Samah Norquist as of July 2020 is Chief Advisor for International Religious Freedom at United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Here we discuss USAID outreach to religiously persecuted communities such as Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, Christians in Nigeria, and Muslim Uyghurs in China.

I hope you will find this conversation as informative as I did.

Rough Transcript

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. Today I have the pleasure of conversing with Samah Norquist, who is the Chief Advisor for International Religious Freedom at USAID, the United States Agency for International Development. So, Mrs. Norquist, thank you so much for joining this conversation.

Norquist: I’m delighted to be with you. Thanks Mark for having me.

Tooley: And if you don’t mind my asking, share a little bit about your own background, professional background?

Norquist: Sure, so I, as you mentioned, currently I was just appointed to be the Chief Advisor for our Administrator on International Religious Freedom. This position came slowly, shortly I mean, after the executive order that the President signed on advancing religious freedom. So, my new appointment, my new position, was started in early July. Prior to that, I joined USAID back in October 2017, working in the Middle East Bureau, advancing religious freedom and handling the religious freedom portfolio for the Middle East. Particularly, starting with our response in Northern Iraq to the genocide that was committed against the Christians and Yazidis and other religious groups in Northern Iraq by ISIS.

Tooley: And did you also serve with USAID during the Bush Administration?

Norquist: I did, I served during that time. I was not a political appointee, but everybody treated me like one. I was actually, I served there as a senior advisor. During that time, public diplomacy towards the Muslim world was a big thing, after 9/11 and after the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, a lot of the work that we did in terms of foreign assistance was predominantly in Muslim societies and Muslim countries, so we worked on a lot of issues such as branding, which in many parts of the world people didn’t even know what USAID was. When we did some of those studies, people thought USAID was just a part, either part of the UN, or just a big NGO. And at that time, Administrator Andrew Natsios took the branding issue very seriously, and we revamped how we do business and made sure that everywhere we go and wherever there’s US assistance, that the American flag and USAID logo is on it so people know where that assistance is coming, and coming from the American people.

Tooley: And for USAID to take a specific interest in international religious freedom is a relatively new development, isn’t it?

Norquist: Yes and no. USAID has done a lot of work. It wasn’t specifically on advancing religious freedom, but worked with faith-based organizations on a number of issues, or programs that we do around the world. But what’s new with us is first of all, as you know, religious freedom is our first freedom. This is not just a Republican or a Trump, you know, idea. This is an American value. This is part of our DNA, it’s part of our story, and the good things and leadership that we do around the world. What’s different with this is that the administration came and elevated this issue as part of our national security and as part of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy priorities. The issue of advancing religious freedom was also part of the national security strategy of 2017 that came, that the Trump Administration put together. So, what this issue did is that it became elevated to that position and as USAID, being part of the 3Ds- defense, diplomacy, and development, we took the, sort of the, flag of pushing through that started with our response in Iraq, as I mentioned. And a lot of things happen and change, one putting that issue as not just an issue on its own and a value that we need to promote, but also doing it across all sectors, whether education, whether health, economic development, governance, and democracy. All across the world, how do you make sure that marginalized communities are no longer marginalized, that they are not being discriminated against any of our assistance, and have equal access to that assistance? USAID does a lot of economic development, as you do, and humanitarian assistance. And with the executive order, as we are working through it and institutionalize the work that we’re doing, is how do we ensure that in both tracks, the development part and the humanitarian assistance part, that we have religious freedom and access to religious and ethnic groups that are marginalized and denied access are part of what we provide and how we respond. And religious freedom violations take a different shape or forms, as you know. Some are persecuted, some are discriminated against, some are denied access to, you know, jobs or services, and our job and our hope as we are developing the programs to push the economic development of a country is that those communities continue to be part of what we do and their governments are responsive to their needs.

Tooley: You mentioned Christians and Yazidis in Iraq who have suffered terribly, among other religious minorities. What has USAID been doing, what is it doing currently, what has it been doing recently to help those persecuted communities?

Norquist: So, you know, there are different kinds of methods that USAID carries its work around the world. One of the things, you know working with big implementing partners such as the UN, or big international organizations, when the Trump Administration came, the mandate was a step away from that, right. Because what we found on the ground was that these communities, one didn’t know that you, the United States, provide, is the biggest donor to the UNDP that does all that work in Iraq right, not just in Northern Iraq but all across it. And, you know, how much money we spend, probably billions and billions of dollars that we spend in Northern Iraq as a direct response since 2018, is really small compared to what we spend across the country. The United States government spent more than 400 million dollars, a little bit more than 400 million dollars, doing a lot of things. The most important part of that assistance to Northern Iraq, to Christians, Yazidis, and others in that area, is not working with those big implementers; it is actually partnering with faith-based organizations, with local groups, listening and engaging with people on the ground that can identify the needs that the United States government needs to help them with. And those local leaders and faith-based leaders have the trust of their own communities and can tell us directly what they need, and we can directly respond and work with them without the middleman or without the big man, right. There’s room for the big man, there’s room for the little men, right. Some of the obstacles that we had was, you know, how do you give US tax money to groups without accountability or without capacity building, just to ensure that nothing is going to waste. And that’s part of what, one of the things that, we worked on. So, our former Administrator Mark Green last May launched the New Partnership Initiative, and that basically, and the first award that we gave out of that initiative was actually in Iraq. It was four million dollars, but we partnered with six local groups- Chaldean Kurds, Evangelical- that had never received money from USAID, or if they have it was in the last sixteen years. So, those groups have done remarkable work in Erbil or in Northern Iraq on business training, women training, school, computer, and English projects, solar energy, and it’s wonderful to see that you’re working directly with the people holding hands, building their capacity. And they have so much potential. And guess what they are the most advocate for- United States assistance. It’s everywhere; without USAID, or without the assistance of the US government, we would never reach that. So, that partner initiative is not just for religious freedom, but it’s across all sectors that we do at USAID. Just the first one we launched was in Iraq, and there is one that, our second one, is right now live, regionally across the Middle East and in response to the executive order.

Tooley: It’s very hard to measure no doubt, but is there any evidence that US policy has helped to slow or stop the Christian exodus from Iraq, or to encourage Christians to return to Iraq?

Norquist: So, you know, USAID is, as I call them, “the little guys” on the spectrum of the US government power, right, on this issue. I would argue that we were actually to really exceed and deliver and respond to those communities. However, USAID and assistance are not the only answer to create a safe place for those communities. It’s governing, their own government’s accountability- assistance, security, you know, jobs, all the things that make a community want to go back. I think we were, a number of people went back, and we just recently heard that around, a number of, the Yazidis went back to Sinjar. Now, I can brag about how wonderful USAID made it possible for people, and I wish that was the case. Some of it is the case because we were able to partner with the Hungarian government, for example, working with the Nadia Murad initiative in some of the projects that we do, but it was also part of the code that people were escaping, the Yazidis were escaping some of the IDPs, fearing COVID and wanting to be with their loved ones in their home, but a number of people went back. Security is a little bit better. But I come from the school and I believe that without those communities, there’s nothing called the Middle East. The Middle East without its religious and ethnic groups that make that region so rich with its history and culture and music and contributions. If you lose those communities, you lose the importance of the Middle East. So, to me it’s a very, not just a political imperative or a priority. To me, it’s a personal endeavor as well.
Tooley: And are there other Christian communities throughout the Middle East that to whom USAID is relating directly as you are in Iraq?

Norquist: So, we are starting to explore those opportunities that we are now, you know, the Middle East, like every country, has its own opportunities and it has its own challenges, and every government plays footsie with us. It depends on who’s in that seat. We were able to work with a small, some programs in Jordan and in Lebanon. We did partner with an Orthodox organization in Syria, actually it’s a faith-based organization, to do some humanitarian training and building capacity and humanitarian assistance. The President announced some funding for Northeast Syria to help the Christian communities and other communities that were targeted by ISIS in the Northeast of Syria, and USAID is now working on identifying some of those groups to deliver and make sure that those villages that were attacked, that they have all the services that they need, or work with the communities on their needs. Also, in Morocco, we were working on some of the cultural heritage preservation. Morocco has one of the largest Jewish communities, outside Israel, in the Middle East, and they’re part of the government, they’re part of the society, there are a lot of heritage sites that were cemeteries, synagogues, and cultural centers that need a lot of preservation. So, we’re looking at some of those opportunities, and we identify in order to contribute to those renovations and preservations. And by the way, Mark, this is not something new or nuclear, you know, secrets that we discovered. USAID has done that work before, it’s just, I tell my team we’re really bad about telling the USAID story. We’re very focused on getting the work done and we forget to take the credit and make this story on why USAID matters. Not all the time, but most of the time we do it right and all the incredible work that the American people should be taking credit for and we should be very proud of.

Tooley: And shifting away from the Mideast, obviously Christians in Northern Nigeria have been suffering terribly from Islamist-related attacks. Is USAID relating to the at all?

Norquist: So, USAID works in Nigeria. And Nigeria, as you stated, is one of the hot spots that we’re looking at. We’ve spent around 300, somewhere around 300, million in the northeast, working with different communities. This, as we are identifying the hot spots and the needs of the people, we’re applying the model that we applied in Iraq in order to engage with the local groups, identify faith-based organizations that we can with work, and use our convening power in order to bring all these communities together and understand what are the needs, what do we, what can USAID deliver these communities, and can USAID make the difference. In my opinion, yes we can, through our assistance, we can make the difference. We can’t solve all the problems in the world, but we’re, actually this is one of the Northern Nigeria- Northeast Nigeria is one of the top priorities of our Acting Administrator John Barsa. That, and the Uyghurs. And he’s one of the biggest supporters, I’m very lucky to have both bosses, the previous one and the current one- incredibly strong advocates and supporters of my work. And they, the incredible empowerment that they give me in order to be able to do what I can do, along with my team because I have a wonderful team from foreign service officers to civil servants to political [appointees] to contractors, and it’s wonderful to see how this issue really exceeds the borders of politics and political boundaries if you may. Because the more you see the difference that we can make or see the atrocities or see the suffering of people around the world, and even if we can move the needles that much, it’s worth it.

Tooley: You have mentioned the Uyghurs, the Muslim group of course being tormented by China’s government. Is USAID relating to the Uyghurs currently or making plans to in the future?

Norquist: Well, we’re looking at all possibilities. The President has been very outspoken about the atrocities that are happening in Xinjiang, and the Vice President, and the Secretary, and our Administrator. So, it’s one of the issues that we are very concerned about. Obviously, there’s nothing that I can talk about right now, but it’s one of the areas that we’re looking out to see if there is a way that we can make sure that we use the power of the executive order that gives us the tools to respond to the needs, whether the ones particularly when you have many Uyghurs or refugees around the world. Turkey has a big number of refugees, it’s in Central Asia, United Arab Emirates has some, so they’re scattered some but it’s an issue that really needs the United States’ leadership. And I’ve really never heard of any administration that brings that issue up the way that this administration brought it up. And Congress, the US Congress in a bipartisan manner has passed three important [pieces of] legislation. HR 390, which is the Iraq, Syria, ISIS Accountability Act. There was a Nicaragua Act that was passed, I believe last year. And then just this past June, the President also signed the Uyghurs Act. So, in a very bipartisan, very American fashion, advancing religious freedom continues to make headway. The only difference is that this administration gave the empowerment for us to elevate it and affirm our commitment around the world. And we made a difference because the world has noticed how important it is. The State Department held the ministerial on advancing religious freedom both in 2018 and 19; couldn’t do it this year because of COVID, but Ambassador Sam Brownback is very vocal about the importance of this issue, so is the Secretary, Secretary Pompeo, the Vice President is a hero on this. So, it starts from the top and there is no lack of commitment by this administration, and not to mention the President’s address last September, a year from now, last year addressing the General Assembly of the UN on advancing religious freedom and sending a strong message to the world on that.

Tooley: Samah Norquist, Chief Advisor for International Religious Freedom at USAID, thank you for a very edifying conversation.

Norquist: Thank you Mark, thanks for having me.