A sobbing businessman in his 30s rings a hotline set up by his fellow Iraqi immigrants, desperate to talk to someone after fearing his father was the man he saw in an online news video of a beheading in northern Iraq.
Another call came in from a mother who was inconsolable after not hearing from her son and daughter-in-law who had a baby a year ago in the besieged city of Mosul.
The anguish caused by the violence thousands of miles away fills the business office in San Diego where volunteers man the hotline to help Iraqi immigrants cope.
Many Iraqi immigrants in the United States who risked their lives to escape the country’s past wars fear they may never hear from those they left behind. They have been unable to communicate with their families in Iraq where Sunni militants have seized territory. The unrest is hitting their close-knit immigrant communities hard and dashing the little hope they had of ever returning.
“My heart is breaking every day,” said Laith Shamon, 42, an Iraqi Christian who has been manning the hotline for a week. “One man told me he saw a video on the Internet of a beheading, and he thought the victim was his dad. He was crying and telling me he needs to know. He can’t get ahold of him. There have been a lot of calls like that. I tell them we have to be patient and pray.”
Shamon notes each caller’s information in case the immigrant business community that set up the hotline gets word about someone reported missing. Shamon’s family also has not heard from relatives in Iraq.
Thousands of people in cities with large Iraqi immigrant communities have attended both Muslim and Christian prayer services since the Sunni militants led by an al-Qaida splinter group took control in parts of northern and western Iraq more than a week ago.
Leaders from the U.S. Iraqi communities are lobbying Washington to take action. Most do not support sending back American troops but instead favor drone strikes, releasing aid and setting up a safe passage for Iraqis wanting to escape but who face a tougher time fleeing because of unrest in Syria. President Barack Obama announced Thursday that he was dispatching up to 300 military advisers to help quell the rising insurgency.
From the Detroit suburb of Dearborn to the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, Sunnis, Shiites and Chaldeans have been comforting each other, sharing the same feelings of torment and helplessness. Their shared experience abroad has bonded them even as sectarian violence threatens to break apart Iraq.
Riyadh Alwahab, 75, who lives in Dearborn, home to the largest Iraqi population in the United States, said it’s particularly distressing to see “barbarians” using sect or religion as an excuse for killing. “I am Shiite, but the best of my friends are Sunni, or Christians,” he said.
The retired university professor, who became a U.S. citizen last month, has a brother and other relatives in Baghdad and the southern Iraqi city of Karbala. Their movements are restricted by the fighting, but they are safe for now. Alwahab worries, saying: “They are killing people for no reason.”
That fear grips Tania Kastobia, whose two eldest daughters are in Iraq.
Kastobia, 45, arrived in the United States with her other five children a month ago. She had been trying to leave ever since her second-oldest daughter was injured in a bus blast in 2010 in Mosul and had to get nearly a dozen stitches across her face.
That daughter and her older sister stayed behind in their village outside Mosul.
Kastobia talked to them six days ago, and they told her there was no water or electricity. One daughter and her husband were living with three other families in a home for protection. Many houses in their predominantly Chaldean Catholic village have been abandoned, she said.
“I am worried because my daughter teaches English, and we hear they will kill teachers who teach English,” said the widow, speaking through an Arabic interpreter.
Kastobia, who wears a rosary around her neck as she sits in her sparsely furnished apartment in El Cajon, has nightmares, dreaming over and over that someone is handing her the slain body of one of her daughters.
Many Iraqi immigrants say they will never live there again.
Baker Algharani, 44, fled Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1990s. He returned to Iraq after the U.S. invasion to work as a translator for the U.S. Army. He now works at a phone service company in Phoenix, where he plans to stay.
“America, the United States, gave me hope, gave me a life,” he said.
Algharani, a Shiite, does not believe the Sunni militants will succeed. His brother posted a photo on Facebook of himself, their other brothers and their neighbors holding assault rifles at their house in Latifiya, south of Baghdad.
“We’re not afraid of dying, defending our homes,” he said.
Kastobia wondered sadly if there will ever be a day when Iraqis will not need to defend their homes.
“Why is this happening again?” the mother asked. “For how long do Iraqis have to be patient?”
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