By Associated Press
SAN DIEGO — A Southern California nonprofit is running an “underground railroad” to assist Chaldean Catholics fleeing the turmoil in Iraq, its founder says.
Mark Arabo, a first-generation Iraqi-American, founded the Minority Humanitarian Foundation out of impatience with Washington’s inability to deal with the crisis created by Islamic State militants, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported Saturday.
About 60,000 Chaldeans live in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon — after Detroit, the second largest concentration in the United States. While refugees have found a safe haven there, the friends and relatives they left behind in Iraq face what Arabo called “a Christian genocide.”
President Barack “Obama is failing on this issue completely,” he said. “Our Congress is turning a blind eye.”
Arabo, 32, told the newspaper the group runs an “underground railroad” that transports Iraqi refugees into San Diego. He says the group also seeks to help other persecuted religious minorities.
The newspaper said 27 Chaldeans are in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. To date, 15 have been ordered deported, and five face criminal charges for entering the U.S. under false pretenses. Several had been granted asylum in other countries. Others were using aliases, a red flag when terrorists have vowed to attack America.
“It’s just a very huge national security concern for the agency,” said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for the federal immigration agency. “We are doing our due diligence to ensure that anyone who gets admitted to the country on any kind of visa, that we have their true identity.”
Fadi Hirmiz, a 38-year-old Chaldean Catholic, told the newspaper he was able to get out in time. Last summer, as Islamic State fighters swept toward his home in northern Iraq, demolishing communities, he grew frantic.
“ISIS was getting closer and closer to our village,” Hirmiz said through an interpreter. “I was afraid for my family, for our kids.”
“My wife’s cousin is a friend of Mark Arabo,” Hirmiz said. “That’s how we got help.”
While Arabo would not reveal details of his operation, Hirmiz said his family’s escape was engineered by the El Cajon resident. Their journey began on Aug. 15, 2014, when they boarded a truck in their northern Iraqi village, Batnaya, and rode to the Turkish frontier. There, a contact supplied them with a packet of plane tickets from Turkey through Europe to Mexico.
Hirmiz and his fellow travelers fly into Mexico, Arabo said, because the U.S. demands visas of foreign travelers. His refugees lack those documents.
“This has to do with the flexibility of Mexican officials,” he said, “and the inflexibility of the American officials.”
After a night on the border, Hirmiz and his family entered the United States at San Ysidro on Sept. 1. Their request for asylum is still under review.
Arabo said his makeshift operation is necessary: “The underground railroad wasn’t our first choice. It was our last choice.”
Critics within the local Chaldean community note that these expensive journeys —the estimated cost for a family of four: $25,000 — rely on a shadowy network of anonymous guides.
“I would not leave people in the hands of smugglers,” said Besma Coda, chief operating officer of Chaldean & Middle-Eastern Social Services, a nonprofit based in El Cajon.