Trying to save persecuted Iraqis, one name at a time

By Roxana Popescu
Mark Arabo, who is helping Chaldeans stuck in and around Iraq to escape from a dreadful human rights situation is seen at a small gathering of politicians at a downtown restaurant. Mark Arabo talks to former Democratic state assemblyman and senator Wadie P. Deddeh. Deddeh is an Uncle to Mark Arabo and mentor. Sean M. Haffey U-T San Diego
The difference between a tragedy and a statistic?

“Hundreds of thousands of people displaced by ISIS” is a statistic. The story behind the statistic is one lives lost, people pushed out of their homes.

Over the past three weeks, Mark Arabo, an advocate for Iraqi Christians, has sought and assembled names and desperate pleas for help from an estimated 10,000 Iraqi families who have been displaced by ISIS militants. Counting children, Arabo roughly estimated he has about 60,000 names or individual claims of displacement and persecution.

ISIS is short for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group that invaded both countries this summer and carried out a brutal extermination or displacement of religious minorities and Muslims who didn’t conform to their requirements.

Rep. Juan Vargas will introduce a comprehensive asylum bill when Congress resumes. Its aim is to bring individuals of any religious or minority community in ISIS-held territories to the United States, as refugees.

“Three months ago, when this journey first began, many weren’t sure if the situation was as dire as Mark and the Chaldean community had shared,” Vargas, D-San Diego, wrote in an email Friday. “But today, no one has any doubts that the gravity of this situation requires our involvement.”

Arabo will travel to Washington Monday to help Vargas persuade lawmakers to pass the bill and to get attention from other decision makers. If this bill passes, it would follow House Resolution 683, which Vargas sponsored. That expressed support for the persecuted minorities and urged protection for them, and it passed unanimously several weeks ago.

As he meets with people, Arabo will have a digital version of the names, and a booklet showing the names and some photos. It’s an effort to humanize a hazy mass of people in a distant place.

Humanizing a tragedy

It was at about 1:30 a.m. one day in August, when he was unable to sleep, that Arabo realized the key in persuading people here to care about the situation in Iraq was to turn intangible statistics into vivid, vulnerable and individualized stories.

“If we can humanize these numbers we were telling (people in Washington), then we could make a real difference,” he said. That night he called Lundon Attisha, communications director for the small business association of which Arabo is president, and they got to work. They put out a call for names on various media, and it spread most quickly via Facebook.

Since starting, Arabo said he’s been getting at least 100 messages per day. Some come directly from the afflicted, and others through intermediaries. A Chaldean woman in Michigan sent photos of her family members’ passports from Iraq.

Another family contacted Arabo in a Facebook message. U-T San Diego agreed to not disclose their last names, to avoid compromising their safety.

“We heard that Your Excellency help those who have been displaced from Nineveh Plain / Bartalah / the Christian village. Because of the terrorist forces (Al Daash) attack on them, so we lost everything we had, so I hope you except my request to help me and my family to get immigration to America with gratitude and appreciation. These are our names:” The writer then lists five names. Other messages follow this format.

In trying to address the situation in Iraq, Arabo’s goals have been threefold. One, he said, is humanitarian aid. A second is creating a “safe zone” in Iraq established through NATO, where aid can reach people and refugees processed. The third is providing safe passage out of Iraq.

Assembling names of the afflicted helps with all three, but especially the last one, he said.

He’s gotten some push-back, especially on the third goal, from people who say Christians who leave are giving up ancestral lands and a rich cultural heritage.

He said he reads the critical emails, hears the arguments, and wants Iraq to be a home to Christians once again, but believes he has a moral obligation to help people asking for his help to leave. He said if he saves “one life,” it will be worth others’ disapproval.

The messages he receives are too harrowing to give him any other option, he said.

Sharing stories

Arabo has been sharing names and stories from this list to anyone who has the ability to shape the futures of those people — the White House, members of Congress, and others. Even before he had a formal system to gather and track displaced people’s identities, he was talking about people’s accounts of torture and displacement as he tried to gain support for this cause. The latest approach — inviting the displaced to trust him with their names and narratives — has let him collect more stories, and be better organized, and make a bigger impact, he said.

“We are using these names as leverage to push for asylum for those displaced in Northern Iraq. The list will be used as the means of connecting with those displaced after we pass comprehensive legislation,” Arabo said.

On the list are Yazidis, a minority that practices an ancient religion; Kurds, an ethnic minority long persecuted in Iraq; and Muslims, who have felt the brunt of the rebels’ brutality along with these groups. Arabo said the vast majority are Christian, though he hasn’t yet gone over every name.

Arabo, who was born in the United States, is Chaldean. Chaldeans are a Christian community that was once numerous in Iraq. Many Chaldeans live in San Diego now, after a mass exodus in the last decade. They came here following a few early settlers, and many stayed in East County, where they had a growing community and a familiar climate.

When he travels to Washington, he said that sharing these stories will hopefully convince lawmakers to act.

“Of all the different strategies I have utilized to help end this genocide and save the people’s lives, I must say the most impactful method was the creation and implementation of this list,” he said in an email after the interview. “It’s humanized this genocide. … (It) gave a name to the nameless and a face to the faceless. It also portrayed the will of the people, which is wanting safe passage into a new home, a new country.”


Sometimes, stories of trauma accompany the names. Other times, they are simply names, or passport photos. Or just stories with no names. A man named Danny Mattoka wrote to Arabo on Thursday via a Facebook message with the story of a man he met in Ankawa, a suburb of the heavily Christian city of Erbil. ISIS militants told the man to convert, and he did, in front of them. Then, when he was out of the hands of the militants, he asked forgiveness from the bishop.

The man explained how “the other Christian men who were refusing Islam … were tortured by cables and sticks and whips. They were beaten to the point of bleeding.”

Arabo, whose parents came to the United States from Iraq several years before he was born, said he can’t imagine what is going on in these people’s minds as they send him these messages and emails. He thinks about their situations and writes back words of support. And he tries to put himself into their shoes.

“If my dad never left … that person in the desert or on the mountain, that could have been me. There’s no difference. I was just born in America. I’m aware of that. That could have been me,” he said.