughter,” said Elias.

After his son departed for the US, American officials eventually allowed Elias’ wife to emigrate as well, but without her other children. Now, the rest of her family in Lebanon depends on the money she is able to send from the US.
Elias’ story is not unique among the Iraqi Chaldean community.

The letters informing families of the status of their asylum applications are perfunctory and brief. Sometimes entire families are granted green cards while others are rejected outright. In many cases, one or two members of a family will be approved while the others were rejected without explanation.

In the meantime, the Iraqi quarter of Sad al-Baouchriye has no shortage of refugees. No sooner does a room become vacant than new tenants move in, according to Diana Kina, an Iraqi woman who is preparing to take her family to Canada.

The Iraqi community has done its best to rebuild in their adopted home since returning to Iraq is not an option for most.

Those caught between asylum and return are “biding their time,” according to the head of the Chaldean community in Lebanon, Bishop Michel Qsargi.

The bishop said that more than 2,000 Iraqi families from his community currently reside in Lebanese Christian areas such as Zahle, Sad al-Baouchriye, Jdeideh, and Rawda.

“Around 10,000 people are waiting to be relocated to other countries, to escape the provisional life they lead in Lebanon,” he said.

Paperwork, visas, and other logistics of exile are of daily concern to the Iraqis, who require a sponsor and residence permit to remain in Lebanon, but lack job options.

Dana Suleiman, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, said refugees face many legal hurdles that prevent them from receiving legal status as a refugee and finding employment, not to mention the racism and persecution many encounter.

She went on to say that her organization usually seeks to relocate Iraqi refugees to the US, Scandinavian countries, Canada, and Australia, but that each government maintains its own requirements and quotas.

In Bishop Qsargi’s view, the Iraqi Chaldeans would have been better off if they were “permanently resettled in Lebanon, as happened with the Armenians.”

But refugee resettlement is a politically toxic issue in Lebanon, where political and religious leaders fear any change to the current sectarian balance. According to Qsargi, not even Pope John Paul II was able to convince Lebanon to absorb the Iraqi Chaldeans.

In 2003, when many Iraqis were being forcibly displaced by the US invasion, a decision was made to acquire a 300,000 square meter property in Ablah in the Bekaa Valley for the resettlement of Iraqi Chaldeans. The idea was met with opposition, said Bishop Qsargi, especially from Lebanese Christian authorities who feared a rival Christian political power.

“[The Pope’s petitions] fell on deaf ears even in the government, and was not taken seriously by the church, particularly the Maronite church,” he said.

Father Camille Moubarak, Rector of Sagesse University in Beirut, said, “The issue of resettlement was discussed in the context of a naturalization law,” and therefore was, “not in the hands of the church.”

“If the Church refused resettlement, as is being said, then this is out of its desire to encourage people to return to their countries, and not for demographic considerations,” he said. “Indeed, Christians from any denomination are a godsend, and the number [of Chaldeans] is the equivalent to no more than one percent of the Maronite population.”

Moubarak pointed to the role the Maronite church played in helping refugees as evidence of its good faith. “We collected donations in churches and gave them to His Eminence Bishop Qsargi,” but lamented that there are no comprehensive plans in place to aid them.

Bishop Qsargi corroborated this, and added that he was concerned about the expected influx of thousands more Chaldeans from Syria. The real number of refugees will never be known though, since many fail to register with the UNHCR and the church.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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