Qassim has the U.N.’s Number

Published Monday, August 25, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Qassim Al-Sanid cuts a sharp profile. His sleek sunglasses sit confidently atop his shaved head. He sports that two-day stubble we see so often with sport stars. He has a winsome smile, and he’s not afraid of eye contact. He’s not afraid of very much; that’s the impression you get right away.

He pulls out his adidas-logoed wallet to show the letter he got from the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees, acknowledging his need and right to be in Jordan while he awaits a final verdict from the Department of Homeland Security. He and his family hope to resettle in the United States, where he has a brother.

“I show police this paper. They don’t know what it is.” But he keeps it in his wallet, just in case. He also has a hotline number for the United Nations, in case he has trouble. But he has called that number half a dozen times and no one ever answers.

Qassim and his family fled Iraq in 2001. Two of his brothers escaped earlier — one to the United States in 1998 and another to Yemen in 1999 — but Qassim felt a responsibility to stay with his mother, his younger brother and his two sisters. His mother has severe rheumatism, which gets worse when she’s nervous. She’s nervous a lot. Homeland Security keeps calling, asking for more details.

“Every visit requires a full day,” he complains. “We must be there at 8, so we’re up at 7. We sit and we wait, often the whole day, until 5 or 6 at night. All day sitting. No food. My mom, she has to eat. She has to take medicine, but with food.”

The red tape is part of a refugee’s life, if they hope to get help. Qassim’s brother had to provide new finger prints for his file because his old finger prints had “expired.”

Two months ago, Homeland Security called. They were reviewing Qassim’s application and they needed him to come by the office with his whole family, first thing the next morning. They waited all together for the entire day. Then the officials met with Qassim, asked him a few questions. They had reviewed his application and wanted to know why he hadn’t served in the Iraqi military. (His family lived in Kuwait during that time.) They also wondered why he brought his family. “We only wanted you,” they said.

Qassim’s brother is 21, so his application couldn’t be completed until he registered with United States Selective Service, as all Americans under 26 must do. He complied. The authorities called a month later and said they lost his papers.

Qassim worries about his little brother. “He was 13 when we arrived in Jordan, but they don’t allow him to go to school.” Qassim wonders how many other Iraqi refugees are now becoming adults, but without the benefits that come from education.

“I remember when I was a teenager,” recalls Qassim, who is 38 now. “It was a crazy time, not caring about anything. But I had my family and I had my home. My brother has none of that.”

Qassim’s father remains in Baghdad and tells his family he wants to die there. He has been kidnapped more than once, has sold his car to pay a ransom, but remains in his home.

Qassim has been told his paperwork will be approved, but that he and his family will receive only 10 days’ notice when they will be allowed to leave. When that call comes, they’ll have to move immediately and hope the paperwork is completed in time to allow their departure to the United States.

If there are difficulties along the way, he always has that United Nations hotline number. If only somebody would answer.