Helping the Helpless
By J. Javid
You take one look at this woman and you know there's hope. And to a refugee living in fear and uncertainty, there's no better feeling.
Maryam Namazi has been the driving force behind the Committee for the Humanitarian Assistance to Iranian Refugees (CHAIR) since its inception in 1991. She and her three colleagues -- Ramesh Ahmadi, Kayvan Javid and Azin Salimi -- along with a dozen or so volunteers help Iranian refugees find a new home.
"Everyone has the right to choose where they want to live," she said, sitting in an open space next to CHAIR's cramped one-room office in downtown New York. "With the exception of Native-Americans, everyone in this country has either been an immigrant or comes from an immigrant family."
Between 1982 and 1994, more than 38,000 Iranian refugees were admitted in to the United States. The inflow peaked at nearly 6,200 in 1988, the last year of the Iran-Iraq war. In 1994, the number was down to 851.
But getting here is not that easy. In fact, chances are that the average Iranian refugee will not make it. There are numerous bureaucratic hurdles in major refugee centers like Turkey, and the U.S. attitude toward illegal immigrants is getting tougher.
"We are at a stage that is completely anti-immigrant," Namazi said. "Congress is trying to make it legally more difficult to come here as an immigrant. Quotas are going to be slashed. This year the quota for refugees is about 110,000 down from 140,000 a few years ago. And it probably will go down even more. We're even having problems with countries that used to have progressive refugee policies."
For the past three years the U.S. quota for Iranian refugees has been 2,000. However, each year fewer are actually admitted because of the complicated legal issues involved. And this is where CHAIR has focused much of its effort -- to guide refugees through the legal labyrinth.
Only "Priority One" refugees are allowed into the U.S. They include those referred by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) or identified by an American embassy as being "in immediate danger of loss of life," "cases of compelling concern such as former political prisoners or dissidents," and "vulnerable cases including women at risk, victims of violence, [and] torture survivors."
And there is a specific description of who the U.S. considers Iranian refugees. They are those who "served in positions of leadership or played a conspicuous role within a religious denomination whose members are subjected to discrimination, including the clergy, prominent laymen, those who have served in denominational assemblies, governing bodies, or councils; refugees who because of their minority religious affiliations have been deprived of employment, have bee driven from their homes, have had their business confiscated or looted, have been denied educational opportunities available to others similarly situated in the same area, or have been denied pensions that would otherwise be available."
Those who fall into these categories need to prove their case. And to do so they need legal help from organizations like CHAIR.
"A lot of it has to do with trusting the person you are dealing with," Namazi said. "It all depends on the subjectivity of the interviewer. The worst cases can be approved and the best ones can be rejected. So much goes wrong because of ignorance. We try to give as much information as possible."
CHAIR receives grants from non-governmental, non-profit organizations as well as private individuals. It has organized successful fun-raising campaigns among Iranian communities in the U.S., despite the general lack of trust in charitable organizations. Last year CHAIR raised $36,000 from Iranians, up from only $2,000 in 1993.
For more information:
Telephone: (212) 747-1046
Fax: (212) 425-7260
Office: 17 Battery Place, Room 801 North, New York, NY, 10004, USA
Mailing Address: GPO, P.O. Box 7051, New York, NY 10116
Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form.