Two years ago in Jordan, I met an Iraqi doctor whose father, a pastor, had recently been killed by Iraqi insurgents because he refused to close the doors of his Baghdad church. "It's God's church," the pastor told the rebels. "I can't close it." So they shot him and threatened to do the same to his son if the son didn't leave the country. The young doctor began his presentation with video footage of Iraqi citizens being lined up against a wall and executed.
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I asked my Jordanian friends what they would say to Americans. "Pray for Iraqi citizens who are suffering," they said, "and care for refugees." They explained that Detroit has one of the the largest Arab populations outside of the Middle East and that many Arab refugees are now settling in the Chicago area as well. "Please welcome them."
The more than 4 million Iraqis who have been displaced in recent years have created one of the "largest humanitarian crises in the world today," according to Michael Kocher, a refugee expert at the International Rescue Committee. Millions of Iraqis who fled their homes to escape violence remain in desperate conditions in Iraq. Over 1.2 million more live in squalid camps or rundown neighborhoods in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
As in most wars, women in Iraq have been uniquely victimized. In just the first four months of the war, 400 women and girls were abducted and raped. Armed groups target women in order to terrorize families and to force husbands, fathers, or brothers to yield to their demands. Sadly, the terror doesn't end when women flee the country.
Most Iraqi refugees don't have legal status in the countries to which they flee, so they can't work. Economic hardship leads to frustration and tension. Domestic violence is common. Even worse, widows who can’t feed their children are forced into prostitution.
Children, who make up nearly half of the Iraqi refugee population, often are unable to attend school and receive virtually no health care. I met Christians in Jordan who provide emergency food and clothing, but they work with limited resources against overwhelming need. The average Jordanian family is now bearing a cost as high as $1,000 per year to care for the refugees. Impoverished, disenfranchised, uneducated, and unemployable, young Iraqi refugees face a seemingly hopeless future.
Most of those fleeing Baghdad are Muslims -- civilian men, women, and children caught in the crossfires of sectarian extremists. But 400,000 of the current refugees in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are Iraqi Christians. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Christian community became isolated and the Baghdad government has proven unable to protect them. In October 2010, nearly 60 worshipers at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad were killed by suicide bombers and gunmen. An extremist group associated with al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the massacre and threatened further attacks. In 2003, there were more than a million Christians in Iraq; today there are less than half that, and the number drops as fear escalates.
Growing up in Iraq, Sammy and Zainab were taught to hate America and love Saddam Hussein. Little did they know they would one day meet, fall in love, and marry while working as interpreters for U.S. forces. But helping Americans put them at odds with insurgents. Zainab survived two bombings; when Sammy's 14-year-old brother was targeted and killed, they knew they had to leave.
They arrived in the U.S. with no family and no friends, each carrying one suitcase. But a local church, partnering with World Relief, provided a vital network of friendship and support. "There is a light in me now," says Sammy, "and it is taking over the darkness."
Thousands of Iraqi refugees like Sammy and Zainab will arrive in the U.S. in 2011. We have the privilege of welcoming them.
Lynne Hybels, co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, is author of Nice Girls Don’t Change the World.