News

Palo Alto nonprofit helps Assyrian Iraqi refugees find home in U.S.

Immigrants fleeing from persecution because of their faith, ethnicity

Margaret Petros prayed in St. Mary's Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church in Campbell, a lace scarf covering her head. Light through the stained glass windows — rose, turquoise and amber rays — fell on her shoulders as rituals dating back to the earliest days of Christianity were spoken in ancient Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

She listened as Father Michael Barota sang in the undulating, melismatic melody so commonly associated with the Near and Middle East. Some of the hymns are as old as 1,700 years.

The deacon read from the book of Isaiah: "Comfort my people. The grass withers, the flower fades: but the word of our God will stand forever."

"Nishqlun ture shlam l-ammakh."

"The mountains carry peace to your people."

St. Mary's has come to be that mountain of peace for Petros and other immigrant Assyrians, the indigenous people of Iraq whose culture and history dates back 7,000 years. After millennia of living in northern Iraq and Iran, they are now fleeing from persecution because of their faith and ethnicity. The Islamic State group (ISIS) is driving out by the millions the Assyrians and other indigenous peoples of Iraq and Syria: the Chaldeans, Syriacs and Yazidis. (Read "Who are the Assyrians: Ancient people of the Near East now struggle with exile after seven millennia in their homeland")

Some have ended up in the Bay Area, where they hope to find refuge.

Petros, executive director of Palo Alto-based nonprofit Mothers Against Murder (MAM), and a small group that includes an attorney, a therapist and church leaders are helping a handful of Assyrian Christian refugees obtain asylum in the United States. Returning to their homeland would mean death, advocates and refugees said. (Read "Driven by compassion: Margaret Petros fights the system for victims' justice")

The work they are doing is an extension of Mothers Against Murder's mission to help victims and witnesses of violent crime, said Roger Smith, a Palo Alto philanthropist and the retired head of Silicon Valley Bank. He started MAM in 2003 when he saw the justice system dragging out the prosecution of murder cases.

He hired Petros, a Los Altos resident, in 2009 to run the victim-advocacy group after hearing of her determination and effectiveness from the former director of Santa Clara County's Victim Witness Assistance Center, Joe Yomtov. Petros had spent 20 years with the center working on victims' and victim families' rights.

"She has a huge heart. She's just passionate about this, and she takes each case so personally," Smith said.

Petros came to Smith with stories about the plight of the Assyrian refugees: the 12-year-old girl who froze to death in the mountains after being forced from her family home; the boys who were murdered by the Islamic State group because they watched a soccer match on TV.

"Where this ties together with MAM is that all of these cases try to get help from the system," Smith said. That system often turns its back on the victim witnesses and families, he said.

In both domestic murder and asylum cases, people are dealing with trauma and the threat, or reality, of death at the hands of another. Many of the victims of murder and asylum come from similar backgrounds where English is not their primary language or they might not speak English at all, he said.

"They are coming in from systems where the bureaucracy is a bigger hurdle than in this country, and they don't know what to do. Margaret helps these people to try to establish themselves in our great country," he said.

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To date, Mothers Against Murder has helped 12 Assyrian Christian families — 29 adults and 26 children, Petros said.

Herself an Assyrian Christian refugee, Petros experienced persecution in Iraq and fled to the U.S. with her family in 1980 when she was 15.

"I lived in a town that was 95 percent Christian. My first and best friend was Muslim. We were inseparable. As children, you don't know any different. I remember her mom was a teacher. She made sure at the beginning of the school year that we sat together," she recalled.

But as the Muslim population increased, so did the animosity. She remembered the garbage man who called her mother a foreigner; the vice principal who called the Christian students bad names.

Christian and Muslim students initially received religious instruction separately during religious class, but one day the school stopped Christian studies, she said.

"We were allowed to go out in the playground while the Muslims studied. But then they said we made too much noise and had to stay in the classroom as observers. The year we left, they handed us the Koran to have to study, and that's when my father said it was time to leave," she said.

Her parents secretly sold their home, and then fled to Jordan in October 1979 because they could not get an immigration visa to the U.S. directly from Iraq. But a paternal uncle living in the U.S. petitioned for the family. They spent two years in Skokie, Illinois, before the harsh winters drove them to California, she said.

Their experiences pale in comparison to what is happening now, she said.

Friends who are exiled in Greece say they are seeing bodies wash ashore every day — "hundreds of bodies," Petros said.

And since 2003, every church she had visited was bombed.

"My own church that I was baptized in was bombed," she said.

Then the Islamic State group invaded Mosul in June 2014 and took over a 1,600-year-old church, the first and oldest in Mosul.

"It was devastating to hear the news of ISIS overtaking Mosul. I knew it was over for all the Christians. It turned out to be worse than I ever believed for all the minority people. I was frustrated, feeling helpless while watching the beheadings, tortures, kidnappings, rapes and the other horrific brutalities the world witnessed, until the call came to me to help in August," Petros said.

A childhood friend living in Manteca asked if Petros would help "Shoshan" (not her real name), a 26-year-old newlywed who was living in California and pregnant with her first child. Her husband was stuck in Kurdistan at her parents' home. (Read about Shoshan's plight, "Palo Alto's Mothers Against Murder helps ISIS victims")

Shoshan is a Chaldean, another indigenous group of Christians. The Islamic State group gave her family an ultimatum to convert to Islam or "die by the sword," Petros said.

Shoshan had a valid visit visa to the U.S., which was good for a year until early 2015.

"Coming close to being murdered by ISIS and having two uncles murdered by terrorists since 2003 qualified her for MAM's humanitarian services. We helped and were successful in getting this young woman the white card to stay in the U.S.," Petros said.

Petros got a licensed therapist to evaluate Shoshan's trauma. A volunteer Assyrian immigration attorney in Los Angeles, Monica Mansouri, reviewed the asylum application for completeness. Petros mailed the asylum package to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which allowed Shoshan to stay in the U.S. until it made a decision on her application.

But Shoshan could not work, so she moved to southern California to stay with relatives. Mothers Against Murder purchased airplane tickets for Shoshan and her aunt to return to the Bay Area for her asylum interview in San Francisco. A professional Assyrian translator accompanied her to the interview at no cost. Shoshan stayed at Petros' home for a few days during the process.

The U.S. government finally granted her asylum on Jan. 20, 2015. Her son was born two days later. But Shoshan's husband has still not received approval of the I730 Asylee Relative Petition that Petros completed on Shoshan's behalf in March.

"The baby is now 9 months old and has not met his father," Petros said. "It's extremely difficult. I've been the advocate, the social worker, the sister, to help through this crisis and very difficult time. She is in a much better place than millions of people under the threat of ISIS, but you can imagine how fragile life can be in a foreign country."

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Shameram also waits for her husband. She was attending a relative's wedding in the Bay Area with their three teenage children when the Islamic State group took over Iraq. Her husband told her not to come back. Like most of the refugees in this story, she asked to be identified by a pseudonym to protect loved ones back home.

"It is very difficult. It is only war, war, war. We didn't have any peace there; only for a couple of years in the late 1970s," Shameram said.

But Islamic State members are not Iraqis, and they have no love for its people's long history, she said.

"They take everything from the person — everything. You have only what you can carry in a small suitcase with you," Shameram said. "No one knows what is happening. In one second, thousands are displaced."

Shameram, 51, and her children, an 18-year-old daughter and 14- and 16-year-old sons, live with her aunt and her aunt's family in Santa Clara. They received asylum four months ago after a year of waiting.

The Assyrian family came to Petros through Father Barota. Mothers Against Murder's pro bono attorney, Heba Tawadross, helped the family file for work authorization in May.

The family received notification of asylum on June 1. Now Shameram has a job making sandwiches at a supermarket delicatessen and her daughter works part time. All three children are A students.

Shameram, who has a college education and used to work as a bank accountant, received help from the International Rescue Committee in San Jose to become acclimated and find work. Today, she grins when she speaks of her new sandwich-making job. She wants to be a useful member of American society, and she wants her children to have a good life, she said.

Shameram plans to return to college to learn computerized bookkeeping so she can work at a bank again.

But she misses the big family gatherings they had in Iraq. The door was always open, and people came starting with breakfast and throughout the day. Now their friends and family are scattered throughout the world, having fled with their suitcases to Australia, Kurdistan and Turkey. She has lost contact with them.

Shameram hopes her husband's visa will soon be processed.

"When my children do something very beautiful in their life, he cannot experience it," she said.

Sometimes, even in the U.S., her children don't feel entirely safe. Her daughter said the Muslim kids won't talk to her in school.

"If you pass them and say hi, they won't answer or look at you. In lunch, they came and talked with other girls, but they left when I came," she said.

Sometimes they ask where she is from in Iraq. She doesn't want to say. They try to goad her into admitting that she is from a Christian town, she said.

"They ask if I am Kurdish. I say, 'No, not Kurdish.'

"They say, 'What are you, then?'

"I don't like it when they ask about my last name. ... It's a little scary," she said. "But they can't hurt me. They have a lot of security in the school. They can't do anything because (this is) a Christian country."

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About 250 families belong to St. Mary's, which has become a refuge, Barota said. If they were to return to Iraq, they would be in grave danger, not only because of their faith and ethnicity but for their connection with the West.

"There is kidnapping in Iraq, and people think that they are connected with the Western Christians, and the West will pay a ransom. The (U.S.) government has nothing to do with us, but they think we are spies for the West and they take revenge on us," he said.

On a recent Sunday, Barota raised the book of Holy Scriptures, encased in silver, and blessed the congregation. Women bowed heads covered in lace and men made the sign of the cross. They were elders and the middle-aged, new parents and children of all ages — the present and future of the Assyrian and Chaldean people.

"The church is our salvation. It is where we preserve our language, traditions, even our social life. But it is not only a matter of faith. It's a matter of survival. It's our identity," Barota said.

At the spaghetti luncheon after Mass, Petros is back at work. Shameram's daughter handed her official government papers the family received in the mail.

Petros will read the documents and confer with Tawadross if necessary, and they will keep the pressure on the government so that Shameram's husband's petition does not fall through the cracks.

Mothers Against Murder's work has attracted the attention of Father Ladimir Alkhaseh of the Assyrian Evangelical Church of San Jose.

"It is an existential threat to Assyrians. This can and may well spell the end of Assyrian existence on their native lands. Without that, their culture, their Aramaic language will be lost in the melting pot of the West," said church board member Vladimir Moghaddasi, who spearheads efforts to help refugees. "Many are helping, but it is in no way nearly enough given the magnitude of the situation."

His church and other Assyrian churches and civil organizations are financially helping indigenous displaced people within Iraq and Syria through other humanitarian or Christian organizations, but their resources are limited, he said.

The situation in Iraq and Syria, where there are also Assyrian Christians, is dire, he added.

But here in the Bay Area, Petros and Tawadross do what they can, chipping away one case at a time. Some cases take a very long time — more than a year — to process. The government doesn't see the asylum as an emergency, Tawadross said.

"They need an expedited process. That's what we're asking for," she said.

In one case, the daughter in a family that's been waiting for more than a year will soon turn 21. Then she will have to apply separately as an adult, starting her application process over again, Petros said.

Mothers Against Murder operates on a very limited budget, Petros said. Tawadross is Mothers Against Murder's only pro bono attorney, and there is only one pro bono therapist who counsels the refugees. The group is in need of translators fluent in Assyrian, Arabic and English.

Asked how she handles the emotional burdens of helping traumatized victims of murder and genocide, Petros said she relies on faith.

"I do pray a lot. When I'm struggling, I'm just kneeling down and praying. The Virgin Mary is right next to my bed with a candle. There must be a higher power out there. Sometimes when there is nothing I can do, I make peace," she said.

And the way she makes peace is by practicing deep compassion and love, she said.

"That's really what life is — it's about the love."

To watch a video on Mothers Against Murder and its executive director, Margaret Petros, visit the Weekly's YouTube channel.

Related content:

Who are the Assyrians?

Driven by compassion: Margaret Petros fights the system for victims' justice

Comments

1 person likes this
Posted by SiValleyPilgrim
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 30, 2015 at 10:12 am

If you want to donate to this organization, I found that its website is
Web Link


1 person likes this
Posted by almunday
a resident of another community
on Nov 2, 2015 at 8:56 am

what she is doing is all well and nice, but with housing the way it is....where are they going to be living short and long term..


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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