Chaldean News: Senator Gary Peters: ‘There Is Definitely a Moral Responsibility’

U.S. Senator Gary Peters has shown support for the Middle East’s Christians and other religious minorities lately with actions ranging from taking a trip to the region to advocating for refugees.

In September, Peters and fellow Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut traveled to Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan and Iraq to discuss anti-ISIS efforts, and visited a refugee camp in Jordan.
In October, he was among those who led a letter to the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security (DHS), urging both departments to take immediate action to address the burdensome processes that unnecessarily delay refugee processing in the country.

Peters, elected to Carl Levin’s vacant seat in 2014, previously sent a letter to Obama urging the United States to resettle at least 100,000 refugees in the coming years from Syria and persecuted religious minority refugees in both Iraq and Syria, including 30,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016.
Peters also joined some colleagues in sending a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson requesting an update on how the administration screens refugees from conflict regions. The letter notes the mounting backlog of refugee applications in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program pipeline, and raises the possibility of refugee interviews being conducted via videoconferencing in war-torn regions.

Chaldean News Co-publisher Martin Manna and Managing Editor Joyce Wiswell sat down with Peters last month at his Detroit office. Here are some highlights.

Chaldean News: Tell us about your recent trip to the Middle East.

Gary Peters: The main focus was to get an update on what is happening with ISIS and the response, to hear it directly from both U.S. military officials as well as folks from the government. We flew to the UAE and met some embassy people and then we were in Qatar and met with the foreign minister and some government officials. Then went to the Central Air Base outside of Doha [and] met with Air Force and coalition officials there.

Then went up to Baghdad and met with the prime minister in Iraq, the minister of oil, the speaker of the house. We also had meetings with folks from the Chaldean community; had dinner with the Chaldean Bishop [Shlemon Warduni] and Younadam Kanna of parliament to talk about issues related to religious minorities.

From there flew up to Jordan and went to the camp at Zaatari, which is the largest refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan. Toured the camp, met with folks from the United Nations and had the opportunity to meet with and speak to a number of refugees living there. We toured the school, went to a health clinic, got a sense of what’s happening in the camp.

CN: And what is life like in the camp?

GP: Well, everybody wants to leave, for obvious reasons. Folks have been there a lot longer than they anticipated. They thought it was going to be a short-term situation, which is what you usually get in a refugee camp. It has turned out to be a very long-term situation.

We were told the camp had a little over 80,000 people. The tents have been removed; people are living in manufactured housing, trailers, but saying that may be kind – it’s far less than ideal in the middle of the desert.

The food rations they get are equivalent to about 50 cents a day per person, but you can’t purchase a lot for 50 cents a day so their diet is fairly restricted. They get one propane bottle per month for cooking, which means you have to be pretty careful about what you cook and how long it’s on the stove.

The thing that was certainly most striking is some of the conversations I had with the refugees and how they have lost hope. They’ve been in this camp a long time, they have no idea what their future holds, they feel they have no future, they don’t know when they can go back to Syria.

I asked some of them, “where is your future, where would you like to go?” It was fairly clear they didn’t want to go to the United States, they didn’t want to go to Europe, they just want to go home. “Let me go home and be with my family and live in peace, raise my kids” like all of us want – they want nothing different from any of us here in this country.

We have to do everything we can to stabilize the situation in Syria but understanding it’s a very complex situation. I don’t see that happening anytime real soon.

CN: We really appreciate you including religious minorities in the letter to President Obama. Most of the discussion has shifted to Syria and people have forgotten about Iraq.

GP: It’s very clear in speaking with the Bishop and embassy personnel in Baghdad we have a situation there that we have to continue to be focused on. And I’m focused on it and working with the community in the greater Detroit area as well.

The message I got from the Bishop is similar to the refugees in the camp – they don’t want to come to the United States, they just want to go back to the Nineveh Plain and have an opportunity to live peacefully in their homes. But he wasn’t overly optimistic this would happen in the short run and was concerned that even if ISIS is pushed out there is still a concern for security and wanted to have a commitment from the United States, the United Nations and others that there would be peacekeepers or some sort of security presence.

CN: Even in Baghdad today there is an alarming rate of abductions and constant intimidation. The community is fleeing Baghdad even more so than the Kurdistan area because of the ongoing violence. But if you look at refugees in a country like Turkey and our folks who are applying for some type of assistance to go to a country that is willing to accept them are getting interview dates of 2022 and 2023. The processing time in any country that is willing to accept them, including the U.S., is a whole other issue.

GP: We’re looking at some of that, teleconferencing and other technologies that can be used to accelerate some of that process so you’ll be hearing more from my office on efforts to try to speed some of that up.

CN: There’s been an anti-immigration feeling in some of the United States; have you run up against that?

GP: It is unfortunate. There are some folks, including some who are running for President, who espouse an anti-immigrant rhetoric, which is not good. In my mind it’s counter to who we are as Americans and it’s a direct assault of the values of the people of this country. For those who have been persecuted, this has always been a refuge. … I believe very strongly you have to stand up for core American values and helping refugees is part of that, as well as having an immigration system that works. We are a nation of immigrants and it’s very clear that when people come into this country on a documented basis through the proper channels, they become productive members of our society. If we pass comprehensive immigration reform it actually grows the economy and helps us reduce the deficit because it makes a stronger economy. We have had waves of immigrants and it’s made the country stronger.

CN: We have more than a million Chaldeans displaced now from Iraq, and there are 2 million Christians in Syria. What is the long-term solution for helping minority populations in the Middle East?

GP: You have to stabilize the regions in which they are found. Those are political solutions — those aren’t military, although ISIS is a threat to peace-loving folks [and] they need to be neutralized. But ultimately you have to have a reconciliation, a political coming together, and having people live in a country that accepts a diversity of people and religions, to allow Christians and Muslims, both Shia and Sunni, to live together. In Iraq we met with some of the NGOs and some of the local Iraqis who are part of the reconciliation process in figuring how do you bring Shia and Sunni together to live in peace.

CN: Do you think that will happen? Do you have optimism?

GP: Well, we always have to be optimistic but I think that is ultimately what is going to have to happen. It will take some time.

Source: Chaldean News