U.S. Failing to Help Iraqi Translator and Family Targeted for Execution
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My dear friend Andy -- we're so close, we call each other brother and sister -- has a degree in English literature. He loves Shakespeare and Shelley, Byron and Dunne, and can quote from their works far better than most poetry professors I know. Andy loves beauty and harmony and tea and good food. He is simply gaga about his lovely young wife, Alysse, and their two little ones.
He's not the kind of guy you'd expect to want to serve the U.S. military, but just a couple of weeks after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Andy lined up to enlist. He couldn't wait to help the United States bring democracy to Iraq. Since April 2003 Andy has served faithfully with the Army despite being in dire danger almost all the time. He and his wife and two babies have been under sporadic but serious threat of execution because of Andy's work with the U.S. Army. The stress is wearing on Andy and Alysse -- physically and mentally. Andy is well aware that it is only a matter of time before his luck runs out. He is ready to get out of Iraq.
His army colleagues and commanding officers think the world of Andy, but despite his four-plus years of almost nonstop service, Andy can't get out of Iraq. The U.S. Army seems to be quite powerless in this case.
That's because Andy is Iraqi. He has been an interpreter/translator for the U.S. military this whole time. The commanding officers of his units have written letters attesting to his competence, loyalty, resourcefulness, reliability and utter trustworthiness -- please forgive the redundancy, I'm quoting from their letters -- as well as to the fact that he must be evacuated to the United States quickly before he and his family are killed because of his work with the U.S. Army.
His family has been threatened too many times to count, and two-and-a-half years ago the threats proved all too real. Their house was bombed. Andy's father and brother were kidnapped. They were butchered the next day, their bodies dumped back at on the doorstep of the house before the family had time to arrange some kind of ransom, had one been demanded, or even to patch up the house or evacuate to relatives' homes.
Now Andy and Alysse and their babies are in grave and ceaseless danger. Most of Andy's extended family put them up at one time or another, but eventually had to ask them to leave when they were threatened for harboring a U.S. military employee. Andy now stays with his sister and in other places, and Alysse and the children stay with some of her relatives. The danger is constant, and Alysse is traumatized to the point, sometimes, of paralysis. She is 21 years old.
Although their situation is a direct result of Andy's work with the U.S. Army, the government of the United States is telling Andy: "Tough luck. It's too bad that you and your wife and babies will be killed because of your four years of service to us, but we simply don't care."
Andy is just one of thousands of Iraqis who have worked faithfully and well for the U.S. military and civilian operations in the 51 months since the invasion began. And this is how they are repaid.
Last year, on April 5, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 1815, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, and George W. Bush signed it into law. It contained a provision, in Section 1059, authorizing special immigrant status for a maximum of 50 Iraqi translators per year. These translators must have (1) "worked directly with United States Armed Forces as a translator for a period of at least 12 months," (2) "obtained a favorable written recommendation from a general or flag officer in the chain of command of the United States Armed Forces unit that was supported by the alien," and (3) "before filing the petition ... cleared a background check and screening, as determined by a general or flag officer in the chain of command of the United States Armed Forces unit that was supported by the alien."
At that time, Andy and Alysse had just one baby, a boy. Alysse was pregnant, due in midsummer. Only 20, with a 19-month old son, she was practically collapsed under stress and terror, forced to move from house to house to avoid the threats against Andy for his work with the U.S. Army. Despite the urgency of the family's situation, the process dragged on, month after stressful and frustrating and increasingly perilous month, as Andy continued to work for the Army.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service -- USCIS -- which was in charge of putting this asylum petition process into practice, waited more than three months to make an application available. When they did, they posted the same application that had been used since the late 1970s, and geared toward "Amerasians." As soon as they said we could use this form, we -- that is, I, on behalf of Andy -- were the very first to apply. USCIS told us that because we were in the first couple of applicants, Andy and his family would be in the group of 50 lucky ones.
Oh, and during our wait for a usable form, we discovered the law didn't allow for 50 translator/interpreters, but 50 people connected to translators; so Andy and family counted for three, and if approval came after the new baby arrived, they'd count for four.
After the initial application was filed, Andy had to provide pages and pages of documentation, much of which, including Alysse's and their baby's birth certificates and their marriage certificate, he had to procure late at night, at great personal danger, by sifting through the rubble in his family's bombed-out house, using stealth and a flashlight. It took him three weeks, but he was able to find all the papers required; photograph or scan them; and send them to me electronically. I filed them along with the many pages of application forms.
The UCSIC began kicking things back for the stupidest reasons. They even mailed things by post to Andy for signatures and other I-dotting or T-crossing nonsense -- mailed by post, in Iraq! where there is no postal service, practically no electricity, no phone land lines, no potable water, little food, miles-long gas station lines and few jobs (for Iraqis).
They wouldn't accept Andy's signature without a notary public's seal. Notary publics, you may realize, are an American civil institution. They don't have 'em in the military. And they don't use 'em in Iraq, even though the country is a U.S. colony. Too bad, said the USCIS; you must have a notary public sign and seal the paper Andy signed, giving me power of attorney, or we won't deal with you.
Somehow Andy managed to find the military equivalent of a notary public, which we were told would be sufficient. But when we managed to get that document to USCIS, weeks later of course, they said that because it wasn't an embossed seal , they would not accept it. Another six weeks passed before we were able to get an embossed-seal notarization to the USCIS. I won't reveal what kind of embossed seal it was or how we managed to do it, but we did procure one.
And that, I assured Andy, would clinch it. There was nothing more they could say we hadn't done. We had jumped through all the hoops. Now it would be a matter of just days, or a few weeks at most, before he would be approved and on his way to JFK Airport in New York. My husband and I would meet him there and drive them to Ithaca, where our community would welcome him and Alysse and the children.
I should have known better than to mislead a man in such a stressed-out state.
Andy and I instant message online at least four or five times a week, and sometimes we chat via Skype. Lately we have had webcams, although I often tell him mine isn't working because I don't want him to see me looking so tired and frightened. I don't want to meet his eye, even via a video camera when he asks me what is taking so long. "Don't they understand?" he has asked more times than I can count. "Don't they know how much danger we are in? Alysse can't take it much longer, dear sister. Will you please tell them we do not have much time and they must hurry up?"
One day during the many endless weeks when we were waiting for a reply from USCIS, he e-mailed me a short video and asked me to watch it right away. I expected some cute footage of the children at play. I uploaded it on my computer and hit "play." I watched a colleague of Andy, a man who worked in the same U.S. army unit with him for a year, being executed by a group of men in a room. It made me vomit.
The next USCIS missive arrived. This time they insisted that we procure a letter from a general on Andy's behalf, although all four of Andy's commanding officers -- lieutenants and lieutenant colonels -- had filed glowing letters attesting to Andy's loyalty, competence and trustworthiness, as I mentioned previously, as well as the imminent danger he and his wife and children faced because of his work with the U.S. military.
When I reported back in despair to these four concerned officers that the USCIS was insisting on a letter from a general, all four immediately wrote to the USCIS explaining that they themselves were the highest commanding officers in Iraq in the units that Andy served. There are virtually no generals in the field in Iraq, they explained; all the generals are in Washington or in the Green Zone in Baghdad, two hours from where Andy lived and served the U.S. military.
Oh dear, responded the USCIS. No letter from a general, no approval. Tough luck. Very sorry.
All this bureaucratic red tape might have been comical had there not been so much at stake: the lives of Andy and Alysse and now two babies, as Alysse gave birth to their second child, a daughter, in June. Prematurely. By Caesarean section. With no anaesthesia. With a terrible kidney infection. With no antibiotics. Neither Alysse nor the new baby, whom they named Fatima, have been healthy since. (It's hard to find a doctor in Iraq anymore, and when you are fortunate enough to find one and she determines you need medication, there's none available to give you.)
I soon learned, through many conversations with humanitarians and immigration attorneys working on behalf of other Iraqis, that this was the U.S. administration's trump card: There are no generals who can write such letters on behalf of Iraqis; therefore, the government has a legitimate reason to turn down all Iraqi translators who seek asylum. There are thousands of people like Andy and Alysse, caught in such Kafkaesque cycles of despair.
I had been refusing to face it, but I finally had to concede the obvious: The stumbling blocks being put in our way were not simply the bumblings of a bloated bureaucracy; this was all very deliberate. The USCIS staff had to have been following orders from a higher source to make this process as difficult as possible.
Or perhaps I was being too harsh: They may have thought Andy and Alysse, and the many others like them, would just vanish into thin air.
That very possibility was keeping me up at night. What if something did happen to Andy? He would, essentially, vanish into thin air. He could be assassinated, his body dumped in a heap. He could be blown to bits in a car bomb and nobody would ever identify his body. Nobody would ever know what happened to him. What would happen to poor Alysse and her beautiful children? How would Alysse find me? How would she be able to live? I kept pushing these thoughts down, but they took on physical form. They'd suddenly leap into my throat, my gut, my esophagus. Sometimes they were so big I was sure others could see them moving around in my body. My heart would pound against my chest. I'd gasp for air, feel faint, want to vomit. If I am feeling this kind of anxiety , I thought, how can Andy and Alysse stand it? I could at least go get some anti-anxiety drugs, or a massage, or Reiki therapy, or hypnosis or acupuncture or a day spa treatment or a shot of gin or a dip in a pool if I wanted. They have no escape. They can't even take a cool drink of water to help calm their nerves. They have to live with this day in, day out, never even really resting.
My representative in the House, Maurice Hinchey, and his wonderful federal liaison, Lisa Newman, have been the only people in Washington who have stuck with us all the way through this process; my New York State senators, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chuck Schumer, have not once even responded to my many e-mails, phone calls, and faxes. Nor did any of a half-dozen other Congress members, both Democrat and Republican, including the Indiana representative who had initially sponsored the so-called "Iraqi translator asylum bill."
Others working to resolve this humanitarian crisis also recognize the hidden-in-plain-sight government system designed to keep Iraqis out of the United States. It certainly makes sense that this administration would not want Iraqis here, telling their stories freely. But they are messing with people's lives, and causing the end to people's lives. How can they live with themselves?
In December, through a long-overdue stroke of good luck, one of Andy's former commanding officers, now reassigned to the Pentagon in Washington, was working out in the gym one day, right next to a brigadier general who had recently served in Iraq. The two men struck up a conversation, and over the course of the next week happened to be at the gym together several more times. On the fourth day, the former commanding officer decided to ask the general a favor. Would he help in rectifying something that weighed on the younger man heavily? Almost immediately after hearing the story, the general agreed to write the necessary letter on Andy's behalf.
In late January, nine months after the translator asylum bill had been passed, I received word from the USCIS that they had issued an approval: We were in! I was ecstatic and immediately contacted Andy in Iraq. He was weeping with joy, as was I. It was a blubbery, wonderful conversation in which we finally allowed ourselves to begin planning for his arrival in Ithaca. I told him I'd start looking for a place for them to stay -- I hadn't dared to think about this before -- and would put out a call for donations to buy a car, supplies, clothing, food. We signed off happy for the first time in so long; he went off to see Alysse and share the good news.
That was one brief, shining, 12-hour dance with bliss.
The next day when I arrived at work I opened a second e-mail message from USCIS. It read: "Please be aware that the I-360 is merely the first step in the process. The next steps will involve, among other things, submission of an application to the Department of State (DoS), paying a filing fee, having a personal interview, obtaining the required medical examination, and undergoing additional security checks for himself and each of his dependents. The Department of State/National Visa Center will notify him of the steps to take AND when to take them. In other words, if it were me, I would not be packing my bags or purchasing plane tickets just yet." That interview they mentioned, by the way, must be held in the Green Zone in Baghdad, a dangerous trip for Andy and Alysse and the babies, as they live two hours from the capital city.
The writer then had the temerity to add, "Please express my personal thanks to Andy for his service to United States Armed Forces personnel."
After waiting another three-and-a-half months, on Wednesday, May 9, I received word via Rep. Hinchey's office that Andy's application was turned down. The reason? It had taken too long for the USCIS to send the papers to the Department of State/National Visa Center.
Lisa Newman in Rep. Hinchey's office told me this: "Our contact at USCIS thought Andy's priority date of June 2006 (the date the application was received at USCIS) would put him in that initial group of 50 visas allotted a year. Yet NVC, the agency that controls the visas, assigned visas according to when cases were completed, approved and received at NVC from USCIS."
She tried to give me something positive to share with Andy: "The only hope at this point is for Congress to increase the number of Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters given special immigrant status/visas."
At the bottom was this personal note: "Because of Andy and others like him, Congressman Hinchey is now co-sponsoring HR1790. This bill will add 500 translators or interpreters to the existing 50. There is a similar Senate bill S.1104, that has Senator Kennedy as a cosponsor, among others."
That Senate bill was passed right away; the additional numbers were to be good for three years. It went to the House, where it was kicked back. The House wants to keep the higher number of 500 for just two years. Meantime there are other bills pending for Iraqi refugees. Like this one, they are all grossly inadequate for the problem of millions of Iraqi refugees in crisis.
Andy and Alysse were back in limbo, and I had to break the news to them right away; It would be cruel to allow them to continue believing they were on the way to safety.
That was a conversation I shall never forget but wish I could. I can still feel the strangulation in my throat, and feel the echo from his, when I had to deliver this new blow. How can they stand it? How can I help them hold on to hope when every door that seems to open a little slams in their faces? Am I giving them false hope? Is it impossible for them to escape? Will they die trying?
Twenty days later, with no leads in sight, I received a surprising email from the U.S. embassy in Jordan:
I work in the immigrant visa processing at U.S. Embassy Amman and we are trying to contact Andy. We have just received his approved immigration case, and we are in need to send his immigration instruction package. We will send it to your postal address. If you should have any questions, please do not hesitate to follow up by email at this address.
Immigration Unit 5
I instantly had four questions, which I sent for receipt the next day, May 30, followed several days later by another, and five more since then. I have called the U.S. embassy in Jordan now eight times. Rep. Hinchey's office sent a half dozen emails as well. We have not received the packet via mail.
On June 27 Andy and I were talking online using webcams. We get in touch during the late afternoon hours in Iraq, when the summer temperatures drop to the lower three figures and it's a little easier on him. Andy is a handsome young man, but this day he looked terrible: exhausted and haunted. He said, "Sister, I am so depressed. Alysse, too. This week there has been an increase in murders of translators. I think if they make us wait any longer I will be next."
On June 29 he told me his friend, whom he had known since childhood and with whom he worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, had been executed in the same neighborhood where Andy was in hiding. "They are hunting us down now, Sister. I do not think I am going to make it until the embassy office lets us in."
That day I sent the latest of my increasingly hysterical query e-mails, in the subject field of which I had typed, after the requisite case number: IRAQI TRANSLATOR AND FAMILY IN DIRE DANGER! NEED RESPONSE IMMEDIATELY. In the body I begged them to give me the contact phone number or e-mail address of a human being with whom I might correspond, and told them about the desperate situation.
On July 2, I received this e-mail reply:
Our records show that we have mailed the package to your address in the U.S on May 31, 2007.
Since you did not receive the package, we can either send you a duplicate package or arrange for [Andy] to come to the embassy and pick up a duplicate package, and when he prepare all required documents, we will schedule him for a visa interview.
Immigration Visa Unit 5
As I write this, the package has still not arrived. Andy and Alysse have been on this sickening roller coaster ride for more than 15 months now. It has grown more and more difficult for me to keep them hopeful, when I am filled with despair and disgust and shame at my government's disdain for justice and honor and duty, for the lives of two little babies and their parents, and for the estimated 4.2 million other homeless Iraqis -- almost half of them homeless or displaced within Iraq -- who want nothing more than what we all want: to live in peace, to have clean drinking water and food and a roof over our heads, working electricity, jobs, safety, freedom from fear and despair, education for our kids, a viable future for our families and our homeland.
The United States, all the coalition countries, and the entire international community have failed miserably in bringing peace or stability to Iraq; to the contrary, we have inarguably fomented civil war, terror, and devastation. The vast majority of the more than 2.2 million Iraqi refugees outside the country are now in Jordan and Syria, with sizeable populations in Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. Syria and Jordan, bursting at the seams and with severely strained financial resources, require Iraqis to leave the country every 90 days and reapply for three-month visas when they come back to the border. Because of this, Iraqis are unable to get legitimate jobs and have limited access to basic human needs. Their situation is increasingly dire even outside their own devastated country.
On July 4 Andy tells me he can't wait for the packet's contents, which may or may not include a piece of paper guaranteeing him and his family passage into Amman and to the U.S. Embassy there. His fellow interpretors are being butchered again, and he is being hunted like an animal. He must get out immediately.
He buys four one-way tickets on the flight leaving Basra; there's one flight a week, and it takes off for Amman on Saturdays at 10:00 a.m. He will finally get out of Iraq on Saturday, July 7, just three days from today! I am deliriously happy and petrified at the same time. Be extra careful these last days, my little brother! I tell Andy that from now on, we must bypass talking for free online: It is too dangerous for him to keep going to the Internet cafÃ©. I will call him twice a day on his mobile phone from my office.
Alysse bids farewell to her family, he to his. On Thursday I force him to go the the Internet cafÃ© because he needs to get my e-mail and print out copies of all the papers I've submitted on his behalf, and all the paperwork that he is supposed to need when he goes to the U.S. Embassy in Jordan. It's a big pile of papers.
I finally get up the nerve to tell him that he must print out my name and all contact information and pin that paper to the children's and Alysse's clothing, as well as to his own.
On Friday I call him in the morning, expecting him to be excited. Instead, he sounds sad and tired. "What is it, brother dear?" I ask, thinking perhaps he is sad to be leaving his family and homeland.
"They canceled the flight," he replies. "The government is using it for something, so ordinary people cannot get on it."
Noooooooo. "Andy, tell them you work with the government. Tell them you are U.S. military. Surely they will let you on?"
"No. I tried. We must wait another week."
"Can you get to Jordan some other way? Car?" No, of course not: too dangerous. We've been through this a thousand times. This is the only way. OK, so just eight more days. Hang in for eight more days.
I feel his terror in my throat. Today it is harder than ever to say goodbye. We do not voice our fears; we do not need to.
Find out how you can help Iraqi refugees by visiting the Education for Peace in Iraq Center's Ground Truth Project.
Journalist and activist Maura Stephens first visited Iraq in January and February 2003 and with her husband, George Sapio, published a book, Collateral Damage , about the Iraqi people. Since then, Stephens has returned to the country twice and has given scores of presentations about the humanitarian situation as a member of the Iraq Speakers Bureau .