- - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

AMMAN, Jordan — Victims of kidnappings, bombings and sectarian murders, many Iraqi refugees have been deeply traumatized by the violence they and their families have experienced.

Hearing of their difficulties fleeing the violence in search of a new home, a pair of Yale law students decided to do something.

Two years ago, they set up the first and only organization, the Iraq Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), to provide free, legal assistance to Iraqis seeking resettlement.

Another group, the List Project, provides assistance only to Iraqi refugees who worked for the U.S. military, government or a U.S.-headquartered company.

The New York-based IRAP has now mushroomed into a network of 260 law professors and students from a number of prestigious U.S. law schools, including Yale, Columbia, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania.

The group provides legal aid to Iraqi refugees who have hit a wall in the resettlement process, according to IRAP founder and director Becca Heller.

Unlike immigrants who are able to have a lawyer on hand when making appeals to overturn rejections by the U.S. government, Iraqi refugees have had so such legal recourse.

“Refugees should have the same opportunity to have lawyers as those going through the immigration process because they are navigating complicated legal procedures,” Ms. Heller said on a recent visit to Jordan, where half a million Iraqis have sought temporary safety.

“We provide people with pro-bono lawyers and individual representation. We work with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and the U.S. government to try to facilitate cases,” she said.

“We also take referrals from UNHCR for cases the U.S. has rejected.”

Major U.S. law firms are also donating pro bono hours to IRAPs effort. The organization has assisted more than 200 Iraqi refugee families.

To date, it has provided $2.4 million in pro bono legal services, despite operating on a shoestring budget of just $76,000. Among their clients are Iraqi refugees facing chronic illnesses requiring urgent treatment. Often, they face resettlement delays because of security clearances.

While some Northern European countries have emergency referral systems for a limited number of resettlement cases, the United States does not.

IRAP has recently taken on its youngest client, a 21-month-old girl, Maria al-Qaysi, and her family. Persecuted as Sunni Muslims in their majority Baghdad Shiite neighborhood, they said their main reason for fleeing to Jordan was the babys life-threatening illness that cannot be treated in Iraq.

Maria’s ostrich egg-sized tumor on her back has begun bleeding, landing her in Amman hospital emergency rooms multiple times in the past couple of months. Doctors here affiliated with the U.N. say they cannot provide the operation she needs to live.

While the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan has expressed willingness to find a resettlement country for Maria and her family, that process could take several months.

“Maria’s doctors say she will already be dead by then,” Ms. Heller said. “They say she needs immediate treatment abroad.”

Doctors in Iraq’s collapsed medical community could not operate on Maria’s myelomeninocoele, a tumorous mass attached to her spinal cord that has paralyzed her from the waist down.

Medical reports also suggest some spinal fluid has seeped into Maria’s brain and was coming out of her ears.

Some 8,000 Iraqi physicians, most of them specialists, have fled the conflict-ridden country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Their departure has further crippled a health-care system plagued by corruption, mismanagement and a lack of equipment and drugs.

“The United States is able to fast track some cases, but it usually cannot get the process down below two to three months because of security checks,” Ms. Heller said.

A U.S. State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not allowed to talk to the press, said, “a myriad of stringent security-clearance procedures, including face-to-face interviews with all applicants” means that the United States is not always able to process a case quickly.

Under certain circumstances, security clearances are submitted as early as possible in processing to “move an emergency case to the U.S. within four to six weeks,” the official said.

Ms. Heller said the fastest resettlement IRAP won was for the family of a young Iraqi girl, Miriam, who suffered serious bouts of epileptic seizures untreatable in Amman.

After the family was rejected for resettlement, despite the kidnapping and torture in Iraq of Miriam’s father, IRAP intervened and requested the U.S. Homeland Security Department reconsider the case.

“It responded immediately and approved the family,” Ms. Heller said.

Other refugees have been rejected for resettlement in the United States for failing to remember a fact or confusing a date during the interview process because of trauma from violence and persecution, said forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Maya Prabhu.

U.S. security officials rejected about three-quarters of the Iraqi refugees in Syria because they suspected the Iraqis were lying about something in their past during screening interviews.

So far, the U.S. State Department has not permitted refugee applicants to call on expert witness and testimony, unlike those seeking political asylum.

Now, Iraqi refugees are fleeing Syria, once their largest safe-haven in the region, fearing surging violence as Damascus brutal clampdown on pro-democracy protesters continues.

Almost all of the Iraqis leaving Syria are forced to return to Iraq because borders with Jordan and Lebanon have virtually been shut.

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