Iraqi Refugees Resettle in Vermont

MR. LEAHY.  At a time when we are all concerned with the fate of Iraqi refugees and the need to help as many of them as possible resettle in safe havens, I ask unanimous consent that a March 24, 2008, article in the Brattleboro Reformer  entitled “Difficult choices: Son’s birth deepens couple’s concern over future”, be printed in the Record. 

This article illustrates what Vermonters are doing to help two Iraqi refugees, Revan Hedo and Aseel Pola, who recently gave birth to Brattleboro, Vermont’s first Iraqi-American citizen, Matthew.  As Vermonters and other Americans open their hearts, their homes and their wallets to try to alleviate the suffering of Iraqis who have been forced to flee their homeland to escape the violence, it is an important reminder that no matter how one may feel about this war, there is a humanitarian dimension that requires everyone’s attention.  I am proud that Vermonters are doing their part.

We all hope that some day Iraq will be safe enough for those who want to return home to do so.  But there are some 2 million Iraqi refugees stranded in Jordan, Syria and other countries, and millions more displaced inside Iraq.  Only a tiny fraction of those who need and deserve our help have received U.S. visas.  This is unconscionable.  I urge the White House to expedite the processing for resettlement of Iraqis whose lives are threatened because they had the courage to serve as translators, drivers and provide other services to the United States.  These people risked their lives for us, and they have every reason to expect that we will not abandon them.  

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Brattleboro Reformer
Monday, March 24

Difficult choices
Son's birth deepens couple's concern over future

By BOB AUDETTE, Reformer Staff

BRATTLEBORO -- One year ago today, Iraqi natives Revan Hedo and Aseel Pola were married in their home country.

Ten days ago, Aseel gave birth to a baby boy, Matthew, the first Iraqi-American born in Brattleboro. His birth heralded a new chapter in the lives of Hedo and Pola, a Catholic couple with family in Iraq but no safe home to return to.

While Matthew is guaranteed a life in the United States by right of his birth, his parents may one day have to return to the Middle East -- with or without their son -- when their visas expire.

"My son is a U.S. citizen," said Hedo, proudly.

Hedo, now 29, first came to the United States in 2004 on a Fulbright scholarship with which he earned a master's degree in comparative literature and simultaneous translation from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He returned to Iraq in 2006 and married Pola. In August 2007, he and his new wife returned to the states, so he could earn a master's in the Art of Education at the School for International Training Graduate Institute.

As an Iraqi, he served as an interpreter for U.S. forces, translating for high-ranking officials such as L. Paul Bremer, Gen. John Abizaid and England Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. One reason for renewing his visa was because living in Iraq had become too dangerous for him and his new wife.

"My life was in jeopardy," he said. "Everyone knew I had been to the United States and had been working for U.S. military forces."

Francis Bailey, an associate professor at UMass, who befriended Hedo during his two years in Amherst, offered the couple a place to live rent free. Bailey was teaching at SIT and offered to sponsor the couple's stay in the United States.

"I was frustrated with the decision to invade Iraq," said Bailey. Giving Hedo and Pola a place to live was "an opportunity to make an individual difference," said Bailey. "This was my choice."

Because of the danger to him, his wife and their new son, returning to Iraq is out of the question, but barring some miracle, they can't legally remain in the United States after their visas expire. Even having a son with American citizenship doesn't guarantee the couple can stay here.

Financially, things have also been difficult for the couple.

Pola, a microbiologist, doesn't work, and Hedo's visa only allows him to work 10 hours a week in SIT's library, not nearly enough money to pay for the daily necessities, never mind the bill at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital for the birth of their son. While Hedo has insurance through SIT, Pola has no coverage.

The congregation at St. Michael's Catholic Church on Walnut Street has been essential in helping the couple keep their heads above water as has the international community on the campus of SIT.

"Our friends at SIT showed us the spirit of diversity, the respect of other cultures and hospitality," said Hedo, adding, "The neighbors are wonderful. They've really supported us, especially emotionally."

"The town is very nice and beautiful," said Pola. "People are really friendly."

Her biggest hope for her son is that he grows up in a family with both a mother and a father. Pola's father spent several years as a prisoner of war during the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s. In 2001. When she was 19, he was shot dead on his front steps by minions of Saddam Hussein.

One day, they hope to return to Iraq, but right now they consider their trip to the United States "a one-way ticket," said Hedo. "We can't go back."

"We want to be able to live in peace (in Iraq)," he said, "To be respected no matter what our beliefs are. We would love to live in an environment with a lot of tolerance, just like Brattleboro."

Pola has two simple wishes.

"I want to hear that my family is living in peace, not in war, worried all the time, and to have the hope of seeing them."

Hedo and Pola have also received support from their friends, Noah and Natalie Baker Merrill.

"It's very important in these times for Americans to get to know Iraqis and see them as their neighbors," said Noah Baker Merrill, a founder of Direct Aid International, which helps Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan.

Baker Merrill and his wife met Hedo and Pola through SIT, where Natalie is a student advocate.

The United States has done a disgraceful job in helping the refugees, said Baker Merrill, accepting only 1,800 of the 2 to 2.5 million who have fled Iraq.

Nearly 100,000 Iraqis have been allowed to settle in Sweden, but the majority live in refugee camps in Jordan and Syria. Resettlement in a different country is not the answer, said Baker Merrill. Making Iraq a safe country that Iraqis can return to is the answer.

"The overwhelming majority just desperately want to be able to go home."

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Press Contact

David Carle: 202-224-3693

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