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End of the journey: Capital Region activists welcome Iraqi refugees.

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Seeking Refuge

Iraqi citizens flee their war-torn country, with some finding shelter in the United States

After five years and $531 billion, the war in Iraq has taken its toll. In no other place has the damage been felt more than in the hearts and minds of Iraqis forced to flee, said May Saffar, an Iraqi citizen who has been living in the United States for 15 years. “We lost our country. Now we are seeking refuge somewhere else. When we sit down and reflect, that’s when reality hits. We thought getting rid of Saddam was the end of tyranny, but now we wish he was still in power. As bad as he was, this war is worse.”

Saffar’s brother, Haithem Alsaffar, who arrived in the United States on June 15, is one of relatively few Iraqi refugees who have been admitted into the country. Alsaffar worked as a professional engineer, and helped the United States restore power to parts of Iraq, said Saffar. The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees brought Alsaffar to United States from Jordan, under a special immigrant visa.

The USCRI issues SIVs to Iraqis who have helped the U.S. military during the war, said Charisse Espy Glassman, USCRI’s director of government and public relations.

“I disagree with my brother, but Haithem believes the presence of the U.S. is essential at this point,” said Saffar. “That is exactly what the U.S. wants the Iraqis to think. That was done on purpose, that feeling of helplessness. The plan was chaos. This sense of vulnerability is the wrong mindset, and I object.”

Last Friday, a vigil was held at West Capitol Park in Albany, to welcome the Iraqi refugees who are moving into the Capital Region. There are currently about 32 Iraqi refugees in the Capital Region, said Susan Davies, one of the vigil organizers.

“We want to make them feel welcome, and we want to alert the community to the problems of the Iraqi refugee crisis,” Davies said. “It’s a really dire situation.”

“USCRI is underfunded,” said Davies. “We’re trying to figure out what’s needed to supplement what the committee can’t do, but the real solution is to end the war.”

In 2007, more than 500,000 Iraqis fled the war-stricken country, the majority of whom crossed into Syria, according to a survey released last Thursday by USCRI. Some, however, have made it to the United States. The U.S. State Department has said that it will admit 12,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of September, and according to its statistics, they are only halfway there.

According to a report released by the Iraqi Red Crescent, a humanitarian organization and member of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the number of displaced Iraqi refugees has risen to more than 2 million since the war began. USCRI placed Iraq in the list of the top 10 worst places for refugees in 2007, along with China, India, Malaysia and Thailand.

The UNHCR and the USCRI are responsible for the placement of most of the Iraqi refugees in the United States. After the refugees arrive, they receive eight months of benefits, including food stamps, job placement, and federal funding for housing, Glassman said.

Alsaffar became targeted by insurgents while helping the United States, said Saffar. He fled Baghdad when the attacks hit too close to home. “Every day going to work meant that he had to be dropped off and picked up at a different point, and never at the same point as the day before,” said Saffar. “His apartment was attacked. I know he is traumatized. I want him to live a normal life.”

—Chris Mueller

What a Week


Challenging of the Guard

Two established local legislators face scrappy opponents for their seats

“It fell through the cracks.” “I want to wait till the dust settles.” “I don’t want to go out ahead on that.” “I’m not in the majority.” These are the excuses made by local legislators that have driven three local men to challenge them in the upcoming election. Although Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany) and Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany) have been seen as safe in their seats for years, the challenges they face this year may represent a greater dissatisfaction with local incumbents and an excitement for political change that has gripped politics.

Lawyer and criminal justice expert Terry O’Neil said he has heard those sorts of dismissive phrases from his local assemblyman far too often. And as a result, O’Neil, who has worked as an advisor to Albany District Attorney David Soares and who has been an outspoken criminal-justice lobbyist for decades, decided earlier this year to challenge McEneny for his Assembly seat as a Republican.

O’Neil, who supports Rockefeller Drug Law reform, says that he is liberal on social issues but feels that on issues of size of government and law enforcement he is conservative.

O’Neil is not the only underdog taking on a mainstay of Albany politics. David Weiss, a longtime environmental activist, expert on renewable energy, and resident of Renselearville, is challenging Breslin for his seat in a Democratic primary. Breslin is facing another primary challenger in Charlie Voelker, the associate athletic director for external affairs at the University at Albany.

Both men insist that Breslin has taken his seat for granted and is not truly working for his constituents. They both have also attacked Breslin for working for a law firm with ties to interests that might affect his decisions in the Senate.

Weiss said that, having grown up in Ulster County, he was used to having his Republican senator visit his rural community at least twice a year to find out what issues his constituents were most concerned with. “I haven’t seen Senator Breslin in my community,” said Weiss.

Weiss said that Breslin has offered his constituents nothing but excuses for 12 years. Not being in the majority isn’t an excuse, Weiss said, adding, “He should be out there holding town halls in other districts pushing health-care concerns so that he can pressure people to support the bill and, when it fails, he can say, ‘Sen. Bruno’s constituents wanted this!’ ”

“If we weren’t a seat away from taking the Senate,” he added, “Sen. Breslin would be telling people he needs another 30 or 40 years in office before he can get anything done.”

Both O’Neil and Weiss face incumbents whose names are synonymous with the Albany Democratic machine. But both say they have faced challenges in their lives and enjoyed successes that make their campaigns not as daunting as they might seem.

O’Neil said he is prepared for an uphill battle, but most of all he is prepared to work on legislation with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, because it is something he has done for years. O’Neil worked to create the state’s missing-child fund; he helped secure funding for a monument for a state trooper who was paralyzed by a gunshot, and he regularly works to pass legislation regarding criminal-justice issues.

Weiss was one of the early members of Greenpeace. After being asked to join the group’s initial journey on a decommissioned Canadian vessel, Weiss and his cohorts found themselves penniless and docked in San Francisco. Weiss decided to call his friend Albert Grossman to ask, naively, if he could possibly get the Band back together to do a benefit for Greenpeace. Grossman said that would be impossibile, but offered him the number of his friend Jerry Garcia. With one call Weiss arranged for the Grateful Dead to play a benefit show—a show that raised thousands of dollars and saved the then fledgling organization.

Observers have wondered why O’Neil, who is an ally of Soares, would run against McEneny, one of the only established local politicians to openly endorse Soares during his first run for office. But O’Neil insisted that the race is not about insider politics, but about issues. O’Neil said that he deserves a chance to get things done in office because he feels the current occupant is “risk averse.” O’Neil described McEneny as the area’s “ubiquitous tour guide.”

“He may know a thing or two about history, but he has yet to make any,” said O’Neil. “And I doubt he ever will.”

“I think it’s important to have a challenge,” said McEneny. “It does the public a disservice for incumbents not to have opponents, because the public doesn’t have a choice. It also allows the constituency to hold incumbents accountable on controversial issues.”

McEneny said he feels that both his challenger and Breslin’s are one-issue candidates who have not fleshed out their views. However, McEneny said that as soon as he is done helping colleagues such as Breslin defend their primary challenges he would love to debate O’Neil in a public forum.

Weiss, who is the head of New York Farmers Wind Power LLC, a community-owned Renewable Energy Research Company, said that he is tired of bills that amount to simple gestures rather than ones that ensure change.

“I received a flyer from Sen. Breslin’s office about conserving energy,” said Weiss. “It suggested that you wear layers and a cap around the house to stay warm. I doubt the senator and his wife are wearing caps around their house.”

According to Weiss, the culture of politics has been so perverted in Albany that politicians are revered instead of called to task. “If Hillary Clinton or Sen. Breslin walked down the street right now,” said Weiss, “people would be in awe. They would say, ‘How wonderful to see you, Senator.’ But they have it all wrong. They are our servants, and we have to make sure they work for us.”

—David King

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Have You Heard?

Abruptly bringing a close to his 32-year career in the public realm, New York State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Brunswick) announced to a stunned Republican conference, and later to a press conference at the state Capitol, that he was going to “step back, and step out.” Speculations as to the reasons behind the powerful Republican’s choice to bow out now—when the GOP faces the distinct possibility of losing its majority in the Senate and in the wake of FBI seizures of dozens of boxes of materials potentially related to an investigation into the senator—began to make the rounds immediately. Others within Republican and Democratic parties began to assess the possibility of winning the now-open 43rd District seat.




Loose Ends

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