America’s Religious Test Against Christian Refugees in Saudi Arabia

Welcome to Saudi Arabia

This is a sequel to my previous blog entitled “Where Do I Stand on Syrian Refugees?” As the author of “The Black Swan” Nassim Taleb says “You need a story to displace a story…Ideas come and go, stories stay.” 

I decided to share this episode from my family history to provide a counter point to the recent political debate about giving a religious test to the Syrian refugees. Some Americans are outraged by the lunacy of the proposal – but it is not a new idea. It has been done before – by America. In this blog, I share one true story from my first cousin’s family and their journey from Iraq to Saudi Arabia after the Iraq-Kuwait war.

I am presenting this as close as is practical, to the exact version they told me, in an attempt to protect the integrity of their first-hand experience, undiluted by media bias.

I was reminded of it when I phoned my first cousin in Chicago just a few weeks ago to wish him a Happy Thanksgiving from Iraq. After exchanging a few greetings and wishes, our conversation naturally diverted into politics as it often does – and specifically the Syrian Refugees. A few seconds elapsed, when suddenly I heard his wife shouting:

Tell him!…tell him!…What the Americans did to us when we were refugees in Saudi Arabia!

She took the phone from his hand and passionately said: “Bush (H.W.) intentionally and blandly made religious discrimination between Muslims and Christian refugees in Saudi Arabia back in 1991!”

Then alternating the phone between them to fill in the gaps of their memory about the experience, they narrated their story:

While the Iraq-Kuwait war was approaching its end, they had driven their new Volkswagen to the southeast town of Safwan, Iraq on the border with Kuwait. Upon arrival, he turned off the ignition, got out, kissed the key and placed it on the roof of the car. Then they walked –“The Walk”, to the U.S. Army checkpoint where they surrendered themselves. Thousands of Iraqi refugees were surrendering themselves to the nearest U.S. Army checkpoints. At that time my cousin was a Medical doctor in Iraq. He was well educated and not financially desperate.

After the war ended, President George H. W. Bush gave his infamous and abject speech asking the Iraqi people to rise against Saddam, the President betrayed the Iraqis by allowing Saddam’s Army to massacre thousands and thousands of Iraqi Shia in the south.

The U.S. Army, witnessing the atrocity perpetrated by Saddam’s Army had no orders to interfere.

The Iraqi refugees in Safwan started to lay down in front of the U.S. tanks in the desert of Iraq. They demanded by their actions to be taken as refugees by the U.S. Army. They didn’t want to go back to Iraq.

In the midst of the consternation, a delegation from the Iranian Embassy in Kuwait arrived on scene. They started to register names of those refugees who were willing to go to Iran. My cousin and his wife registered their names, but soon decided not to go – they wanted to go to America.

It was nearly three weeks of vacillation by the U.S. government before the U.S. Army was authorized to take the refugees back to Saudi Arabia as part of the withdrawal from Iraq.

My cousin, along with many of the other refugees, shared the same belief: that the arrival of the Iranian delegation would have sent a signal to the politicians in DC. Whether there is a correlation or not, the U.S. Army immediately decided to take these refugees to Saudi Arabia. The majority of them were Shia Iraqis. The refugees ended in Rafha – a refugee camp where my cousin remained with his wife for a year and half – and had their first child.

All the refugees who went to Saudi Arabia would soon learn the shocking news; they were to be handed over to the Saudi army. Then and there it was very clear that the Saudi government was refusing adamantly to accept these Iraqi refugees into their cities. It didn’t allow them residence or even temporary settlements. Instead they were kept in the desert, housed in tents. The encampment was surrounded by chain link fence.  Loud speakers were installed, and every single day – twice a day, the Saudi religious establishments preached Wahhabi sermons through those speakers in an attempt to convert the Shia into the Wahhabi sect. 

Aside: Wahhabism is a small sect in Islam aimed at bringing a pure worship environment like “in the days of the Prophet Mohammed”.  It is the source of ideology that inspired the global terrorism – groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.  Wahhabi’s consider Shia infidels – and refer to them as “Rejectionists” or “al Rafitha” in Arabic. This might be shocking to non-Muslims and is denied by many Muslims.

After the Saudi government realized that there were some Iraqi Sunni amidst the other refugees, they separated them into a different area, where they were given added privileges, including better supplies and gifts during Islamic holidays – and all in all, just better treatment. My cousin and his wife were counted as “infidels” with the Shia Muslims. They are, however, the ONLY Christian family, as were no more than 20 single individual Christians in the Rafha Camp.

My cousin used to interact with the Saudi Army officials administrating the Rafha camp. They told him often: “You have your Christian religion; we washed our hands of you. But these Shia must be converted to the right path of Islam.” They treated him with respect on one hand, but considered him an infidel on the other. They also kept giving him anti-Christian religious books in hopes of converting him to Islam. My cousin still remembers a few titles of those books such as: “Was Christ crucified?” and “The Charlatan Christ” – a book that, as the title indicates, questioned the validity of Jesus Christ. (Please note, if anyone was caught with books that questioned the validity of the Prophet Muhammad, that person would end up in execution central: Saudi Arabia’s Chop-Chop Square with ISIS-Like beheadings.)

My cousin was also able to communicate with U.N. officials during their visits to the camp. He explained to them about the Saudi attempts at converting him “they are constantly coming and passing me religious materials, they are doing it softly now, but in the near future, they might try harder to convert all my family to Islam”. U.N. officials glanced at those materials and said: “sorry we can’t do anything about that”.  Leaving my cousin to wonder, if he reciprocates the opposite gift, it will be a crime that will send him to Chop-Chop Square.

And yet the worst was still to come to those Iraqi refugees in an Arab land. After being ignored for months and months in that hot Saudi desert, on Christmas Eve 1991 some people rioted to gain world attention. The Saudi army responded with live bullets and killed a few refugees to gain control of the situation. My cousin’s wife was hiding behind a mud-built bathroom wall near their tent -in her eighth month of pregnancy.

Again to their surprise, Iran was the first country to come offering help in the form of a safe settlement. The offer of aid arrived through their proxies such as Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Maliki, who would later become Prime Ministers of Iraq, but at the time were acting as agents for Iran, because they were in opposition to Saddam and therefore welcomed in Iran. This was my cousin’s second chance to leave Saudi Arabia to go to Iran if he wanted and for the second time they held out, hoping to emigrate to the U.S.

The majority of refugees including my cousin believed that when Americans noticed the Iranian offer, Bush 41s administration would change course and start to accept refugees.

The American Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials arrived at the camp and started to process the paper work and interview Iraqi refugees one by one with the aid of linguists. The Christian refugees started to notice that INS was rejecting Christian cases. Their message to the 20 Christians was: “You are not persecuted. You can go back to Iraq.” My cousin and his wife got scared. They just missed two opportunities to go to Iran, and they were dumfounded to hear the American INS officials making such claims. They were the only Christian family in the camp.

The linguist who helped during their immigration interview told my cousin’s wife: “the INS agent kept your file open for two days. She couldn’t make up her mind. She accepted your case only because you have a three month old baby.”

America accepted all the Muslims refugees yet rejected Christians. What burden would 20 single Christian individuals be on America?” She said it emotively.

In the end, my cousin, his wife, and their newborn baby came to America. My first cousin is still a medical doctor – now in Chicago – working in the ER saving American lives. This was their story of stories. And they are still in contact with some of those Christian refugees from Rafha who got rejected by America. A few churches helped and most of them settled in Australia and Sweden.

My family believes that America DID give a discriminatory religious test against Christians. George H. W. Bush’s Administration rejected 20 single Christians individuals base on their religion – simply being Christians made them unqualified since they were “not being persecuted”. As if the Army’s shells, and live ammunition to control the uprising, could distinguish between Christians and Muslims.

And today, offering a religious test to the Syrian Refugees that would distinguish between Christians and Muslims in order to give a “priority” to a group that faced an equally dangerous environment is the same as discriminating between the Christians and Muslims in Saudi. ISIS in Syria and Iraq are killing Muslims and Christian equally.

In both cases it is wrong to make a religious distinction between Muslim and Christian refugees. America should not repeat the same mistake.   

I also invite you to read my previous blog (“Where Do I Stand on Syrian Refugees?“)