A conversation with Max Primorac

By Chaldean News

Max Primorac, USAID’s Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs, was welcomed to Detroit by the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce. Primorac leads the U.S. Government’s Genocide Recovery and Persecution Initiative in Nineveh, Iraq. To date, more than $350 million has been allocated to helping persecuted communities in Iraq.


What is the purpose of your visit?

My purpose is to share with the community about the Vice President Mike Pence’s initiative, Genocide Recovery, helping the minority communities, the Christians, Yazidis, and other communities that were targeted by ISIS for genocide. The program is very clear cut. It’s to do those things necessary to help people return home and to help them prosper.

We have a program, $400 million worth of activities that are broken up into humanitarian assistance, helping those folks who are still in camps or out of camps in Kurdistan. We’re also putting a significant amount of funding in infrastructure. Rehabilitation, for instance in Qaraqosh, we’ve probably put in $14 million dollars just in infrastructure support; the water, the hospital, the schools, the power, the streetlights. We’re also doing other things such as helping victims of genocide in Sinjar, for example, in which the women who were raped by ISIS, providing support for them.

We’re also doing a lot of work to help these communities, helping them revive in terms of civil society. So, all of our programs are about working with the community. We empower the locals by deciding what kind of projects we should do. At every opportunity, we take advantage of providing direct assistance. For instance, in the past month alone, we have made the following announcements:  the 6.8-million-dollar funding to the Archdiocese of Erbil and Catholic relief services in order to provide transition assistance to IDPs who are in between being a refugees in Kurdistan and wanting to return home. We have initiated what's called a new partnership initiative a four-million-dollar program Direct grants to six local Partners, including Catholic University of Erbil and the Shlama Foundation as well. They were one of our favorites.

In a joint effort with the government of Poland and in the Knights of Columbus, we provided over half a million dollars in a program to support a Slovak based organization called Steppin that provides a lot of psycho social support for those who have been traumatized by the war and it's very important for us that we work with faith-based organizations here hence Knights of Columbus.

But with also with other similar minded countries like Poland that wants to support the Christian communities. We will soon be announcing a joint venture with a with the government of Hungary, enjoy programs in Qaraqosh. I can't get into specifics now, but you'll see my tweets coming out and the press release shortly.

We also provide a $110,000 worth of computers to build Labs at the Catholic University of Erbil. We will soon be announcing a 1-million-dollar support for the partial restoration of the monastery St. George's in Northeast Mosul, a place that I personally witnessed and spoke with the clerics there who were asking us for support. So, we're delivering. And in Bartella that is being pressured by some of these Shia militias. We are providing $240,000 to the Marmota Cultural Center in the Syriac Orthodox Community there and this is just some of the many projects that we're doing, as I said in partnership with the churches, with the NGOs on the ground and local administration that are the mayors of Telkaif and Hamdania.

So, it's covering the whole breadth of needs that the communities have. More recently, we are focusing now on how do we promote the recovery of the of the economy? We know that Nineveh Plain was a place that was very strong in terms of its private. There are a lot of privately-owned factories that did very well in Iraq taking advantage of the agriculture agribusiness strength of the communities.

So, we initiated a business loan program, a $9 million business loan program called Growfin in which they provide loans to local entrepreneurs anywhere from $100,000 to $1million and more recently. We are sponsoring a Nineveh investment Forum in Erbil coming up in early December where we are matchmaking between entrepreneurs in the Nineveh Plain and external investors whether they be investment funds, banks, international institutions and outright private investors.

We've taken on board a company that specializes in investment projects. In helping local businesses be able to prepare investment ready brochures and portfolios about what their projects are and the scale of opportunities range for maybe a quarter million to up to 40 million, but all of our programs including this recent one is in partnership with local with local communities.

They represent the knowledge and the capital in making sure that the month at taxpayer monies that we use from the United States re correctly used, efficiently used. They become our eyes and ears on the ground. I visit regularly to the Nineveh Plain. I'm based in Erbil at the US Consulate. So, we meet on a constant basis.

So, it's a real partnership between the Chaldean and other Christian communities and the United States government. Keep in mind that where I am the special rep for minority assistance program. I also. Double Hat as the vice president's special Envoy. So being located over there, I provide those communities a direct line into the White House.


There's a lot of refugees in the area that have left Iraq. They had no hope in that government and that region security, as well as many other issues. Have any actually come back?

I think what you have a phenomenon that we're looking at very carefully is those who are half in and half out. These are individuals who spend about half of their time in Europe where they also reside and back home in the Nineveh Plain and I think that that is something that we're looking at is how you define returns?

Obviously. We'd like as many as people as many as possible returning back. We have from what I understand of like a hundred thousand Iraqi Christians that are in Iraq and Lebanon and Turkey there in between, having difficulties going to third countries. We want to be able to revive the local economy so that they can see a real future returning back to Iraq.

But then there are also the diaspora communities. I myself come from a diaspora community. My father was a political Refugee from Yugoslavia. So, I know that dynamic of how in a post totalitarian environment that we have to help those who have remained back by building up their institutions, but also maintaining institutional bonds with these countries.

And I think that here's where with the business opportunities but with also building up the Catholic University of Erbil exchange programs that we can provide the diaspora the opportunity to have one foot in one foot out.


What about the current living conditions for the community there and is the community brought into the work that you're doing?

You know, I was speaking to one businessman before I came and came back to the United States and he said you cannot drive from Qaramlash, Qaraqosh, or Bartella without seeing signs that America is with them. The people there know that United States of America is there a trying to help rebuild their communities by providing them infrastructure, grants, every aspect of life. They know that the world superpower is with them and one of the first things that the community leaders told me when I first got there is the need to give people hope to give them hope that they have a life and a future in Iraq, and I think through these programs, the knowledge that the United States is there and the next step in bringing investment Capital to create factories and provide good-paying jobs is that we're changing the calculus of return.

A year ago. I think there was little hope I think today with the Intensive engagement of the White House and through the vice president's initiative that they see maybe there is hope again.


How are the Iraqi and Kurdish government's involved and how are they supporting the efforts? You know, you had the Chaldean Community really in that area extremely cheering the election of President Trump, even dancing in the streets because of what the community endured under the previous administration. So, it's good here, but does it also make them targets and frankly it seems as if the Kurdish government and the central government have neglected these minority communities. So, are they involved? Are they engaged? Are they doing anything to help these communities or supporting this initiative?

In the issue of whether or not to brand the fact that United States government is helping them. They were the ones who asks us to do that. We normally don't do that. I remember I come back from Qaraqosh looking at the multi-million-dollar effort that we're doing in rebuilding the hospital there and it's really a top-notch facility and I came back from that trip to interview with minority media. And the first thing that I asked about how many of you know the Qaraqosh hospital near Hamdania and they all raise their hand and I asked them ‘well who did that?’ and they all said the UN I said, ‘well who else did that?’ and they were just looking around I said, ‘that's the American taxpayer. It's America who did that’ and they were actually upset with me.

They scolded me because I think that they understood how important it was for the communities to know that the president of the United States has taken personal interest in their in their welfare. Now as regards to the Iraqi government. They've been a partner of ours very important partner in defeating ISIS and destroying, but we also know that the president the vice president this Administration has made International religious freedom a core pillar of its foreign policy you saw recently at United Nations General Assembly the president giving a historic speech about that very issue.

We have the vice president and his own initiative to help Christians return back home. We have the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his annual Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom. This is a very important issue. But the Iraqi government has failed to step up to the plate to do its part and primarily in terms of the security the militias, who are there are the main obstacle to return for all of the minorities whether it's the Chaldeans, the Syriac and the and the Yazidis.

I have personally briefed the Prime Minister that this is a priority of the president. This is now a top issue in all of our engagements between our diplomats and the Iraqi government and every time there's a call with Washington, this issue is his prioritized. We found very positive the decision of the of the Prime Minister issue executive order 237, which would reign in the PMS the malicious into the military Barracks. There's been some progress, not enough and we continue and I'd say we even intensify our efforts to encourage the government of Iraq; that they need to do more to help their victims of genocide and at present it is insufficient, we're not satisfied.


With so much uncertainty, why would someone invest in these areas? What’s at stake if this project does not succeed?

That is the exact same question that I asked the business community over there. One of the first things that I did when I arrived was to reach out to the business community.

And I understood that first with a Qaeda in Iraq and that with ISIS that their Investments were lost. And I said ‘what would it take for you to give it another try to reinvest in your people, in your community and the Nineveh Plain’ and they said they would do it but with partnership with the with America and right now they're willing to put up tens of millions of dollars of their own money if America can come on board and that is exactly what we're working on.

We're putting in a pretty penny to organize this investment conference. Several million dollars to find not only dispora money, but actually we're looking elsewhere other monies from the region from the International Community from American investors; we’re looking at how do we bring other government agencies in supporting let's say local and international partnerships through political Risk insurance and even dead Equity support. So, we are responding to the local community that are ready to put in their own Capital because as soon as there is that kind of partnership all of the projects are invested on the ground become an American interest.

They become an interest of the embassy of the Ambassador. They become an interest in the Congress and they certainly become an interest of the White House. So that institutionally strengthens a long-term partnership between America and those communities. All the aid programs that we're providing are critical in this transition period but it is investment creating sustainable jobs that's going to make their return sustainable.

So that's the next step that we're doing. We're still providing humanitarian assistance. Still providing stabilization support, but in addition to that, we're going to promote kind of investment Partnerships between America and those so that that partnership between America and them is long lasting.


What about the Iranian influence, influx of Shebaks and the lack of security in the area?

Well, you saw that last July during the Ministerial at the state department, the vice president himself announced sanctions against commanders of two of the of the worst PMFs for gross human rights abuses against the people in that area.

So, the Iraqi government realizes just how important this this issue is. We are expecting the Iraqi government to fulfill its own executive order. We will continue and intensify our efforts and making that very clear. Look it's clear that this Administration has made international religious freedom and especially the issue of Christians who are the most persecuted around the world a top priority of his administration. The Iraqi government benefits from billions of dollars of a support from the American people, but we have values, values of helping people of genocide, respecting religious freedom is at the core of what are people in America staying for.

So, as a partner, as an ally, we expect the Iraqi government to deliver on its promises sooner rather than later.


What is the future of investment in this region? If President Trump isn’t re-elected, will this still be a priority for the U.S. Government?

I can understand how as a result of this Administration initiating such a robust assistance program in attention to it that people would associate him with this initiative and that's fair, but during the past two, three years, this has become an American project and that's because this is grounded from the bottom up. It's the American churches. It's the human rights organizations, members of Congress that believe in this.

Keep in mind that HR 390 was unanimously supported in the House and the Senate, I don't think anybody opposed it. It was one of those rare occasions in American politics today where Republicans and Democrats were on the same page. So, I'm confident now that because HR 390 helps to institutionalize annual aid to these communities year after year and because now people understand that when you declare genocide, that is a severe issue you must respond to it.

So, I'm confident that this is going to be an American project for many years to come and that's why we're also trying to push for these investment partnerships because I think that that gives more organic connections between the American people and the Chaldean community and other minorities in Iraq.