I have recently returned from Iraq -- one of many trips to the war-ravaged country. My first trip was in April 1999, when I visited Catholic Iraqi Sisters in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, who were keeping hope alive while U.S.-led sanctions were bringing ordinary Iraqis to their knees.
The U.S. strategy then was to prevent Iraq from importing critically needed commodities, including food and medicine, to pressure Iraqis to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The strategy, did not work: While the regime thrived, Iraqi children were dying at a rate of 5,000 a month.
With millions of others in the wake of 9/11, I joined campaigns to prevent the United States from going to war with Iraq. I watched as nightly news broadcast the punishing "shock and awe campaign." I prayed it would end quickly. It didn't. A few years later, with other American nuns, I traveled to Syria and Lebanon to meet with some of the Iraqi war refugees who were living in limbo without official refugee status, jobs, or the right to health services or education. They had left everything behind as they ran from waves of insurgent violence in their homeland.
My faith that U.S. policy would advance peace in Iraq while resettling the millions of displaced Iraqis scattered across the Middle East, dimmed. My question was simple: When will the United States take responsibility for the displacement, insecurity and suffering that has been unleashed in Iraq?
Some weeks ago, I walked through Iraqi-Kurdistan refugee camps, where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have sought refuge from the brutality of the Islamic State group. Once again, I witnessed Catholic sisters and humanitarian aid workers trying to console and respond to the basic needs of traumatized Muslims, Christians and Yazidis.
The refugees' future in Iraqi-Kurdistan is tenuous. They, too, live in limbo, but this time within their own country. Will Kurdistan prevail in its designs to become an independent state? Will displaced Iraqis living there as refugees be welcomed to stay? If Kurdistan remains part of Iraq, how will these new non-Kurdish groups integrate into Kurdistan society? How will Iraq's fragile central government provide security, jobs, health care and education for those displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan?
While war with Iraq has been over for years, Iraqis are still living in a nation at war. Violence abounds, religious minority groups are being persecuted, and the central government does not have adequate capacity to protect its people. In the context of this suffering and fragility it is important for us to ask, what might staying with Iraq look like?
As a signatories to the UN's "The Responsibility to Protect" resolution, the United States and other countries have agreed "to provide support and assistance to enable States to fulfill their responsibilities regarding the protection of refugees and other persons protected under international humanitarian law." A full-scale international campaign is needed to help the Iraq's government provide a secure and sustainable infrastructure for those who targeted by radicalized groups.
The United States, which ranks 19th among industrialized nations in contributions to international assistance, must increase its share so that humanitarian agencies can respond more adequately to the crisis of displaced people in Iraq.
All nations must work with refugee resettlement agencies to expedite resettlement for those displaced Iraqis who want to leave Iraq.
The United States and the world have a responsibility to stay with Iraq. Let's not walk away from it.
Sister Arlene Flaherty is a Dominican Sister of Blauvelt, N.Y., and director of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation for the Atlantic-Midwest for the School Sisters of Notre Dame.