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Becca Heller's picture

While shopping in an open market with her son, Ibrahim, a terrorist car bomb exploded next to Iraqi mother Ekhlas Zaky. The explosive shock wave struck her son in the head, blinding him in one eye and possibly damaging his brain. After the smoke cleared, young Ibrahim never spoke again.

Since birth, Ekhlas’ daughter Tuhama suffered from a rare disease that caused her kidneys to fail every fifteen to twenty days. Each time Tuhama collapsed from kidney failure, the family had to run a gauntlet of insurgent checkpoints, bombings and gunfire to reach the hospital.

As surrounding violence increased, Ekhlas and her husband moved their family to Jordan, finding temporary refuge in an Amman slum. They registered as refugees with the United Nations, but Ekhlas, her husband and their five children were repeatedly denied resettlement in the West. Ibrahim and Tuhama's medical conditions could not be treated in Jordan, making resettlement the Ibrahims’ only chance to build a future for their children. Stateless, without any civil or human rights, the Ibrahims now found themselves in a paradoxical dilemma. They were not safe in their country, but seeking asylum left them with even fewer rights.

For Iraqi refugees, like the Ibrahims, their situation has significantly worsened in recent years as war and sectarian violence continue to plague the region. Those living under constant threat include individuals that provided aid - translation in particular - to American intelligence and foreign media only to be forgotten. Others living in unsafe conditions include the LGTB community, women forced into sex trafficking, religious minorities, and disabled children and adults. These people are stranded, unable to return to Iraq without risking their lives. The only alternative is to seek refuge elsewhere. But the process to gain admittance into the limited number of western countries that will accept them is difficult, slow, and heartbreaking.

My passion to help these families and individuals began when I was a student in law school, while I was doing a human rights internship in the Middle East. I heard stories of Iraqi refugees living in Syria and Jordan and was compelled to meet with them. Each of the six families I spoke with voiced that what they needed most was legal advice. As a law student I decided this was something I could help with. Soon after, I began the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP).

Since our inception in 2008, we have relocated over 1,000 Iraqi and other refugees in life and death situations to more than seven different safe countries. Right now we are working on approximately 300 cases. Problems in Iraq remain vast, complicated, and daunting, but the difference we’ve made for individuals and families drives us to continue working tirelessly to on behalf of more Iraqis.

The plight of the Ibrahims, a family who has ardently fought for the rights of their two disabled children, is one of the stories that keep us motivated and inspired. We recently released this film narrated by the mother, Ekhlas, who bravely recounts her family’s story.

A few days ago the family was relocated to the United States. Adjusting to their new surroundings will not be without difficulty. For refugees, these difficulties are often amplified as they redefine what they consider home. But a family like the Ibrahims can now safely access proper medical care for their children. They now live in a secure neighborhood and can offer their children a livelihood without the constant fear of violence. For the Ibrahims, their relocation provides them with what every family deserves: the opportunity to pursue a peaceful fulfilling life.

What is truly disconcerting are the vast amount of families and individuals stuck in the middle of this humanitarian crisis. The US cannot afford to risk creating a new stateless mass of refugees in the Middle East. In addition to providing a better quality of life for those in need and protecting them from violence, extending a hand to refugees gives the world a more favorable view of the US, and shows our commitment to peace and stability in the region.

If you would like to help families like the Ibrahim’s, you can learn more about the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Program here.

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