Ex-Iraqi soldiers resettled in U.S. endure criticism

August 30, 1993|By Dallas Morning News

DALLAS -- Bewildered and anxious, Mohemmed and Hussein find it difficult to comprehend that they and thousands of their fellow former Iraqi soldiers are at the center of a budding controversy.

Just a few months ago, they sat in refugee camps, waiting for a chance to escape the threat of death. And they thought they had found it in places like Dallas. But last week, mounting criticism about their presence in this country shattered their peace.

"There is fear now among our people," said the 26-year-old Hussein, who, like Mohemmed, 25, would allow only part of his name to be used. "People have begun to be scared for their lives because of what is being said."

What is being said is that because these men belonged to an enemy army, they should not be resettled in this country and receive financial assistance. Among the most vocal in its opposition has been the Veterans of Foreign Wars. On Thursday, at the group's national convention in Dallas, the war veterans unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the relocation.

The controversy became public last week, after more than 75 members of Congress urged the State Department to stop the resettlement of former Iraqi soldiers who had surrendered to United Nations forces during the Persian Gulf war.

About 4,000 men qualified for refugee status because they feared for their lives if they were returned to their country. Under U.S. law, people can be classified as refugees if they can prove that they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries because of their ethnicity, race, religion or membership in a social group.

As refugees, they can enter the United States and are helped in resettling here by a variety of organizations. Decisions on who qualifies for refugee status are made through the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in conjunction with the State Department.

Once refugees have been cleared for resettlement by the government, agencies like the International Rescue Committee do the actual resettlement work in finding housing, food and work. The International Rescue Committee is a national nonprofit organization based in New York.

Elizabeth Underhill, director of the IRC's Dallas regional office, said her staff had received numerous irate calls and even a bomb threat.

Many callers, she said, are upset in particular by reports that the refugees receive thousands of dollars. That is not true, Ms. Underhill said. In fact, her office receives a few hundred dollars per refugee to pay for rent, furniture and food for the refugees for up to three months.

The International Rescue Committee, which has its own fund-raising projects, makes up the difference. Ms. Underhill stressed that the refugees receive no direct payments from the U.S. government.

"We pay their rent and food until they can get on their feet," she said. "When they get here, we provide them a mattress and a box spring in their apartment, a table and one chair per person. That's it as far as luxuries are concerned."

Donna Thompson, a spokeswoman for the IRC in New York, said most refugees her group resettles become self-sufficient within a year. And she noted that refugees are required by the government to sign a promissory note to repay transportation costs.

Ms. Underhill said she understood the concern some people might have about helping people who "were shooting at our troops."

"But the truth is that these men are here because they weren't shooting at our soldiers," she said. "They are the ones who gave up at the first opportunity and the ones who took part in uprisings against Saddam Hussein. That's why they are afraid to go back."

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