Having seen up-close and personal the despondency, vulnerability and total desolation in the eyes of hundreds of Vietnamese refugees back in the '70s, there has always been a special place in my heart for those who flee their country for political, religious economic or other reasons.
At the height of the Iraq war, more than two million Iraqis had already fled the carnage in Iraq mostly to Syria and to Jordan and thousands more were fleeing every month, making it the largest diaspora in the Middle East since 1948.
At the time I, along with many others, pleaded with our government to better address that humanitarian crisis and to allow more Iraqi refugees to seek asylum in our country, especially those men and women who had risked their lives by working with U.S. military and government officials, who believed our promises and who found themselves the targets of terrorists, insurgents and militia groups.
Also at the time, the U.S. had admitted fewer than 3,000 Iraqi refugees. Subsequently, under pressure from the United Nations and others, the State Department promised to allow 7,000 Iraqi refugees to enter the U.S. in 2007.
During the following two to three years, things improved somewhat. According to a 2010 report by Refugees International, the U.S. had resettled some 48,000 Iraqis in our country.
When our last combat troops pulled out of Iraq in August 2010, more than a year after Obama assumed the presidency, 500,000 Iraqi refugees found themselves still languishing abroad, mainly in Jordan and in Syria. The AP notes that in Syria the number was down from a high of more than a million Iraqis who, according to the U.N.,"moved to Syria during Iraq's darkest days between 2006 and 2008."
At the time, "Syria beckoned as a haven of religious tolerance, especially for many Shiite Muslims and Christians targeted by Sunni extremists in Iraq," says the Los Angeles Times.
According to an AP report , some 88,000 Iraqis are still registered as refugees in Syria, mostly in Damascus.
As if these hapless people have not seen sufficient pain and misery, the recent violence -- now a civil war -- in Syria has them on the run again, many trying to return to Iraq by land and by air fearing increased violence and extremism by the mostly Sunni Syrian rebels, "fearing an ugly replay in Syria where, as in Iraq, they worry that the fall of a secular autocrat, Bashar Assad, may give rise to a Sunni Islamist wave of religious intolerance," according to the LA Times.
Thus, these unfortunate Iraqis are leaving their homes once again, this time homes in Damascus and elsewhere in Syria, due to the increasing violence and threats against them.
Apparently such threats are real. The LA Times:
All seven members of an Iraqi family were found dead recently in their apartment in Damascus, the U.N. said. Three other refugees were killed by gunfire, it said. And two Iraqi journalists were killed in Damascus this month in circumstances that remain unclear...
"We heard that some Iraqis were killed or kidnapped," said an Iraqi refugee arriving in Baghdad on Saturday who gave her name as Um Mustafa, 51, a mother of four.
"'What the innocent Iraqis are subjected to -- killings and looting -- is similar to what was done by the terrorist groups that harmed Iraq's security during the past years,' said a statement by Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued late Friday," according to the AP.
Fortunately the Iraqi government is assisting the refugees in their quest to return to their homeland.
The Iraqi government says that so far about 1,000 Iraqis have left in eight flights from Damascus. Thousands more are fleeing by land despite a rebel takeover of several Syrian border posts.
"We will continue the flights until there are no Iraqis left" in Syria, said Capt. Saad al-Khafaji of the state-owned Iraqi Airways.
The AP describes the ordeal experienced by an Iraqi family of five that had fled to Syria in 2007 to escape the violence in their hometown of Basra, Iraq:
"We decided to return to Iraq because we feared for our lives, especially after the rise in killings and assaults targeting Iraqis living in Syria," Radhi, 48, said while unloading his luggage from the bus that drove him from Damascus.
It is not only Iraqis who are fleeing the violence in Syria
The New York Times reports that "between 8,500 and 30,000 Syrians have fled to Lebanon in the last 48 hours alone," most of them coming from Damascus.
This is on top of the 112,000 Syrians who have previously registered as refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and "many thousands more who have fled but not registered. United Nations relief agencies say three-quarters of them are women and children, often arriving in a desperate state with no more than the clothes they are wearing," according to the New York Times.
What is happening in Syria is a tragedy for all, but is a double tragedy for the Iraqi men, women and children who find themselves, through no fault of their own, once more "displaced."
As the LA Times so aptly puts it, it is "a sequel to a nightmare."