Meet the Iraqi Christians Trapped in Immigration Limbo

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Chaldean-Assyrians aren’t safe in their home country. But reuniting with family in a new one feels impossible.
Matthew Petti
|||MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS/NewscomMOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS/NewscomAMMAN—”Can you believe that I will be the grandson of an American?” Although he’s in the Kingdom of Jordan, 24-year-old Iraqi refugee Remel Somo is thinking of Detroit. His relatives have been living there for years, and his grandmother is about to be naturalized.

A week later, Remel has much more sobering news. Two of his classmates, brothers, have just had an accident while illegally crossing into Europe. One of them died, and the other is severely injured. They had waited four years in Lebanon, exhausting all legal means of leaving the Middle East.

Chaldean-Assyrians, also known as Syriac Christians, have fled Iraq en masse, targeted over the past few decades for their ethnicity (neither Kurdish nor Arab) and religion. But rising anti-immigrant sentiments in the West have separated more recent Chaldean-Assyrian refugees from their relatives in the diaspora, with many families waiting for years—or risking their savings and lives—to reunite.

Remel’s aunt Reva fled Iraq in 2000—then 21 years old—when her brother was going to be conscripted into Saddam Hussein’s army. “There was no future in Iraq,” she complains, describing a climate of paranoia.

Remel, who was a young child at the time, says that unsuccessful escapees from the draft were often mutilated.

Reva’s family traveled through Jordan to Austria, but eventually settled with their relatives in Michigan’s decades-old Chaldean-Assyrian community.

Reva is adamant that she and her siblings did not receive any welfare, even paying back their plane tickets. She initially worked ten hour days to pay off her debts.

However, the hard work eventually paid off. Reva brought over her husband Hani from Germany. He now works six days a week in construction.

Although she’s friends with people from Detroit’s many ethnic groups, Reva spends much of her time with the Chaldean Catholic Church: “it brings people together. It’s like your Chaldean space.”

After volunteering daily at her children’s school, Reva was offered a job there, where she now does a variety of tasks, including caring for special needs children.

“I appreciate this country a million times,” Reva says, “I did all the things here I couldn’t do at home.”

But Remel’s immediate family stayed in Iraq longer than any of their relatives, losing two people during the US occupation. Remel finally fled with his parents and siblings in 2016 after Islamic State (ISIS) conquered much of Iraq, as Remel’s vocal stances on minority rights made him a potential target.

The State Department recognizes ISIS’ violence against Shiite Muslims, Yezidis, and Chaldean-Assyrians as a genocide, but at the same time, the U.S. has become less welcoming to Iraqi minorities.

“[Iraqi Muslims] think it’s easier for Christians, but the immigration process is random,” Remel says.

Despite the Trump administration’s rhetoric about protecting Middle Eastern minorities, it has reduced the number of refugees the U.S. admits—including Christian refugees—to historic lows. President Trump has also attacked pathways for family unification as “chain migration.”

After the administration removed Iraq from its controversial travel ban, Immigration and Customs Enforcement aggressively went after Chaldean-Assyrian and Kurdish communities across America.

Remel points out that Chaldean-Assyrians are victims of the very terrorists America is fighting. “[Chaldean-Assyrians] are thirsty to live free, pray free,” he says.

Reva has tried to bring her relatives from Jordan to America, but describes a Kafkaesque bureaucratic process that’s only gotten stricter over the past few years. Hani is also trying to bring over his own niece, who worked with U.S. forces in Iraq.