By: George Goss | Jan 19, 2017
Jesus’ face, in agony and crowned with thorns, was imprinted on the medal dangling from Issam Khoury’s neck. Khoury says he was brutalized by soldiers, dragged through the street and had his face smashed.
An outspoken opponent of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, Khoury, 39, arrived in New York City from Syria by way of Lebanon on May 11, 2014. Four months later, he requested political asylum.
“Most Syrian Christians in my country and in the United States support Bashar Assad,” Khoury said. “My dissenting view sets me apart.”
The United Nations estimates that there are 4.8 million Syrian refugees, and on Sept. 8, 2015, President Barack Obama offered Khoury a glimmer of hope that the U.S. government was willing to help alleviate the crisis. In a nationally televised press briefing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest announced the president’s intention to admit at least 10,000 Syrians fleeing the civil war.
Some members of Congress, however, have flagged the near absence of religious minorities among resettled Syrian refugees as a problem to fix. The State Department’s Refugee Processing Center lists 14,584 Syrian refugees admitted between January 1, 2016 and December 9, 2016, of which 97 were Christian, or 0.7%. Those aiding Christians and other religious minorities argue that 0.7% neither reflects the pre-war demographics of Syria — 10% according to the CIA World Factbook — nor the precarious situation for religious minorities still under threat from ISIS.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) has chaired nine hearings on the genocide and claims that President Obama had the executive authority to direct the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development to help both fleeing religious minorities and those who choose to stay. But since he had not acted, congressional legislation was necessary.
Smith, along with more than two dozen Republican and Democratic members of Congress, co-sponsored H.R. 5961: the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016.
“At the stroke of the pen, Obama could have — but didn’t — accomplish what this legislation aims to do,” Smith said.
In response to Smith’s criticism Earnest, the White House press secretary, was dismissive.
“Can Congressman Smith point to a single public utterance in the last year in support of the Obama administration’s effort to increase the number of refugees from the region?” Earnest asked. “If not — and I would be surprised if he could — I am not sure how anyone can conclude that his criticism is legitimate.”
There is hope that the legislation will move through both houses of Congress and that President Donald Trump will sign it.
“The urgency of providing humanitarian aid to Christian survivors of genocide has only increased in recent months as winter sets in and thousands of innocent civilians continue to suffer,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), said Wednesday. “My hope is that this bipartisan bill will be taken up in the House swiftly and move in the Senate so we can get the help to people when they need it most, which is now.”
Brought to the House floor on September 9, 2016, H.R. 5961 is designed to ease access to the overseas application process for religious minorities fleeing ISIS who want to come to the United States through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program as well as supply much-needed humanitarian aid to those who want to stay. Other legislation has been proposed with similar goals as well.
The State Department categorically denies the under-representation of religious minorities from Syria.
“The demographics of Syrian refugees resettled in the United States reflect the demographics of the Syrian refugee population,” said Danna van Brandt, a public affairs officer for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
The State Department bases most of its refugee referrals on the United Nations Refugee Agency, known as the UNHCR, and its numbers are not radically different from the 0.7% admitted by the States.
Matthew Saltmarsh, senior communications officer of the United Nations Refugee Agency, said that about 1.4% of registered Syrian refugees belong to minority religious groups.
“The problem is that the United Nations doesn’t want to sound like they are not doing a good job,” said Executive Director Lisa Jones of Christian Freedom International, a nonprofit that provides aid to persecuted Christians throughout the world including the Middle East.
Jones also said that the host country staffs the United Nations offices with their own people, which makes it harder for Christians and Yazidis to register without fear of reprisal or discrimination. That is one reason Smith gave for priority visa status so religious minorities could leapfrog the United Nations Refugee Agency altogether.
The United Nations said that it does seek to ensure the protection of religious minorities.
“In camps, most notably for the internally displaced in Iraq, the UNHCR has sought to ensure religious minorities — for example Christians and Yazidis — are not excluded from the support that they need,” Saltmarsh said. “Security in the camps is controlled by host governments.“
In November 2015, Adiba Qassem, 23, a Yazidi, went to the UNHCR office in Ankara, Turkey to register her sister and three brothers as refugees. Qassem said that her immediate family passed through a Kurdish checkpoint a mere 30 minutes before ISIS captured her town of Khanosor, Iraq. Yazidis are a religious minority group that predates both Islam and Christianity, but is viciously persecuted by ISIS. Qassem alleges that her non-Yazidi neighbors from the nearby towns of Beer Qasim and Beer Jari pledged to protect the Yazidis, but ended up participating in the genocide, including the rape of her cousins.
“My cousins got raped by our neighbors,” Qassem said. “We don’t know what happened after that.”
At the United Nations office, her goal was to get her siblings out, but she was disappointed.
“They were looking at us like we are nothing,” Qassem said of the Turkish officials running the office. “They didn’t take care of us even though we were refugees and lots of things happened with us.”
After taking down her siblings’ information, the official informed Qassem and her siblings that they would be contacted in 2017. She decided not to wait and smuggled them out instead.
“It’s really easy to be a refugee: It could be you, it could be anyone,” Qassem said. “We need everyone to help.”
H.R. 5961 is designed to aid not just victims of ISIS, but those of Assad as well, like Khoury.
In Section II, Paragraph 3, it cites a report dated Feb. 3, 2016 from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry, which states that “detainees held by the Government, were beaten to death, or died as a result of injuries sustained due to torture.”
Khoury said that he was imprisoned twice by the regime and estimates that the prison cell was about 3.2 feet by 4.9 feet and that there were usually 11 people crammed in — sometimes as many as 17.
“And the smell, you cannot believe, the smell. You cannot. You cannot,” Khoury said. “The first two days, I cannot sleep so I put my nose and my lips near the window.”
He also said that it was like a sauna during the day and he lost 34 pounds in one month.
Another confrontation occurred in his village, Aljodida, and involved soldiers attempting to attach him via a chord to the back of their vehicle so they could drag him to death. And the last incident happened in 2011.
“The Syrian regime sent a bad person called a ‘shabiha’ to hit me, and he broke my nose,” Khoury said, gesturing towards his face. “I had an operation to restructure to my face to what you see now.”
Throughout each of these episodes, Khoury wore his religious medal with the image of Jesus suffering — and pledges that he will always wear it.
“Before the death of my mother, she asked me to put on that necklace, and I promised her,” Khoury said. “I love the story of Jesus, because he loves peace and hates violence.”
Additional Reporting by Nick Perez
ETCC organized all interviews in coordination with the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism