of the journey: Capital Region activists welcome Iraqi
citizens flee their war-torn country, with some finding shelter
in the United States
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
of the Guard
established local legislators face scrappy opponents for their
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!’
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.”
may know a thing or two about history, but he has yet to make
any,” said O’Neil. “And I doubt he ever will.”
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
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.
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.”
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 this week-