Hazim Jajo and his wife, Hanaa Ishaq, sit on an ornate couch in their spacious new home east of San Diego. Jajo and Ishaq, who both worked for the United Nations in Iraq, have been here for five years.
Ishaq looks worried, her brow is furrowed.
Ishaq dictated a phone number to her husband from an address book.
The two speak Chaldean, the language of Iraq’s largest Christian group. They were trying to reach Ishaq’s mother, Shami, in Damascus. She's 84-years-old and not well.
Ishaq’s brother answered the call. He agreed to bring his cell phone to his mother’s apartment so she could get the call from San Diego; she doesn’t have her own phone.
“OK, bye bye,” Jajo said, hanging up. He turned to his wife. “Her health situation now is very bad. Now she cannot see. She is suffering vision problems.”
Ishaq gasped, looking 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 U.S. to green light her refugee application. She lives by herself, surviving mostly on a small monthly stipend and food rations from the U.N.
“I signed a sponsorship for her,” Jajo said. “Now it’s more than one year, and we are still waiting.”
Since 2007, the U.S. has resettled more than 60,000 Iraqi refugees in this country. Many of them had already left Iraq; they fled to neighboring countries like Jordan and Syria with the hope of eventually moving to the US. But in the past year, the rate of resettlement has slowed dramatically.
Larry Bartlett, who heads the Office of Refugee Admissions at the State Department, said it typically takes six to nine months to process refugees, but the process has ground to a halt for Iraqi refugees in Syria since violence and unrest erupted there last spring. Bartlett said Homeland Security officers haven’t been able to enter the country to interview refugees, a requirement of the resettlement process.
“That program has been stalled for months,” Bartlett said, “and I think until that situation stabilizes we won’t be able to go back in and conduct interviews.”
Adding even more to the delays, the U.S. government enacted additional security screenings last year. Now, intelligence and other agencies run two background checks on most refugees; one when they first apply for refugee status, and one shortly before they board a plane.
Bartlett said. it makes sense.
“I have to say we have seen results. We’ve been able to deny people based on new information that’s cropped up just before travel," she said.
Bartlett wouldn’t give examples, but there have been news reports of suspected terrorists who entered the U.S. as refugees before the new security measures were put in place.
Still, Hanna Ishaq wonders how her 84-year-old mother in Damascus could be considered a threat.
“Why is she waiting a long time? She’s an old woman and she doesn’t have to wait a long time for a security clearance. What they want to check exactly I don’t know,” she said.
People who work with refugees in the US say that the added security checks may mean that the Department of Homeland Security winds up denying asylum to some legitimate candidates. The number of Iraqis resettled out of Syria dropped by more than one-third in the past fiscal year — from 4,578 in FY2010 to 2,959 in FY2011.
Bob Montgomery, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in San Diego, noted that people who are fleeing their homes often don’t have time to collect documents like birth certificates and marriage licenses.
“The Department of Homeland Security has to take their story based on what they say. And I fear that if they’re unsure, they’re probably denying,” Montgomery said.
For Hanna Ishaq, and her mother Shami, their only option is patience.
Ishaq finally managed to reach her mother by phone. Shami said her faith keeps her going.
Her daughter told her to keep that faith until they are reunited.