The Plight of Iraqi Refugees in Syria

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Marco Werman: The violence in Syria has had an unforeseen impact and it's making it harder for Iraqi refugees there to get to the United States. As an estimated one million Iraqi refugees are living in Syria, the US has resettled more than 18,000 since 2007. But in the past year the numbers have slowed to a trickle. As Jill Replogle of KPBS reports, that's left some Iraqi families here in limbo.

Jill Replogle: Hazin Jajo punches a phone card access code into the phone. His wife, Hanaa Ishaq sits next to him on an ornate couch in t heir new spacious home east of San Diego. Jajo and Ishaq both worked for the UN in Iraq. They've been here for five years, but today Ishaq looks worried, her brow furrowed.

Hanaa Ishaq: [speaking Chaldean]

Replogle: Ishaq dictates a phone number to her husband from an address book. The two speak Chaldean, the language of Iraq's largest Christian group. They're trying to reach Ishaq's mother, Shami, in Damascus, Syria. She's 84 years old and ailing.

Hazin Jajo: [speaking Chaldean]

Replogle: Ishqa's brother answers. He agrees to take his cellphone to his mother's apartment so she can get the call from San Diego. She doesn't have her own phone.

Hazin Jajo: Okay, bye bye. He say that her health situation is very bad and now she cannot see, although the vision is, she is suffering from the vision.

Replogle: The couple broods on the couch. Hanaa Ishaq looks even more distressed than she did before they made the call. Her mother has been waiting in Syria for more than two years for the US to green light her refugee application. She lives by herself, surviving mostly on a small monthly stipend and food rations from the United Nations.

Jajo: And I signed sponsorship for her, now it's more than one year. And we are still waiting.

Replogle: That's some good news says Larry Bartlett, who heads the Office of Refugee Admissions at the State Department. He says it typically takes 6-9 months to process refugees, but for Iraqi refugees in Syria the process has ground to a halt since violence and unrest erupted there last spring. Bartlett says homeland security officers haven't been able to enter the country to interview refugees, a requirement of the resettlement process.

Larry Bartlett: That program frankly has been stalled for months and I think until the situation there stabilizes we won't be able to go back in and conduct refugee interviews.

Replogle: Adding even more to the delays, the US imposed additional security screenings last year. Now US Intelligence and other agencies run two background checks on most refugees -- one when they first apply for refugee status, and one when shortly before they board a plane.

Bartlett: It makes sense and I have to say that we actually have seen results from it. We've been able to deny based on new information that's cropped up just before travel.

Replogle: Bartlett wouldn't give any examples, but there have been reports in US media of suspected terrorists who entered the US as refugees before the new security measures. Still, Hanaa Ishaq wonders how her 84 year old mother could be considered a threat.

Hanaa Ishaq: Why is she staying long time? She's old woman and she doesn't have to wait long time for security clearance. What they want to check exactly? I don't know.

Replogle: People who work with refugees here in the US fear that the added security checks may mean that the department of homeland security winds up denying asylum to some legitimate candidates. The number of refugees arriving in the US dropped by 23% this past fiscal year. Bob Montgomery is the executive director of the International Rescue Committee in San Diego. He says people who are fleeing their homes often don't have time to collect documents like birth certificates and marriage licenses.

Bob Montgomery: The DHS has to take their story based on what they say and I fear that then when they're unsure probably they're denying.

Replogle: Right now hundreds of Iraqi refugees in Syria are awaiting resettlement in the San Diego area, according to local refugee agencies.

Ishaq: [speaking Chaldean]

Replogle: For Hanaa Ishaq and her mother, Shami, in Syria, their only choice is patience. Shami says her faith keeps her going. Her daughter tells her to keep that faith until they are reunited.

Ishaq: [speaking Chaldean]

Replogle: For The World, I'm Jill Replogle, San Diego.