Iraqi Refugees

26 11 2007

On his blog for the New Yorker, “Interesting Times,” George Packer described the harrowing experience of one Iraqi he calls Ibrahim who to fled Baghdad after receiving death threats from a co-worker aligned with the Mahdi militia. Realizing his life was in danger, Ibrahim tried to navigate the byzantine world of human trafficking to get himself smuggled out of country. Packer’s source, Ibrahim, says the journey led him from Dubai to Bombay, among other countries, before landing him in Egypt where he was repeatedly tortured by his captors after they discovered Ibrahim’s forged traveling papers.

Packer relays Ibrahim telling of the underground torture haven in excruciating detail here.

In March, Ibrahim says, an Egyptian intelligence officer involved in the smuggling ring that brought him to Cairo sent a Palestinian middleman to persuade Ibrahim to go to the airport with his fake passport. At the airport, he could have his entry into Egypt legalized. Desperate to keep the police at bay, Ibrahim overcame his fear of deportation and did as he was told. But instead of receiving a permit, he was arrested and taken to a prison beneath the airport. There, other lost souls who had run afoul of the Egyptian authorities languished underground for weeks on end. Moldavian girls, charged with prostitution, were regularly raped in prison; men from Ghana, Liberia, Algeria, and even Europe, arrested on one charge or another, suffered brutal beatings and electric shocks administered with a lamp. Ibrahim was among those beaten. One day he heard the cries of a Somali boy of about twelve who was being tortured in a bathroom. The place was swarming with cockroaches, and Ibrahim’s Portuguese cellmate instructed him to stuff his nostrils and ears with paper before going to sleep so that they didn’t crawl in and lay eggs. “Under the floor where tourists from all around the world go,” Ibrahim told me, “this is what exists.”

But miraculously, Ibrahim managed to get himself released from captivity and even fast tracked by the U.S. State Department for asylum in the U.S. with the help of an American attorney named Kirk Johnson of the law firm of Holland & Knight who tirelessly worked pro bono on Ibrahim’s behalf.

Once Packer and Ibrahim met face to face, the latter had questions that center as much on human nature as it did on policy matters.

When I saw Ibrahim last week, the questions kept pouring out of him: Who are the real Americans? The officials who treated him badly in Baghdad, or the volunteers who showered him with gifts in Tucson? The ones who threw up barriers to his rescue, or the ones who made it their personal business? Why did Egyptians care less about a fellow-Arab than some Americans did? Are people basically bad or good?

Since those questions are difficult to answer in a single book much less a blog post, I thought I would leave readers of IntheKut with a few stats and figures that might convey how unlikely it is that Ibrahim would actually find refuge in the United States.

The UN says that 2 million Iraqi refugees now live in Syria and Jordan alone.

The Bush administration promised to settle 7,000 refuges in February, before revising that number to 2,000 in September. So far approximately 1,600 have been resettled in the U.S.

And, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, at Syracuse University fewer than 3,000 Iraqis were given asylum between 2001 and 2006 compared to 40,000 for Chinese nationals.

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