BY IVAN FLORES
The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have drawn international attention to the plight of refugees fleeing from the area. However, security concerns and politics have hindered the response from Western countries to the humanitarian crisis.
For Muayad Shakir, the issue is personal. He’s 27 years old, a Washtenaw Community College student and a refugee.
In 2007, he had just graduated from high school in Baghdad, where he was born and raised. 20,000 American troops were deployed to Iraq that year, peaking United States military strength for the entire war. Shakir’s contribution included becoming a barber for the G.I.s
“I’d never cut hair before,” Shakir recalled. “I went to school to become a barber, but it wasn’t helpful.” It took a lot of practice, he said, and patience from the G.I.s.
Then he said with a laugh, “I remember I cut somebody with the clippers because they were too sharp. That was my first customer.”
Shakir singled himself out by working for the Americans, but his family already stood out. Shakir’s mother is Shia and his father Sunni – something unusual given the sectarian conflict. His older brother was and still is an officer in the Iraqi army.
Lieutenant Andrew C. Gainey, an officer at Joint Security Station Loyalty, wrote of Shakir, “He has demonstrated courage in placing himself at great personal risk by cooperating with the United States Forces and Iraqi Security Forces.”
Shakir was still working as a barber for the Army in 2011 – the year the U.S. officially withdrew from Iraq. Anticipating the end of the war, Shakir had contacted the International Organization for Immigration in 2010 with hopes of getting a visa to the U.S. Shakir had been followed on a couple of occasions, and feared reprisal from terrorists for his involvement with the Army.
The IOM asked him to prove that his life was in danger. According to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service’s website, a refugee must “demonstrate that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”
“There’s a war going on,” Shakir said, implying the redundancy of the IOM’s request.
Four years later, the U.S. embassy gave him a visa directly linked to his employment with the Army, and the IOM provided a travel loan. But his family is still in Iraq and he fears for their safety.
Shakir’s involvement with the U.S. military makes his case different from that of other refugees. However, the challenges remain similar.
The United States has infrastructure to help refugees once they’ve been admitted into the country. There’s a two-story brick building on the Dearborn stretch of Michigan Avenue that houses one of six field offices run by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. USCRI is a non-profit organization, active since 1911, dedicated to helping immigrants and refugees resettle in the States. Since the Dearborn branch opened in 2007, more than 4,200 refugees have been relocated in southeastern Michigan by USCRI.
Zeina Hamade, 23, is the community outreach coordinator for the Dearborn office. According to her, 99 percent of the refugees they help are Iraqi. Of those, 60-65 percent are Chaldean Christians. Before the Paris attacks, the office was preparing for “an influx of Syrian cases.”
The Dearborn branch is the largest in the country. It is staffed by 12 people: nine case managers, two job developers, and Hamade. Together, they have the capacity to process about 600 cases per year. In preparation for Syrian refugees, they had made accommodations for an additional hundred cases. However, in 2014 they helped less than 500 people. The lack of clients is not for lack of refugees. The application process is rigorous and lengthy, often lasting four years or longer.
“Refugees undergo the most amount of security screenings out of all immigrants,” Hamade said. “That’s why it takes them so long to get here, because the security screening is so in-depth.”
Directly addressing security, Hamade stated: “I understand the fear and I understand the concerns that people have but I trust in the Department of Homeland Security.”
However, In the wake of the Nov. 13 massacre in Paris, efforts to relocate Syrian refugees in the U.S. suffered setbacks. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was among various state governors who requested that relocation of refugees be suspended. In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, Gov. Snyder stated:
“(Our) first priority is protecting the lives of people in our state and across the country…Given the terrible situations in Paris and Lebanon, I am asking for a full review of the security clearances and procedures for all refugees who have the potential to be placed in Michigan.”
However, there is no evidence that any Syrians were involved in the Paris attacks, or that the terrorists were hidden among the refugees. On Nov. 19, the International Business Times reported that all of the named terrorists were European nationals.
For Hamade, the issue of accepting refugees, especially Syrians, is personal.
“I’ve noticed when I visit Lebanon all the Syrians that have been fleeing and no one is helping them,” Hamade said.
The few Syrians who have gone through her office, she says, have less education than their Iraqi counterparts, but they’re entrepreneurial, eager to learn and “truly believe that America is the land of opportunity.”
“We shouldn’t have to pick and choose people to take care of,” she said.
Shakir has watched these developments with disappointment. However, he has settled down and continues to enjoy his new life in the U.S. He is currently studying business and continues to work as a barber. He is still trying to bring his family to the U.S.