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Detroit organization seeks justice for Chaldean, Assyrian Christians fleeing ISIS in Iraq

Refugees 11

A young mother is in a new country having escaped horrifying conditions in Iraq, only to find she lacks the jobs skills needed to support her family and her breadwinning husband is half a world away in Turkey.

He fled to Turkey to escape ISIS and has petitioned for asylum in the US. He’s been denied for unclear reasons leaving his wife and two children alone in the US. This real life occurrence is what Project JUSTICE tries to fix and prevent.

The ongoing refugee crisis has left many Chaldean and Assyrian Christians in Iraq, who are fleeing ISIS, with an uncertain future. The horrific persecution of Christians in Iraq was declared genocide last March although the atrocities began long before that.


Project JUSTICE is the legal branch of Help Iraq, a nonprofit organization founded by St. Thomas, Chaldean Catholic Diocese of Detroit and Adopt a Refugee Family Program to provide shelter, food, clothing, help with education and medical supplies directly to its clinics in Iraq. Project JUSTICE is made up of a team of lawyers to work to assist refugees here and overseas​.

The situation in Iraq is especially close to the hearts of Chaldean Christians in metro Detroit.

According to the Chaldean Diocese, about 125,000 Chaldeans live in metro Detroit – the majority of all those living in the US. More than 95 percent of them can trace their origin to two towns in northern Iraq, Telkaif and Alquosh. A recent documentary, Marked: The Untold Story of the Iraqi Christians, described the horrific persecution of Chaldean and Assyrian Christians in Iraq. We wrote about it a few months ago.

Many of those trying to escape the atrocities need legal help.

Some of the legal issues are the most basic problems with government systems. The previously mentioned young mother is very real and has lived in the Detroit area for three years. She came here before the crisis began and now her husband is bound by legal red tape caused by simple language barriers.

The forms needed to immigrate or gain visas unsurprisingly need translation. The problem is more than one language is often needed to be translated. In the example of the woman’s husband, the documents needed to be translated from English to Turkish to Arabic and back again. Like in a game of Telephone, basic information is lost or miscommunicated in the translation.

Part of this is caused because translators are not always fluent in the language they decipher. While the mix-up is often simple, it’s not a simple thing to unwind. Legal help is needed.

Burt Kassab

Burt Kassab

This case, as well as many others, is handled by Burt Kassab, of the Kullen & Kassab law firm in Farmington Hills. Kassab, who has decades of legal experience, got involved the same way most of those working with Help Iraq did – church service.

“Project JUSTICE is dedicated to seeking justice for the persecuted, powerless and poor Christian refugees anywhere in the world,” says Kassab.

Visas remain a major issue and refugees often have to wait two to three years to receive one. Even then, the success rate varies greatly. The wait time has only gotten worse since the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and the US, which slowed the process down for the most persecuted by ISIS.

During the time they wait for visas, things become increasingly difficult for the refugees who have escaped Iraq. The children often can’t go to school and their parents are unable to gain work permits in Turkey.

To go the route of asylum instead of getting a visa can take 5-6 years in the US.

With more than 200,000 Iraqi Christian refugees waiting for a place to call home, the biggest obstacle of all is processing all requests.

Project JUSTICE is also an asset once the Christian refugees are in America. It holds pro bono legal workshops to help refugees understand their legal rights here.

It also helps manage the legal needs for Help Iraq, most notably the Adopt a Refugee program. This allows money to go directly to those in refugee camps. It cost as little as $25 to get the basic needs to refugees.

The needs of those still in Iraq are not forgotten either. Taking care of abandoned and orphaned children is a huge need. The orphanages are overwhelmed but there is one big problem. Iraq does not allow adoptions by foreigners. In an attempt to get the kids to better homes away from the war torn country, Project JUSTICE is looking for ways to adopt these children through other countries.

One of the largest attempts by Project JUSTICE is to get Help Iraq classified as a non-government organization (NGO). This would get the organization more recognition and also allow it to do more to provide shelter, food, clothing, help with education and medical supplies directly to its clinics in Iraq.

As of right now, all money given goes to refugee aid through existing NGOs. The problem is Help Iraq has to pay those NGOs for their services. If it can achieve NGO status the dollars can go right to the refugees and there would no additional cost.

For their work Project JUSTICE and Help Iraq have found an ally in Congressman David Trott (R-Michigan). Trott, from Michigan’s 11th district, introduced a bipartisan Congressional resolution to help give relief to those suffering under ISIS. The bill calls for “urgent international action on behalf of Iraqi and Syrian civilians facing a dire humanitarian crisis and severe persecution because of their faith or ethnicity in the Nineveh Plain region of Iraq and Khabor, Kobane, and Aleppo regions of Syria.”

“The religious minorities of the Middle East are facing attacks that threaten to destroy their entire communities – and it’s critical that Congress speaks in one voice to support and protect them,” Trott says. “Terror groups like ISIS are specifically targeting religious minorities for their faith and are having a catastrophic impact on these persecuted communities. Representing such a vibrant community of Christians from the Middle East in Southeast Michigan, I believe America and our allies must work together to ensure these proud people are protected and can stay living in their ancestral homelands.”

Trott is Michigan’s only member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Others are helping as well. Some are highlighted on the Help Iraq website.

William Vallespir

William Vallespir with some of the needed items collected for refugees. Photo from Help Iraq

William Vallespir, a junior at St. Mary’s Prep in Orchard Lake and a member of the Eagle Scout Troop, was so deeply affected when he heard about the atrocities he got permission from his principal and troop leader to openly discuss the plight of the Christians in Iraq. He spoke to an assembly of his classmates and scout members and told them about the horrors and genocide there. His speech was compelling and caused his classmates and other scout members to want to help as well.

They collected enough needed items to fill an entire pallet. Sox Galore provided transportation.

The Adrian Dominican Sisters of Michigan, in solidarity with the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena of Iraq, who escaped from Iraq in 2015, launched a new website featuring cranes painted by Dominican sisters. They sell for $100 a painting. All the money will be sent to Iraq.

“Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Dominican Sisters and Friars discovered a garland of 1000 origami cranes in an Iraqi bomb shelter, and they considered it a symbol of peace,” the Help Iraq site says.


Photo from Help Iraq


Sample of dove painting

Sample of crane painting Photo from Adrian Dominican Sisters of Michigan website

Project JUSTICE has found its workload an uphill battle, but a slightly easier one now that ISIS’s actions in Iraq have been declared a genocide. Although many, especially in the Chaldean community, believe that declaration should have happened much earlier, more people are now aware of the atrocities and are more responsive.

Countless atrocities mark our world’s history with society always saying it wishes someone would have stopped them before it was too late. Project JUSTICE and Help Iraq are passionate about stopping such horrors now. Hopefully, it is lesson others will embrace.

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