Shot-sized crystal glasses sit brimming with chai, but Harith Alnoamy leaves his tea untouched. He cannot tear his eyes from the photos of his parents resting in his lap.
In April 2009, Alnoamy fled Iraq with his wife and children to resettle in Syracuse. The rest of his family tried to leave, too, but had to return to Mosul, Iraq. Growing violence in the region has stopped them from escaping to join Alnoamy.
“I talked to my brother, and I told him I wished to visit,” Alnoamy said. “He said, ‘No, please don’t even put in your mind to come visit us. The situation is even worse, you can’t even imagine.’”
Alnoamy’s family in Iraq represents a few of the more than 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPS) and refugees in the country, according to a January 2014 report from the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). At least 954,000 of those people were already displaced due to violence in 2006.
Iraqis classified as IDPS have fled their homes, but have not crossed international borders. Refugees are described as having crossed the international border to escape persecution.
Daryl Grisgraber, a senior advocate at Refugees International, said she travels to the Middle East, evaluates the displacement crises, and forms recommendations for United States policy makers.
“If people are displaced, you can't just give them water or give them a tent and think they will get back,” she said. “In Iraq, we could spend the next 10 years just working on the displacement that happened a decade ago and what has happened now.”
As the Islamic State (IS) takes over Iraqi territory, it pushes the country into three states: one represented by the Kurds, one by the Shiite Muslims, and one by the Sunni Muslims. Grisgraber said this separation would divide cultures and cause further internal displacement.
Alaa Daham, a Sunni Iraqi refugee living in Syracuse, said his Sunni family in Bagdad, Iraq, faces persecution in the Shiite-dominant south in recent years. He has three brothers: one also traveled to Syracuse, but another remains in Bagdad, Iraq.
Up north, the Kurds forced one of Daham’s brothers to leave the region despite the brother’s marriage to a Kurdish woman.
Not welcome in Kurdistan or the south, Sunni Iraqis like Daham’s family pay hundreds of dollars to take buses north toward countries like Turkey and Jordan. They travel to seek asylum, but have to wait five to seven years for an appointment with the United Nations.
Like Daham’s relatives, Alnoamy said he has a friend who fled IS in Mosul to go to Turkey in a recent wave of displacement. The friend applied to the same resettlement program as Alnoamy, but his appointment was scheduled for 2019.
The friend doesn’t have the money to stay in Turkey, so he waits with no options. This new wave fleeing people stems from the deterioration of the Iraqi government’s security following the U.S.’s withdrawal in 2011.
And, the violence has escalated.
In early August, militia in Bagdad captured Daham’s sister-in-law’s two brothers, both Sunnis. The family has no way of finding them, but believe Shiite extremists captured the two.
“My family belongs to Sunni, it’s not easy for them to move or visit each other,” Daham said. “It’s not easy now for any Sunni to live in Bagdad.”
The Alnoamy family fears they may never be able to visit their relatives in Iraq. (Photo by Christine Rushton)
Daham, a professor of computer science at Syracuse University, calls his family for updates, but cannot help them escape the fear.
“I don’t want to go back to my country even if they told me it had changed,” he said. “I expect a big civil war, and it’s coming.”
Sarhang Hamasaeed, senior program officer for the Middle East and North Africa Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), said as IS kills and pushes out minorities, the nature of Iraqi society alters.
“They are destroying the homeland of many people, and they fear that one day they will lose their land and culture,” Hamasaeed said.
People displaced by the violence don’t have regular access to food, water and basic sanitation, he said. Some live in mosques or schools, but many have to survive outside or in backs of cars.
For Alnoamy, who now works with refugees at Interfaith Works CNY, the corruption in his country has destroyed hopes of returning.
He expected a new future for Iraq after the 2003 government elections. He now knows the changes do not exist.
“The innocent people are the casualties for this war,” Alnoamy said. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to get back to Iraq anymore.”