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For Eric Schwartz and Iraqi refugees, a second act

Assistant Secretary Eric P. Schwartz speaks with women displaced by conflict in eastern Congo.
Assistant Secretary Eric P. Schwartz speaks with women displaced by conflict in eastern Congo. (Courtesy Of State Department)

"It was heartbreaking to hear the stories," he recalled. Refugees were struggling in the depressed economy, forced to decide between buying food or diapers for their children.

Schwartz realized that the State Department grant of $900 given to refugees for housing, food and other expenses for their first several weeks had not kept up with inflation. He decided to double it, to $1,800.

"I made it clear to my staff: To me, this is not a negotiating position," Schwartz said.

The White House gave the green light, and lawmakers expressed support.

Big challenges remain. With the Iraqis, for example, many more are arriving through the refugee program. But a separate program created by Congress for Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government has been criticized as cumbersome and ineffective.

Only about 2,100 of the 15,000 available visas have been issued under that program.

Recently, 22 House and Senate members wrote to the State and Defense departments asking for a comprehensive plan to protect the thousands of Iraqis who worked with U.S. forces, including a possible airlift.

"Schwartz has a great reputation," said Kirk W. Johnson, executive director of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. "The main policy tool that I want put back on the table is directly derived from his leadership on Operation Pacific Haven."

That was the airlift of U.S. allies from northern Iraq to Guam, after Saddam Hussein's troops moved to reclaim control of that area in 1996.

Schwartz said the Obama administration is focusing on promoting reconciliation and security in Iraq. "We don't expect the kind of contingency the members described," he said.

However, he added, "our government certainly has to be prepared to respond quickly and effectively if large numbers of vulnerable people are at risk."

The refugee bureau has received strong support from both sides of the aisle.

"I want to thank you for your leadership," Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) told Schwartz at the recent hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

"It has been extraordinary. And this Republican has a great deal of respect for you."

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