Azhar Al-Rubaie still carries a cracked cellphone. He doesn’t want to forget how security forces in the Iraqi city of Basra tried to confiscate it in a scuffle while he was reporting on protests that drew international headlines.
“I keep it for the memory,” Al-Rubaie said.
Months after the clash, he is applying for asylum in Minnesota. Much of the national immigration debate has highlighted migrants from Central America applying for asylum after crossing the Mexican border without proper documentation, a group that the Trump administration is taking controversial steps to try to restrict. But Al-Rubaie is part of a less visible group of people who apply for asylum after legally arriving in America — in his case, on a tourist visa he secured before the Basra protests intensified.
Awaiting his fate in an Iraqi friend’s apartment in Coon Rapids, Al-Rubaie is part of a surge of asylum-seekers in the U.S. The immigration courts have seen an enormous backlog of asylum cases dating back to the Obama administration — the Department of Homeland Security says the government received 106,041 asylum requests in the last fiscal year, more than quadruple the number in 2008.
Asylum protection, like refugee status, is granted to people who can prove they were victims of persecution because of race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership in a certain social group. Yet unlike refugees, people seeking asylum make their claims after arriving in America. Being in the U.S. while waiting for a decision presents its own challenges: Al-Rubaie and others in his position are barred from working for the first 180 days after filing a claim and are not eligible for federal benefits to offset the lack of income.
“I left everything just to save my life,” said Al-Rubaie, 27.
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Residents in Basra — the region that holds most of Iraq’s oil reserves — last summer attacked government buildings and protested against the influence of Iran-backed militias. They decried polluted water, faulty electricity, government corruption and high unemployment. As demonstrations persisted for months, security forces fired tear gas and ammunition.
Al-Rubaie reported from the crowds as a freelance journalist who had long covered corruption, economic disarray and human rights issues in Iraq. He’s written for a series of media outlets, including Asia Times, Vice and Al Jazeera. He also worked for the Iraqi Al-firdaws Society — a nonprofit that promotes peace, community development and women’s rights — and as a veterinarian part-time.
At the Caribou Coffee in Blaine one weekend afternoon, Al-Rubaie clicked through folders on his laptop that held myriad stories in the works: how the University of Mosul was coping with the influence of ISIS, an examination of the most powerful Iran-backed militias operating in Iraq and a lighter-hearted piece on a Baghdad student patenting a new energy drink.
He pointed to an article he wrote for the London-based Arab Weekly about Basra protesters denying accusations that they were linked to America. Al-Rubaie played a video of him interviewing a Basra protester who carried a poster featuring a Lebanese-American porn star who he believed had more honor than the Iraqi politicians who had done nothing for their people.
“The militias threatened him,” Al-Rubaie said.
Al-Rubaie said he also received threats of his own: Someone called and accused him of writing articles against the militias. “You work against us. … You will pay the price,” the caller said. Al-Rubaie was accused of working on behalf of Americans.
“I want people to see the facts of what happened,” Al-Rubaie said. “But they prevent us — not just me, but many journalists who try.”
Al-Rubaie fled to Turkey, then came to America in December on a tourist visa he had acquired earlier in the year. He had already been to America in 2016 as part of the U.S. Department of State-funded Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program.
Ashraf Almajed, a friend from the program living in Coon Rapids and seeking asylum, invited Al-Rubaie to stay with him; they have another Iraqi housemate their age, Ammar Karamallah. The men are unmarried and without children, and they describe themselves as secular. Karamallah has even relished the chance to finally try bacon in the U.S. (“It’s amazing,” he concluded.)
In a recent two-year period, Iraq ranked seventh nationally as a country of origin for people granted asylum. An estimated 5,000 Iraqis live in Minnesota, according to the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project in Minneapolis.
Asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable in their first year in the U.S. and struggle to find stable housing as they cope with trauma, according to Sarah Miller, a U.S. regional leader at the nonprofit International Association for Refugees. The prohibition on working “puts people in a very difficult position,” she said. “If you get here, you want to work but you’re not allowed and you have to feed yourself, what are you going to do?”
With the backlog of cases, she noted, “the time that it takes makes things really complicated for people.”
The men’s Coon Rapids living room includes an eclectic selection of books: the works of Tolstoy, self-help from Jordan Peterson. Almajed favors the poetry of Emily Dickinson; Karamallah is intrigued by Ayn Rand.
But Al-Rubaie spends much of his time in the kitchen cooking Iraqi food with ingredients from Sun Market, a grocery owned by an Iraqi immigrant in a Fridley strip mall. As he prepared lunch for his housemates and served cups of Mahmood Tea, his housemates reflected on their freedom here.
Almajed, 23, supports the idea of people immigrating legally — he sought asylum after receiving threats about his work with activists in Iraq being too aligned with American interests — but lamented that it takes so long for asylum seekers to get permission to have a job. He helps Al-Rubaie with food and shelter, having long ago received his work authorization; Almajed studied English literature and works for a home health care company.
“I used to live in a place where I didn’t know if I went out the door if I would be back sometimes,” said Almajed, leaning back on the couch in view of snow that he never saw in Iraq. “How great is it to feel safe?”
The main problem in Iraq, said their housemate Karamallah, is a lack of free speech: “You can’t criticize anything, and if you can’t criticize anything, you will not improve anything.”
Al-Rubaie’s vigorous onion-dicing stung his housemates’ eyes, filling the apartment with a pungent scent. He served Iraqi bread and a stew of kidney beans, lamb and tomato sauce seasoned with curry power, a meal that reminded them all of home.
From afar, Al-Rubaie keeps up with his sources in Iraq on Facebook and social media apps. He would like to publish freelance stories about drugs imported to Basra from Iran, as well as LGBT rights, topics he deemed too dangerous to write about from his homeland.
“Writing from a distance,” he said, “is better than writing nothing.”