An Advocate For Iraq’s Displaced Christians

An advocate for Iraq's displaced Christians

Robert DeKelaita, a U.S. lawyer who is himself a Christian born in Iraq, is on a mission to help others gain U.S. asylum. He would rather see them return to a safe homeland.

By David Zucchino
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 4, 2008

SAN DIEGO — The immigration lawyer and his client sat huddled at the defense bench in federal court, whispering in a foreign tongue.

Robert DeKelaita, born and baptized Christian in Iraq and raised in the U.S., is a solidly built man who dwarfed his slender client, a frightened young Iraqi named Yousif Ibrahim. DeKelaita murmured assurances in a modern version of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

Ibrahim, 23, a Christian, had been jailed as a “deportable/inadmissible alien” since he walked across the U.S.-Mexico border at San Ysidro in May. Except for a phony Polish passport and a copy of his baptismal certificate, he arrived with only the clothes on his back.

Ibrahim wore a blue prison smock and baggy trousers. A court officer removed his handcuffs, and Ibrahim absently rubbed red welts on his left wrist, just below a tattoo of Jesus Christ.

Minutes later, DeKelaita described how Ibrahim's father had been burned to death in his home by Muslim insurgents in Iraq in January 2007 — because he was a Christian working for the U.N, and because another son had served in the U.S. armed forces.

“Your honor, he cannot go back to Iraq. . . . He has established credible fear” of persecution, DeKelaita told the immigration judge.

The judge set a new hearing, giving DeKelaita more time to prove his case. DeKelaita whispered again to Ibrahim in Aramaic, promising that he would be a free man soon.

Over the last decade, DeKelaita has obtained asylum for hundreds of Iraqi Christians threatened with deportation. He travels the U.S. to counsel distraught, uprooted men and women who have fled religious persecution in Iraq.

But each new grant of asylum leaves DeKelaita feeling conflicted; his efforts inadvertently contribute to the slow dissolution of the once-vibrant Christian community in Iraq.

“My heart is really wedded to the idea that they should be safe and secure in their own homeland in Iraq,” DeKelaita, 45, said inside his law office in Skokie, Ill., near Chicago. “What I'm doing is temporary. That's how I justify it to myself — that they will one day all go back home safely to their homeland.”

Repressed under Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Christian population has been decimated since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Muslim extremists have murdered priests and burned churches and Christian-owned shops and homes. Priests in Iraq estimate that fewer than 500,000 Christians remain, about a third of the number as before 2003.

On March 13, the body of the archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was recovered, two weeks after he was kidnapped while leaving Mass. The slaying prompted Iraqi Christians to consider worshiping in secret; church services have also been attacked. Christian leaders say some Christians have been abducted and killed after refusing to convert to Islam.

“No group was happier than Christians when Saddam fell,” DeKelaita said. “But no group is more disappointed with the way things played out.”

Anguished over mistreatment of Iraqi Christian family members and strangers, DeKelaita long ago decided to dedicate his law practice to defending them. He is among a handful of immigration lawyers nationwide who specialize in representing Iraqi Christians, though he represents other clients.

“I know their pain; I feel it,” he said of Iraqi Christians. “These are my people. I don't even have to ask them what they've been through.”

Each Christian released from federal custody is a blessing, he said. But for the most part, “I deal in misery, unfortunately.”

In August, DeKelaita got a 3 a.m. phone call from his mother in Chicago telling him that her brother had been kidnapped in Kirkuk, DeKelaita's city of birth. The kidnappers demanded a $120,000 ransom, DeKelaita said. After a series of phone calls and e-mails to Iraq, his uncle was released. DeKelaita declined to say whether any ransom was paid.

DeKelaita did say, however, that he sent money to hire bodyguards for his uncle. He worries about his aunt, an interpreter for the U.S. military, whose position is known to Muslim insurgents, he said.

Unlike Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, Iraqi Christians have no militia to protect them. Many are clustered in villages in the Nineveh plains north of Mosul, where their ancestors lived before the Islamic conquest.

DeKelaita's own family left Iraq for the U.S. in 1973, when he was 11.Baptized in the Assyrian Church of the East,DeKelaita spoke virtually no English but quickly learned the language in public schools in Chicago. He earned a master's degree in international relations from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Loyola University. He is married to an Iraqi Christian; they have taught Aramaic to their sons, ages 10 and 17.

Even as he delivers speeches and writes articles seeking support for Christians in Iraq, DeKelaita presses ahead on dozens of asylum cases every month.

More than 235,000 Iraqi refugees, most in Syria and Jordan, are seeking resettlement, according to the United Nations. Just 2,631 Iraqis were admitted for resettlement in the U.S. last year. (A spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said the agency did not keep statistics on Iraqi Christians who had sought or received asylum.)

For 2008, the U.S. has set a goal of 12,000 Iraqi resettlements, with a focus on Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. in Iraq. So far this year, 819 Iraqis have been admitted.

In Chicago recently, DeKelaita counseled Wesim Hanino, a Christian who has been seeking asylum since mid-2005. Hanino has lived in Detroit on a visitor's visa since fleeing Iraq after family members were killed by Muslim gunmen, Hanino said.

Hanino's relatives in Detroit had accused DeKelaita for weeks of dragging his feet. They persuaded Hanino to take time off from his liquor store job and drive to Chicago to see him.

At the Chicago immigration office, DeKelaita told Hanino what he had told his relatives: His case file was still stuck in Detroit. Hanino was convinced DeKelaita could break the impasse, telling him, “Robert, your hand is blessed.”

But even after DeKelaita and Hanino met with a sympathetic immigration supervisor, they were told Hanino would have to wait for his case file to be tracked down. Hanino left the office a beaten man. “I spent a thousand dollars to come to Chicago for nothing — no answers,” he said.

It was a common setback, DeKelaita said: “Clients think I can work magic — that I can wave my hand and have the federal government do as I say. It's a long, difficult process. And when things don't go their way, they — and 20 or 30 relatives — blame me.”

But most cases, after considerable time and expense, end well.

Anaam Merza Khoshaba, a thin Christian woman, sat wringing her hands in a courthouse hallway in Chicago just after DeKelaita finished with Hanino. DeKelaita negotiated her asylum petition with a judge and a government lawyer inside a closed courtroom.

Khoshaba, 31, had fled Iraq in 2001. She had been detained briefly by Hussein's intelligence agents and accused of helping Christian missionaries. While a refugee in Jordan, she married an Iraqi American Christian.

The marriage gave her entry into the U.S. But her husband divorced her in 2004, leaving her in legal limbo. She missed the deadline for filing for asylum, forcing DeKelaita to seek an exception. Khoshaba was consoled by an in-law, Manal Solaqa, an Iraqi American Christian. Solaqa assured her that everything would work out — that DeKelaita would prevail.

A few minutes later, DeKelaita emerged from the courtroom and told Khoshaba she would be granted an exception. She could refile in May for permanent residence. DeKelaita had persuaded the judge and the government lawyer that she deserved a second chance because she was employed (at a bakery) and was law-abiding.

Khoshaba covered her face with her hands and wept. “I've been praying every day for this,” she said.

“You're very lucky,” DeKelaita told her.

Solaqa shook her head. “It's not luck — it's Jesus,” she said. “He answered our prayers.”

Khoshaba wiped her eyes and grasped a small gold medallion of the Virgin Mary that dangled from a necklace. She brought it to her lips in a kiss of gratitude.

Ibrahim's case was more problematic, but also more typical of Iraqi Christian asylum applicants: He arrived penniless after spending his savings on smugglers and forged papers, then spent months in federal detention while DeKelaita tried to persuade judges to grant asylum.

In court documents, Ibrahim described an odyssey that took him to Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Germany, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico in an effort to reach his sister in Illinois. He said he paid a smuggler $1,150 for a visa to Turkey, spent $2,500 on a phony French passport in Greece, and gave $3,500 to a Syrian in Germany for the fake Polish passport.

He made his way to the U.S.-Mexico border, he said, because other Iraqis told him that was the easiest way to enter the U.S. At the border post, he approached an immigration officer, admitted his Polish passport was phony, and requested asylum as an Iraqi Christian.

“I fear that returning to Iraq, I will be subject to torture or even killed due to my religious beliefs as an Assyrian Christian,” he told the officer through a translator. “I have nothing to return to except fear of death at any moment.”

In the San Diego courtroom months later, Ibrahim whispered to a reporter that there was one more reason to fear returning to Iraq: His brother now works as an interpreter for the U.S. military at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

“It puts me in direct danger,” he said in Aramaic.

A government lawyer fought the asylum application. He said all Iraqis faced possible death or kidnapping, not just Christians. He pointed out that Ibrahim was unable to say when he was baptized. DeKelaita countered that Ibrahim was baptized as an infant. Christians, the lawyer said, are specifically targeted by Muslim extremists solely because of their faith.

In November, Ibrahim was granted asylum and released. He lives with his sister outside Chicago and is looking for work. He can apply for a green card, and permanent residency, in a year.

For DeKelaita, it was a bittersweet victory.

“I wish he could go back to his homeland,” he said, “and prosper.”