DETROIT – The Detroit metro region is home to the largest population of Arabs outside the Middle East. And soon, there will be thousands more.
The State Department announced last week it was planning to fast-track the resettlement of 7,000 Iraqi refugees in the United States. Officials say it’s likely these refugees will move to the U.S. within a year.
"Efforts to assist and protect refugees include resettlement for the most vulnerable. The United States will do its part," said Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky.
The State Department's announcement comes amid mounting sectarian violence in Iraq, as well as political and diplomatic pressure on the Bush administration to take in those displaced by the war's aftermath.
Typically, the most compelling cases of hardship are permitted to be resettled in the United States, but the Chaldeans, who are the Christians of Iraq, say their case for relocation is most deserving.
"They're looking at the U.S. and this administration to assist them, mainly because those people, they were hurt in Iraq, because of the war," said Joe Kassab, executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America, an organization based in Farmington, Mich., which represents more than 1 million Iraqi Christians worldwide.
U.N. officials say the majority of Iraqi refugees want eventually to return to their homeland. But not the Chaldeans, who say Muslim militias regularly bomb their churches and send them death threats.
Former refugee Rafat Ita says his cousin was kidnapped last year and tortured mentally and physically. His cousin survived, but doesn't have the money to escape Iraq.
Ita himself said there was an order for his death in Iraq, adding that Christians are targeted in Iraq because of their religion.
"We are the minority, the weakest minority, because we don't fight back. We don't kill. That's why we are the most vulnerable case," Ita said. "And if they catch you there. You're done … There's a lot of friends, a lot of family living in very bad situation. It's basically like hell over there."
Ita said many refugees know what life is like in America, because many have friends or relatives already living here. They know that freedom of religion, choice, and speech, lie just across the ocean.
"They own houses, business, they have no involvement in any militias, or any terrorist groups," he said. "We never had any Chaldean involvement in any of these kinds of activities."
Last spring, the Chaldean Federation launched a project to re-settle 200,000 Chaldeans uprooted by the war. More than 60 volunteers continue to screen resettlement applications filled out by Iraqi refugees and sent to relatives in Iraq. The foundation estimates 85 percent of all applicants have a family member already living in the United States.
Volunteers say 17,000 — many of whom did translation or intelligence work for U.S. troops in Iraq — submitted applications to live in the United States, and more are coming in every day.
Most of them now are in limbo in Middle Eastern countries such as Syria or Jordan. The United Nations estimates there are 2 million Iraqi refugees living in countries outside Iraq, with another 1.7 million displaced from their homes, within country. So far, the Chaldean Federation has unable to resettle any applicants in the United States.
Since the start of the war in Iraq four years ago, fewer than 500 Iraqi refugees have been resettled in the United States. A chief reason: Post-Sept. 11 security concerns.
"We understand after 9/11, everybody needs to be checked out for security clearance," said Kassab, "but innocent people like the Christians they should not go through this hardship process."
Those seeking refuge "don't have militias. They don't have private people to protect them. The government of Iraq is unable to protect them," Kassab continued. "The government of Iraq is unable to protect itself. These people, they don't carry arms. They are peace-loving people. Therefore, they should be looked at and dealt with differently."
But the founder of the Chicago branch of the Minuteman Project, which is an illegal immigration watchdog group with affiliations nationwide, questions why President Bush wants to roll out the welcome mat for additional Iraqi refugees.
"With all the problems we're having right now with illegal immigration, it just doesn't make sense why he would want to let these people in here," said Rick Beisaba. "We can't trust them over there. Our troops don't know who they're fighting."
Ohio Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland is also critical of the refugee re-settlement, as well as the Iraq war.
"I am sympathetic to the plight of the innocent Iraqi people who have fled that country. However, I would not want to ask Ohioans to accept a greater burden then they already have borne for the Bush administration's failed policies," Strickland told The Associated Press last week, after a reporter asked him whether he would be willing to dedicate state funds to the relocation of Iraqi refugees.
Strickland's comments incensed leaders of the Chaldean community, one of whom sent a letter to the editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, one of many Ohio newspapers that published the governor's comments.
"The Ohio governor isn't aware of the pitiable circumstance, nor could he have witnesses these phenomena 'up close,' for had he looked into the eyes of a refugee child old before his time; had he comforted an elderly woman whose sons and daughters had been blow to smithereens; or, had he spoken to the priests or other Islamists, the comments would have never been uttered, let alone issued," wrote Phyllis A. Noda, Ed.D., a member of the Chaldean Federation's volunteer group efforting the resettlement of Chaldeans.
Strickland's comments didn't sit well with newspaper editorials nationwide either, which blasted him as heartless.
In the face of mounting criticism, Strickland apologized this week.
"If Iraqis come to Ohio, I will not do anything to turn them away. I will welcome them," he said during an event. "But, I do not believe that this is a serious or meaningful effort to deal with a large or growing international problem."
The State Department said all refugees will be screened before they're relocated in the United States to determine if they're self-sufficient or perhaps, a security risk.
And the Chaldeans vow to do their own vetting.
"I don't want to have someone come here and do terrorism attacks or things like that," Ita said. "We need to have the best quality of refugee come to the U.S., so they can be assets to the country."
FOX News' Ruth Ravve contributed to this report.