Story by Cody Austin, Western Washington Region, International Services Coordinator
Today is World Day of Social Justice. Simply put, social justice exists when people are allowed to obtain their due. Human dignity, a fair and compassionate distribution of resources, and the elimination of discrimination and oppression are all part of social justice. Through programs such as Restoring Family Links (RFL), the American Red Cross contributes to social justice around the world. As a staff member with this program in Seattle, most of my casework involves the Certificate of Dentition program, which helps Iraqi refugees obtain what is rightfully theirs.
In the months immediately following the First Gulf War, Iraq was engulfed by a revolution. On March 2nd, 1991, an army commander in Basra fired a tank shell through a massive portrait of Saddam Hussein hanging in the town square. His act served as the spark for a rebellion that would see rebel forces take over 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. When much-anticipated help from the United States never arrived, the rebellion was brutally crushed by Hussein and the Republican Guard.
Thousands fled south to try and escape merciless bombing campaigns and barbaric assaults from the regime’s helicopter gunships. Violent repression forced men, women, and children to abandon their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs. They left behind their possessions, their homes, their careers, and their dreams for the future. Over 33,000 people, many of them former soldiers, crossed into Saudi Arabia seeking refuge.
After escaping tremendous violence, Iraqi refugees faced the incredible challenge of surviving desert conditions without the assistance of the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia denied victims official refugee status, leaving them without the most basic necessities until international NGOs and the UN intervened. Once official camps were established, the refugees were visited and registered by representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). After the war, thousands of these individuals resettled in the United States.
Since then, the government of Iraq has established a program to provide reparations to Iraqi nationals who fled to Saudi Arabia. The key document required to apply for this reparations program is a Certificate of Detention from the ICRC proving their status as a refugee who fled Iraq following the First Gulf War. Iraqis living in the U.S. apply for these certificates through their local Red Cross chapter. The reparations offered by the Iraqi government are a vital move towards establishing social justice. Payments and benefits will never make up for what was lost and the pain experienced, but reparations are powerful because they offer recognition of past injustices and show that a government is taking steps to restore human dignity and make things right.
Every week, I meet men and women looking for certificates and help them file a request with the ICRC. These individuals have made wonderful lives for themselves in Western Washington, but they are also victims of a great crime: the theft of their hometowns, careers, and futures. Some left behind family members and fiancées. All have had to wait over 20 years for some kind of justice, in addition to the long months of wondering when documentation from the ICRC will arrive. When the certificates finally do arrive, all anxiety melts away and is replaced by an incredible sense of relief and gratitude. As a member of an organization committed to protecting humanitarian values and social justice, I consider it a great privilege to help Iraqi refugees obtain their due and restore their human dignity.