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COLUMN ONE

Fear was their guide out of Iraq

Salam has a target on his back because he aided the U.S. military. A smuggler starts him and his family on a harrowing journey.

January 09, 2008|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Salam knew the risks.

As a Christian in Iraq, he already faced persecution by extremist Muslim insurgents. Working for the U.S. military placed him in even more danger.

But the contract his family's company had to supply water for the U.S. base at Ramadi was lucrative. Salam also respected the Americans for helping the Iraqi people and wanted to support the effort.

On Feb. 1, 2006, Salam was leaving the base, beginning his seven-hour drive home after 17 days away. He rode in one car with two co-workers while two colleagues rode in another. About five minutes down the road, two cars pulled out from a side street and tried to block them.

The car in which Salam was riding escaped, but the car behind didn't. Two days later, back in his village, Salam's cellphone rang. The caller told him that they would find him and kill him.

Then Salam received the news that the two co-workers who were in the other car had been killed.

Salam decided that he and his family had to flee. He contacted a smuggler who had guided friends and neighbors out of Iraq. Salam told the man that he, his wife, Jehan, and their two sons needed to get to Athens, where her parents had already relocated. They agreed on a price: $10,000.

They hoped life in Athens would work out. But if it didn't, the family would set their sights on America, where Jehan's brother lived. The journey to either destination presented enormous risks. But there would be no turning back.

"I had to leave Iraq," Salam said. "I had no other choice."

More than 2 million Iraqis are believed to have escaped since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Many are waiting in Syria and Jordan, hoping to be admitted to the United States as refugees. But in the last five fiscal years, the U.S. government has resettled only 2,372 refugees from Iraq. Most are Christian.

Other Iraqis have taken matters into their own hands, paying smugglers tens of thousands of dollars to travel to the United States, where they hope for asylum.

"These people have lost everything," said Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America, a nonprofit group that helps Eastern Rite Catholics outside of Iraq. "People are desperate. They will do anything to be resettled and to be safe."

On March 31, 2006, Salam and Jehan, whose last name is being withheld for the safety of their relatives in Iraq, packed one bag each, small enough to carry on their shoulders. They only took clothing, warned by a smuggler that the journey would be muddy and dirty. They tried to explain to their sons, Stavro and Paolo, who are now 3 and 8, that they all had to flee.

After saying goodbye to their relatives, the family met the smuggler at an arranged spot in the city of Duhok. They rode in a car for a few days to the Turkish border, pretending to sleep when they passed checkpoints. Stavro cried all the time. Paolo couldn't stop shaking. Once across the border, the family boarded a bus to Istanbul. There, they stayed in a safe house until the smuggler came for them.

Because the Greek-Turkish border is closely watched, a crucial part of their journey would have to be on foot. Over one long night, the family walked for hours through a mosquito-infested forest, watching for police and bandits. They didn't eat, but food was the last thing on their mind.

"We knew it was dangerous," Salam said through a Chaldean interpreter. "I was thinking, 'I have to do it to save my life.' "

In the darkness, the smuggler, Ahmed, led them through hidden routes and past check stations. When they came to a deep, narrow waterway, the smuggler pulled out a small raft and inflated it. Salam, Jehan and their sons got in and Ahmed led them across. The water wasn't deep at the crossing, but Salam still worried. He was the only one in the family who knew how to swim.

"I had my hand on my heart," Jehan said. Each part of the trip was worse than the other. "When I was in the water, I was afraid I might drown with the kids," she said. "In the forest, I was scared of animals and police."

Salam tried not to think about the dangers. He knew Iraqis trying to cross illegally into Greece had been shot, that others had drowned or been abandoned by their guides.

"The smuggler was ahead of us," he said. "We were following him, because if something happened, the smuggler would be the first one to run."

Finally, Ahmed told them they had reached Greece. He took them to an abandoned house. The boys, who were exhausted, slept on the cold floor. Salam and Jehan kept quiet, knowing that if anyone heard or saw them, the family could be discovered and sent back.

Later that afternoon, they were led onto a bus, then a train, and another. They made it to Athens on April 9.

Upon the family's arrival, Jehan's parents celebrated with a feast of soup, stuffed grape leaves and rice.

"There was a lot of crying, happy tears," Salam said. "When you get to a country like Greece and you see the spring in that country and no more Christian-Muslim issues, you feel good."

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