Mark Arabo, who is helping Chaldeans stuck
in and around Iraq to escape from a dreadful human rights
situation is seen at a small gathering of politicians at a
downtown restaurant. Mark Arabo talks to former Democratic state
assemblyman and senator Wadie P. Deddeh. Deddeh is an Uncle to
Mark Arabo and mentor. Sean M. Haffey U-T San Diego
The difference between a tragedy and a statistic?
“Hundreds of thousands of people displaced by
ISIS” is a statistic. The story behind the statistic is one
lives lost, people pushed out of their homes.
Over the past three weeks, Mark Arabo, an advocate for Iraqi
Christians, has sought and assembled names and desperate pleas
for help from an estimated 10,000 Iraqi families who have been
displaced by ISIS militants. Counting children, Arabo roughly
estimated he has about 60,000 names or individual claims of
displacement and persecution.
ISIS is short for Islamic State of Iraq and
Syria, the terrorist group that invaded both countries this
summer and carried out a brutal extermination or displacement of
religious minorities and Muslims who didn’t conform to their
Vargas will introduce a comprehensive asylum bill when Congress
resumes. Its aim is to bring individuals of any religious or
minority community in ISIS-held territories to the United
States, as refugees.
“Three months ago, when this journey first began, many weren’t
sure if the situation was as dire as Mark and the Chaldean
community had shared,” Vargas, D-San Diego, wrote in an email
Friday. “But today, no one has any doubts that the gravity of
this situation requires our involvement.”
Arabo will travel to Washington Monday to help
Vargas persuade lawmakers to pass the bill and to get attention
from other decision makers. If this bill passes, it would follow
House Resolution 683, which Vargas sponsored. That expressed
support for the persecuted minorities and urged protection for
them, and it passed unanimously several weeks ago.
As he meets with people, Arabo will have a
digital version of the names, and a booklet showing the names
and some photos. It’s an effort to humanize a hazy mass of
people in a distant place.
HUMANIZING A TRAGEDY
It was at about 1:30 a.m. one day in August, when
he was unable to sleep, that Arabo realized the key in
persuading people here to care about the situation in Iraq was
to turn intangible statistics into vivid, vulnerable and
“If we can humanize these numbers we were telling
(people in Washington), then we could make a real difference,”
he said. That night he called Lundon Attisha, communications
director for the small business association of which Arabo is
president, and they got to work. They put out a call for names
on various media, and it spread most quickly via Facebook.
Since starting, Arabo said he’s been getting at
least 100 messages per day. Some come directly from the
afflicted, and others through intermediaries. A Chaldean woman
in Michigan sent photos of her family members’ passports from
Another family contacted Arabo in a Facebook message. U-T San
Diego agreed to not disclose their last names, to avoid
compromising their safety.
“We heard that Your Excellency help those who
have been displaced from Nineveh Plain / Bartalah / the
Christian village. Because of the terrorist forces (Al Daash)
attack on them, so we lost everything we had, so I hope you
except my request to help me and my family to get immigration to
America with gratitude and appreciation. These are our names:”
The writer then lists five names. Other messages follow this
In trying to
address the situation in Iraq, Arabo’s goals have been
threefold. One, he said, is humanitarian aid. A second is
creating a “safe zone” in Iraq established through NATO, where
aid can reach people and refugees processed. The third is
providing safe passage out of Iraq.
Assembling names of the afflicted helps with all
three, but especially the last one, he said.
He’s gotten some push-back, especially on the
third goal, from people who say Christians who leave are giving
up ancestral lands and a rich cultural heritage.
He said he reads the critical emails, hears the
arguments, and wants Iraq to be a home to Christians once again,
but believes he has a moral obligation to help people asking for
his help to leave. He said if he saves “one life,” it will be
worth others’ disapproval.
The messages he receives are too harrowing to
give him any other option, he said.
Arabo has been sharing names and stories from
this list to anyone who has the ability to shape the futures of
those people — the White House, members of Congress, and others.
Even before he had a formal system to gather and track displaced
people’s identities, he was talking about people's accounts of
torture and displacement as he tried to gain support for this
cause. The latest approach — inviting the displaced to trust him
with their names and narratives — has let him collect more
stories, and be better organized, and make a bigger impact, he
“We are using
these names as leverage to push for asylum for those displaced
in Northern Iraq. The list will be used as the means of
connecting with those displaced after we pass comprehensive
legislation,” Arabo said.
On the list are Yazidis, a minority that
practices an ancient religion; Kurds, an ethnic minority long
persecuted in Iraq; and Muslims, who have felt the brunt of the
rebels’ brutality along with these groups. Arabo said the vast
majority are Christian, though he hasn’t yet gone over every
Arabo, who was
born in the United States, is Chaldean. Chaldeans are a
Christian community that was once numerous in Iraq. Many
Chaldeans live in San Diego now, after a mass exodus in the last
decade. They came here following a few early settlers, and many
stayed in East County, where they had a growing community and a
he travels to Washington, he said that sharing these stories
will hopefully convince lawmakers to act.
“Of all the different strategies I have utilized
to help end this genocide and save the people’s lives, I must
say the most impactful method was the creation and
implementation of this list,” he said in an email after the
interview. “It’s humanized this genocide. … (It) gave a name to
the nameless and a face to the faceless. It also portrayed the
will of the people, which is wanting safe passage into a new
home, a new country.”
STORIES OF TRAUMA
Sometimes, stories of trauma accompany the names.
Other times, they are simply names, or passport photos. Or just
stories with no names. A man named Danny Mattoka wrote to Arabo
on Thursday via a Facebook message with the story of a man he
met in Ankawa, a suburb of the heavily Christian city of Erbil.
ISIS militants told the man to convert, and he did, in front of
them. Then, when he was out of the hands of the militants, he
asked forgiveness from the bishop.
The man explained how “the other Christian men who were refusing
Islam … were tortured by cables and sticks and whips. They were
beaten to the point of bleeding.”
Arabo, whose parents came to the United States
from Iraq several years before he was born, said he can’t
imagine what is going on in these people’s minds as they send
him these messages and emails. He thinks about their situations
and writes back words of support. And he tries to put himself
into their shoes.
“If my dad never left ... that person in the desert or on the
mountain, that could have been me. There’s no difference. I was
just born in America. I’m aware of that. That could have been
me,” he said.