My Experiences as a Refugee Coordinator in Baghdad

Posted by Rafael Foley
October 24, 2007
Iraqi Refugees

Rafael Foley served as a Refugee Coordinator in Baghdad, Iraq from August of 2006 to August of 2007.Video -- Policy Podcast: Iraqi Refugee Update

I was the Refugee Coordinator in Baghdad from August of 2006 to August of 2007. It was the hardest job I have ever had. It was also a humbling job, and rewarding in the subtle way that a humbling experience can be. I was coming from the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) in Washington and was familiar with refugee issues. Soon, however, the challenges of operating in Baghdad came to the fore, demanding immediate responses to situations unlike those in any other post in the world. I always felt that PRM in Washington and the political section at post -- of which I was a part -- supported me, which was reassuring and for which I was grateful. But I still had big responsibilities over my shoulders. The Embassy relied on my expertise on refugee issues, Washington on my field assessment of the situation. A good policy and humanitarian response to the problems of refugees in Iraq required a combination of both, and neither was easy.

Iraqi refugees (non-Iraqis inside Iraq) where trapped in the country, physical and legally unable to leave Iraq. Iraqis facing persecution because of their association with the US government sought reassurances about their future that I could not entirely provide, and often lacked the means to leave Iraq and wait four to six months (or more) in a neighboring country in order to be processed for admissions into the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Expertise on refugee issues was not enough to overcome these challenges, at least not with the urgency that the situation demanded.
Assessing the conditions of the refugees was equally difficult, not only because of the risks of travel outside the International Zone, but also because contact between heavily protected American diplomats and groups of refugees raised the profile of the refugees, potentially exposing them to retaliatory attacks by militias or insurgents.

I recall one night in which I got word of an attack on a Palestinian refugee neighborhood in Baghdad. The refugees did not trust the Iraqi police, and would not call on them for assistance. They only trusted MNF-I forces, but did not want to appear to be close to them because that would put them in greater danger. For these reasons members of this community would call my Iraqi assistant, whom they knew and trusted, to request that I send troops to protect and rescue them. I did not have the power to mobilize troops, but made use of the available mechanisms to alert MNF-I and ask them to respond, which they did within the limits of their own missions. Similar calls in the middle of the night were frequent during my first few months in Iraq.

I also recall the start of the Embassy program to assist Iraqis persecuted because of their association with the US government. PRM encouraged me to set up an Embassy Committee to review and refer these cases to the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Different sections of the Embassy, particularly management, RSO and consular, helped in the review of the cases. The referred cases would still need to leave Iraq for processing, but they would have a good opportunity, based on the merits of their cases, to eventually reach the US and start a new life. As the system started to refer cases and after the first Iraqis reached the US, many locally-employed staff pursuit my advice and a referral. Their future and that of their families depended on their decision to pursuit a referral, for which they relied heavily on me.

When I left Iraq last August I had the opportunity to join A/S Sauerbrey and some of my PRM colleagues for a meeting in Jordan with some LES referred to the USRAP. I knew them and their cases. I was familiar with their stories, the threats against their lives, their lost relatives to the violence in Iraq. Last time I had seen them there was fear in their eyes and anxiety in their voices. Now, as they prepared to depart for the US, there was hope in their faces. I wondered then and wonder now how we could do better, for them and for those like them still needing our assistance.

Comments

Comments

Wang
|
China
October 31, 2007

Wang in China writes:

What you said in this blog and the eyesight of the girl in the photo impressed me a lot!

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Dipnote Blogger Rachael Foley writes:

@ Wang in China -- Wang: Thanks.

Syrian P.
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Syria
October 23, 2007

SNP in Syria writes: World's problems can be resolved and peace can fill the planet if we can have less of the most evil natured Ivy Leaguers ruling this planet for one hundred year, and more of the good fascists that never got a chance to rule. What a heaven earth will be when that happen.

DIDNT67
October 24, 2007

D writes:

As a term limit person, I am very curious about the Refugee Coordinator in Baghdad, Iraq and the U.S. government's position.

Dan
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Maryland, USA
October 31, 2007

Dan in Maryland writes:

Mr. Foley -- thanks for sharing your inspiring story, and thanks for your service to the State Department, the United States and Iraqi refugees.

One question ... you mentioned "some LES (that were) referred to the USRAP." Who are "LES," and why were there specific "threats against their lives"?

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Dipnote Blogger Rachael Foley writes:

@ Dan in Maryland -- Dan: Thanks. LES stands for "locally-employed staff" (i.e., the Iraqis working for the U.S. Embassy).

GFE
October 24, 2007

GFE writes:

The short answer might be that if one needs to ask this question about terms in the first place, then it's logical to conclude there's vast room for improvement on the implementation side of the Refugee Coordinator in Baghdad, Iraq.

Eric
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New Mexico, USA
October 31, 2007

Eric in New Mexico writes:

@ GFE -- Methinks you are plagerizing me...(chuckle).

Rafael, I appreciate your good efforts, and I see the results of U.S. refugee policy on the "recieving end" since I've met many people from around the world in my hometown that fled their homelands for similar reasons.

There will be always room for improvement, and that's never enough, but I know folks do the best they can with what they have to work with.

Best Regards.

Matthew
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California, USA
October 24, 2007

Matthew in California writes:

It is a shame that the U.S. Government has totally shirked its enormous responsibility to the people of Iraq. With 2 million Iraqi war refugees, the we have only admitted a paltry few hundred or maybe a thousand. Meanwhile, the countries of Lebanon and Syria are being overrun with Iraqis fleeing the mess we made. Actually it makes me quite ashamed.

Eric
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District Of Columbia, USA
October 31, 2007

Eric in Washington, DC writes:

What (if any) efforts went into creating and advertising (for lack of a better word) channels by which low ranking military officers could recommend cases to the USRAP, and what provisions were made for such recommendations to carry significant weight and be widely known to do so? Bottom line, if a captain promises to do all he can to get asylum for an Iraqi who helps him, what did you do to make sure that promise amounts to something?

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Dipnote Blogger Rachael Foley writes:

@ Eric in Washington, DC -- Eric: We explained the program to all the LES, and to supervisors through State Department channels. We also briefed many military officers of all ranks and would treat their cases as we would any other case. In addition, the military had their own programs to assist interpreters.

Ronald
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New York, USA
October 30, 2007

Ronald in New York writes:

Keep it Simple.....

The problem of refugees is often a product of crisis-induction. If we do not create these situations, we do not need to face the inevitable problem of refugees.

It is better to work on improving the quality of life in difficult regions; than trying to deal with mass emergencies and resettlements.

Adolfo
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Spain
November 13, 2007

Adolfo in Spain writes:

I am sure you have done a tremendous job. Your country should be proud of you. Best regards

Anna
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Belgium
November 16, 2007

Anna in Belgium writes:

Years ago my husband was assigned to Embassy Nairobi, Kenya as the Regional Refugee Coordinator for the Horn of Africa. Most of the refugees being resettled were Somali. "The Lost Boys" were resettled during that time... The refugee camp that my husband would often visit was Daadab.

The refugees were given one set of clothing and a pair of sneakers by an organization to wear during their trip to the U.S.

My husband was traveling a week ago and while at the airport he spotted a group of young men wearing those unmistakable clothing. My husband was too overcome of emotions to go over and talk to those young men.

Sometimes we do touch someone else life in a positive way. My husband, being a Refugee Coordinator and closely working with different organizations, in turn were all able to change thousands of people's lives. They were all a part of that.

Anna
|
Belgium
November 16, 2007

Anna in Belgium writes:

Oops. Big mistake. Most of the refugees being resettled were Sudanese. Please make correction. Sorry. Thank you.

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