In 2008, five years into the U.S. war in Iraq, three Capital District groups––Women Against War, Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace (BNP), and the Women’s Association for Family Affairs (WAFA)––formed a coalition called the Iraqi Refugee Project (IRP) to address the ongoing Iraqi refugee crisis. The IRP’s goal is to support Iraqi refugees locally and internationally through advocacy and education.
The U.S. war in Iraq (March 2003–December 2011) resulted in 4.7 million refugees and internally displaced persons within Iraq. 82% of these internally displaced persons are women and children under age twelve. The UN estimates that over two million Iraqis fled to Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and United Arab Emirates.
In 2012–13, as the Syrian civil war intensified, many Iraqis who had gone to Syria as refugees fled the rising violence there. Fewer than 200,000 Iraqis remained in Syria in 2012, according to the office of the Iraqi ambassador in Damascus. There has also been an influx of Syrian refugees into Iraq, and a surge in violence and sectarian tensions within Iraq resulting in close to 2,000 deaths (mostly civilian) in September–October 2013, according to the UN.
In 2008, human rights agencies, led by Refugees International, requested that the U.S. provide $1.35 billion a year to support Iraqis who had fled to Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates. However, the U.S. State Department reported that during fiscal year 2008, U.S. contributions totaled only $398 million.
Between 2003 and 2010, 54,614 Iraqis were resettled in the U.S. (In comparison, the U.S. resettled 131,000 Vietnamese refugees in seven months in 1975). Congress didn’t do much to aid these Iraqis. In 2008, the Kennedy Smith Amendment created only 5,000 visas for Iraqi translators and others who worked for the U.S. who received death threats or worse.
As of 2011, about 400 Iraqi refugees lived in the Capital District, resettled by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants’ Albany Field Office (USCRI Albany) and Catholic Charities. To date, Burmese and Iraqis make up the majority of refugees who have been resettled here.
View this video, “Resettling Refugees––Community Responses to War” by the Sanctuary for Independent Media, featuring the experiences of a local Iraqi.
A Sample of Some IRP Events and Activities
For the first years of its existence, the IRP augmented services provided by the local resettlement agencies USCRI and Catholic Charities by offering additional support to newly arriving Iraqi refugees in the Capital District. This included help obtaining housing, food, clothing, health care, and social services, as well as job counseling. Since that time, the IRP has sponsored or co-sponsored educational and cultural events related to the situation of Iraqi refugees, and offered an ESL summer camp for children and an Arabic-language class for Iraqi children. IRP members have given presentations at local colleges and universities and at peace conferences. IRP also supported the Iraqi Student Project, which sponsored an Iraqi student at Union College.
September 2008: Young Iraqi refugees recently arrived in the Capital District participated in a one-day mural painting workshop with American artist/teacher Claudia Lefko and Iraqi artist Thamir Dawood at the Sanctuary for Independent Media. They created five 36” x 50” murals on canvas depicting their thoughts and feelings about having to leave their beloved home country in a time of war and upheaval. Co-sponsored by the Albany Public Library, the Sanctuary for Independent Media, the Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange, and USCRI (U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants).
Kristele Younas, a senior advocate for Refugees International, presented a talk, “The Iraqi Refugee Crisis: An International Perspective,” at Albany Law School, followed by conversations with locally resettled Iraqi refugees discussing their experiences. Co-sponsored by Albany Law School’s Muslim Law Student Association and the school’s Diversity Office, Amnesty International, and the International Law Society.
An Iraqi Spring Festival Celebration was held at the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Albany to celebrate Iraqi culture with Chobi dancing and Iraqi food and song. Co-sponsored by the Iraqi Community Association and the Social Responsibilities Council of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany.
May 2011: The IRP sponsored a Know Your Legal Rights workshop led by Steve Downs, Kathy Manley, and Marwa Elbially at the Albany Public Library.
Becca Heller, Esq., co-founder and director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), spoke on “Iraqi Refugees, An Ongoing Crisis, A Broken Obligation” at the Albany School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Co-sponsored by the Albany School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, the Albany Law School Chapter of Amnesty International, the Albany Law School International Law Society, and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants Albany Field Office. Listen to an interview with Becca Heller.
IRP’s Steven Sacco spearheads the inauguration of an Albany Law School chapter of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which took on its first case in December 2011. Lawyers Seth Leech, Zainab Chawdry, and Marwa Elbially provided pro bono support for the program, which was staffed by Albany Law School students.
The IRP sponsored a Know Your Legal Rights and Responsibilities workshop with Kathy Manley, Marwa Elbially, and Gaspar Castillo at the Howe Library, Albany.
George Saliba, Ph.D., professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University, gave a talk on “The Impact of Arabic/Islamic Science on Modern Medicine and Pharmacology” at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Sponsored by the college’s Department of Humanities and Communication and the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences; co-sponsored by the IRP.
The IRP held a Ramadan iftar meal and gathering for Iraqis at the Albany Friends Meeting House.
How You Can Help
– Volunteer your time and expertise. Join IRP in providing support for local Iraqi refugees. You can help with English tutoring or mentoring a family or individual. For information, contact Susan Davies at (518) 392-9477, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
– Make a donation to the Iraqi Refugee Project Fund to support Iraqi refugees in the Capital District. Checks for tax-deductible donations can be made out to the Social Justice Center, memo line: “Iraqi Refugee Project.” Mail to Iraqi Refugee Project, c/o Social Justice Center, 33 Central Ave., Albany, NY 12210.
– Invite us to speak to your group, congregation, or organization about the Iraqi refugee experience. Call Susan Davies at (518) 392-9477 or firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
Resettlement Agencies in the Capital District
USCRI (United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants)
991 Broadway, #223, Albany, NY 12204
phone: (518) 459-1790
40 North Main Ave., Albany, NY 12203
phone: (518) 453-6650