COMMENTARY: We made the mess; now we must clean it up

March 27, 2008

The humanitarian crisis unleashed by the Iraq war comes into dramatic focus inside a detention center beneath a highway in Beirut.

Packed cells hold scores of Iraqi refugees. Men and women who fled a shattered country now wait in silence underground as bureaucracies slowly churn and the world pays little notice. Nearly five years after the invasion of Iraq, this is what sanctuary means for some who survived bombings, beatings and hushed journeys across borders.

Traveling throughout Lebanon and Syria recently with several religious sisters and staff from Catholic Relief Services, I witnessed lives of desperation and quiet stories of hope. Our visits with Iraqi families, both Christian and Muslim, humanize numbing statistics that are staggering in scope.

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 2.5 million Iraqis have fled the country; an additional 2 million are internally displaced inside Iraq. Most of the estimated 50,000 Iraqis in Lebanon are there illegally, unable to receive work permits or access to health services and schools.

Among them is Dovid, a gentle Christian man so traumatized by torture at the hands of a militia in Iraq that his body constantly shakes. He struggled to hold steady for a picture we took with his wife and 10 children who now live crowded into one room in a poor Beirut neighborhood.

There is Leila, a Shiite Muslim who had a successful career in nuclear medicine in Iraq until she and her father were threatened because they worked with a U.S. company on hospital construction. Her father sent her to safety in Lebanon; a few months later, he was executed as he walked home from his job. She is haunted by rumors that her father's enemies are now searching for her.

The reality is also grim in Syria, where 1.5 million Iraqis are now living. A U.N. report found that one in five Iraqis in Syria were tortured or victims of violence in Iraq. Rape, electric shocks and beatings have left deep physical, emotional and spiritual scars. Children have seen their parents killed. Families torn apart by war now live as outcasts in a foreign country.

Sister Marie Claude Naddaf of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Damascus works alongside her sisters and an interfaith network of volunteers to provide outreach to these wounded souls. They provide food, clothing and psychological support for the refugees, and have started a shelter for women and children.

When we asked what message we should bring back to the people of the United States, Sister Marie said: "We don't need money. We don't need anything but peace. This war is a crime against humanity."

Despite the incredible work done by these religious sisters, and other charitable organizations in the region, the magnitude of this refugee crisis requires more urgent political will. The United States has a moral responsibility to help refugees displaced by a war started under false pretenses and with little support from the international community.

Steve Jacquemet, head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Beirut, told us that his office has registered more than 13,000 Iraqi refugees in the region for resettlement in the U.S. The United States, however, has not provided sufficient resources to process them.

Bureaucratic wrangling continues despite the U.S. government's pledge to resettle 12,000 Iraqis by September 30. An Associated Press report found the numbers of Iraqis resettled by the government has actually declined from 450 in October to 245 in December. Even resettlement of Iraqis who risked their lives to serve as translators for U.S. forces has fallen behind.

The clock is ticking on the Bush presidency. With less than a year left in office, the administration can begin to repair its tattered moral legacy in the Middle East by seeking justice for Iraqis. They are displaced, forgotten and crying out to the powerful of our world. How long will we ignore them?

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