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San Diego Chaldeans Welcome Iraqis

September 25, 2000

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ More than 1,700 Iraqi Christians crowded into separate church services Sunday to celebrate the release of 46 Iraqi immigrants from U.S. custody and to call for the release of others being detained in Mexico.

``It is difficult to describe it,″ said 28-year-old Mufeed Yousif, one of 16 Iraqi Christians, or Chaldeans, released by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials Saturday. ``It is hard to believe I am here. I want to thank the U.S. government and INS for helping us.″

Yousif is part of a wave of Iraqi Catholics who have fled their homeland for Mexico in recent months in hopes of seeking political asylum in the United States. San Diego County is home to some 15,000 Chaldeans, the second largest Iraqi Christian community in the United States, behind Detroit.

The plight of more than 200 Chaldeans drew national attention last week when Mexican authorities cracked down on a Tijuana hotel that had been used as a sort of halfway house for those seeking asylum. The Chaldeans said they feared persecution if forced to return to Iraq.

Yousif said he spent 18 days in Tijuana after a five-week journey from Iraq to Mexico that cost him about $19,000. He said he walked to Turkey, then flew to Greece and France before flying to Mexico.

Yousif said he will stay with friends until he makes enough money working as an auto mechanic to pay for his own living quarters.

``It is like President (Kennedy) said _ we must do things for this country because it is now our country,″ he said. ``We want to do good things to say thank you for letting us stay here.″

He was one of about 20 Iraqis attending the service at St. Peter Chaldean Christian Church who had been released by the INS last week.

On Sunday, the INS processed 64 other Iraqi Christians, bringing the total since last week to 188, 61 of whom are children.

The INS reported it had paroled 46, releasing them pending a final determination on their asylum claim by either the INS or a federal immigration judge. About 40 still remained under guard at the Tijuana hotel.

The east San Diego County church held two services Sunday, one in English and one in Aramaic.

``This is the most joyful day of my life,″ said the Rev. Michael Bazzi, the priest at St. Peter. ``But my joy, our joy, will not be full until we have all of them here with us.″

He said several church members had been traveling the 35 miles to the hotel for several weeks. They are asking for the release of all those in the hotel and jail.

Mexican authorities began preventing Iraqis from leaving the hotel Wednesday after suspecting them of violating immigration laws. Nine were arrested Tuesday night, and six remained in jail Sunday. Some were Americans attempting to help the immigrants gain asylum.

The 22-year-old son of two of the jailed Americans said his parents are innocent of all smuggling charges. Anthony Barno said his parents, Raymond and Kathy Barno, were simply translating for fellow Chaldeans in the hotel.

More than 500 people signed a petition following Sunday’s church services demanding the Barnos’ release.

``I’m trying everything,″ Anthony Barno said. ``They’re not doing well down there. They’ve been thrown in a room with nothing, and they’re having to sleep on the floor with cockroaches ... all because they’ve done nothing wrong.″


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