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Displaced four times, new Iraqi refugee minister faces tasks ahead with resolve

Displaced four times, new Iraqi refugee minister faces tasks ahead with resolve

Iraq's Minister for Displacement and Migration, Sorya Isho, is visiting Geneva, where she is scheduled to meet High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers. She shares her personal experience of repeated displacement in northern Iraq, and her vision for helping some 4 million people home.
14 July 2004
These Palestinians encamped at Baghdad's Haifa Sports Club are now under the care of the Iraqi Ministry for Displacement and Migration.

AMMAN, Jordan, July 14 (UNHCR) - Sorya Isho has been repeatedly uprooted from her own home in Iraq, but as the country's new Minister for Displacement and Migration, she is convinced that with international support, Iraq can be rebuilt after decades of conflict. Herself the mother of small children, she is determined that future generations of Iraqis should be able to grow up free of the fear of losing their homes.

Minister Isho is currently in Geneva - where she is scheduled to meet UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers along with the heads of other international organisations working to support refugees and displaced people in Iraq. She is here to talk about ways the international community can support her fledgling ministry, and to consolidate working relationships.

In Jordan, where she started her trip, she talked about her turbulent childhood. "My village was burnt for the first time when I was two months old. In 1964, 1968 and 1984, it was burnt again. By the fourth time, my father gave up on rebuilding the house. The chemical attacks in Halabja forced my family to leave to Turkey, fearing the same would happen to them."

As Assyrians in Daouydiya village near Dohuk in northern Iraq, Isho's family suffered badly under the former regime. Under the collectivisation and de-villagisation campaign in 1961, villages were destroyed and people were moved to towns. By 1988, after several campaigns and major destruction, Isho's nine family members became refugees in Diyarbakir in Turkey.

Sorya Isho, the new Iraqi Minister for Displacement and Migration.

"By that time I was already living in France and studying philosophy," recalled Isho. "I struggled against almost impossible odds to reach my family. What I saw in those camps made me decide to devote my life to human rights and humanitarian work. There was simply no time for philosophy."

With the transfer of power to the Iraqi Interim Government in June this year, Isho was appointed as the new Minister of Displacement and Migration for Iraq. Faced with the daunting task of taking care of an estimated 4 million people, she shows tremendous resolve, enthusiasm and passion.

"I am sad to sit here as an Iraqi and ask for support, instead of giving support," she said, addressing a group of donors during her three-day visit to Amman. "Iraq is a rich country and I believe with your help, we can get through this mess as soon as possible and again be a proud, diverse and rich nation that can support others as well."

The ministry, which was created at the end of August 2003, has enormous responsibilities ranging from the protection of IDPs and Palestinian, Iranian, Iranian Kurdish, Turkish and Syrian refugees, to the return and integration of displaced Arabs, Kurds, Marsh Arabs, Roma and refugees. It also deals with related property, nationality and statelessness issues.

"Our ministry is still so small that we need additional capacity to open offices all over the country to help properly. We need infrastructure, training, expertise and staff. We need to accede to the 1951 [Refugee] Convention," said Isho. "If we manage to bring 4 million people back to their own homes, we can count on four million times more support for Iraq in the future."

In Amman, Isho met with UN and non-governmental agencies with specific responsibilities for Iraq. She met with the Jordanian government and donors and asked for support and understanding that now is not the time to force people back, but the time to help rebuild a country in need.

Since mid-2003, the UN refugee agency has facilitated some 11,500 Iraqi returns. A further 120,000 Iraqis are estimated to have returned spontaneously from neighbouring countries. Exact numbers of returns from further away are unknown.

Most returnees find themselves displaced upon arrival. Some returnees displace others who had illegally occupied their houses during the Arabisation campaigns, creating new secondary displacement.

"The challenge we all face is enormous," said Minister Isho. "We have to rebuild after destruction. We have to build new walls, new houses, new policies.... We even have to rebuild the mentality of our people ... but I have faith that things will get better. After all, life is really stronger than violence."