U.S. Abandons Iraqi Translators to Their Fates While Diminutive Denmark Rescues Its Own
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I recently wrote about the dire situation of "Andy," an Iraqi interpreter who has worked for the U.S. military for nearly four years, and his young wife and their two babies. As a result of his work with the U.S. Army, their home was bombed, Andy's father and brother were murdered and their own lives were threatened. Since last April they have been caught in a seemingly endless tangle of U.S. State Department red tape.
When the story was published on July 10, they had been approved for a visa to the United States and were waiting to fly the following Saturday from Basra, Iraq, to Amman, Jordan, where they would be processed at the U.S. Embassy before going on to start a new life in the United States. After a heartbreaking farewell to their families, the couple and their 2-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter boarded the plane in Basra along with about 60 other Iraqis -- men, women and children. Andy's mother was especially shattered to say good-bye; after losing her husband and Andy's brother, she now fears she will never again see Andy and Alysse and her grandchildren.
The flight from Basra to Amman is pretty short, as the two cities are only about 700 miles and one time zone apart. When the plane arrived in Amman, the passengers were detained at the airport by Jordanian authorities. They were kept for hours without food or bedding or supplies. Finally, they were given devastating news: Jordanian authorities told them they would be deported back to Iraq as soon as a plane arrived, either later that night or early the next day -- an almost certain death sentence for Andy and his family as well as for others in the group. Everyone's passport was stamped "Never to Enter Jordan Again." They were given no reason for this treatment except: "You are Iraqi."
After a few hours Andy was able to borrow a mobile phone with international minutes. He called me, desperate. I asked him if I could speak with a Jordanian official. The Jordanians refused to talk to me. I called and emailed every person I could think of in Amman, including U.S. Ambassador to Jordan David Hale, and in Washington, D.C., but of course it was Saturday and nobody was reachable. Next I called the kindly proprietor of the Toledo Hotel in Amman, at which I'd made a reservation for Andy and his family. I'd already been calling Mr. Barakat for hours, wondering if the driver he'd sent to pick them up at the airport might somehow have missed them. Mr. Barakat in turn spoke to the Iraqi Airways personnel who had flown the plane from Basra, regular guests at the Toledo. The pilots told him this was par for the course nowadays; they would fly in a planeload of Iraqi refugees, and the Jordanians would just ship them all back to Iraq. Iraqi Airways apparently has no qualms about accepting the high airfare from people it knows won't ever reach their intended destination.
The Jordanians then told the Iraqi passengers that they had one other choice than to return to Iraq: They could take a plane to Syria, where they would be "guaranteed" admittance. It was not clear how the Jordanians could speak for Syrian authorities, but Andy decided to take it rather than return to Iraq. I did not hear from him again for 30 hours. When I did, we had a garbled 60-second conversation in which I heard " ... in Syria ... all our luggage gone ... we are OK." The next day we had a decent connection, and Andy told me they'd been admitted to Syria on a 30-day tourist visa that could be extended by 90 days. I passed along the instructions I'd gotten from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus: "Go to the Embassy at precisely 1 p.m. on Tuesday or Wednesday. Otherwise, you'll have to wait until next Sunday."
Andy went for his initial interview on Tuesday and was told it would now take six to eight weeks for his paperwork to arrive from the U.S. Embassy in Amman. When I was working with embassies 20 years ago, we could get a diplomatic pouch from Quito to Manila in less than 48 hours. I guess technological advances have changed things. What worries me now is that Andy will wait weeks, and then we could be told that the papers have mysteriously disappeared and we have to file them all again. It wouldn't be the first time.
Meanwhile, Andy and Alysse and the children are living in a hotel, for which they are paying a princely sum by Iraqi standards. They lost all their luggage -- their entire worldly possessions -- in the Jordan to Amman rerouting fiasco; it was probably stolen in Basra or Amman. Luckily, they had their papers with them. And some things they could buy new: clothing, baby items, toiletries. But they lost many irreplaceable personal possessions: family photos, letters, mementos of his slain father and brother and other loved ones they may never see again. Alysse and baby Fatima are both unwell (they have been since Fatima's birth by Caesarean, without anesthesia or antibiotics, last June) and need medical care. Andy is trying to procure it for them while they otherwise languish in Syria. It is dreadful enough that they have lost their home, their homeland, their society, their loved ones. Now, despite Andy's four years of service to the U.S. government, the family exists at the whim of a callous bureaucracy. Sadly, so are thousands of others.
I have no doubt that the U.S. government is deliberately keeping Iraqis out of the country, even -- perhaps especially -- those who have worked for the U.S. military and government during the nearly four-and-a-half years of U.S. occupation in Iraq. As far as I can tell, fewer than 400 Iraqis have been allowed into the United States since the invasion, despite U.S. government assurances that 7,000 would be brought in over the past year. One reason we've heard for this is that tightened security measures make background checks more time-consuming. If the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. military and government since the March 2003 invasion had not passed background checks already, why were they hired in the first place? This excuse rings hollow.
The U.K. and other European countries have also been reluctant to allow Iraqi refugees in, even those who were directly employed by their governments and military operations. Sweden currently has more Iraqi refugees than any other European country, but it recently changed its policy to force Iraqis already there seeking asylum to prove they face personal risk if they are returned to Iraq. In two weeks, Denmark (population 5.3 million), will be withdrawing all but a handful of its 470 soldiers now serving under British command in southern Iraq. Last week, the country airlifted about 200 Iraqi interpreters and other employees of its troops and their families to Denmark, where they have been invited to seek asylum. The Danish minister to Iraq, Bo Eric Weber, told Reuters that the rescue operation was precipitated in part by the killing in December of an Iraqi interpreter who had worked with the Danes. The 80 or so employees (the other 120 are their relatives), he told Reuters, "had been working for us for about four years, and those who felt their security in Iraq was threatened have been granted visas to go to Denmark." Those 200 evacuees to Denmark represent nearly double the number of Iraqis admitted to the United States in the past year. There is something wrong with those figures.
The United States would be completely sunk in Iraq without its Iraqi employees; just a tiny percentage of military personnel speak Arabic or know the first thing about the history, geography and culture of the greater region, let alone the country. Obviously the United States thinks these interpreters are valuable: Such jobs are being advertised offering a salary of $176,000, plus "medical, dental, vision, 401K, two weeks paid vacation every six months."
Maybe there is hope: U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker called this week on the Bush administration to grant immigrant visas to all Iraqis employed by the U.S. government in Iraq; he is worried that they will quit their jobs, already so dangerous, and flee the country if their employer will not even guarantee eventual safe resettlement in the United States. Andy witnessed the execution of one of his Iraqi interpreter colleagues and told me of at least two more that happened just doors from where he was hiding out. It was sheer luck -- some might say a miracle -- that he survived to make it to Syria.
I keep telling him about how wonderful it will be when he gets to Ithaca, N.Y., where I live. I send him photos of the lush green July countryside here, trying to give him something to hold on to as the interminable days of waiting drag on. I remind him how glad I am that he is no longer in danger in Iraq. Perhaps Ambassador Crocker will be heard in Washington. Perhaps the vast soul-less U.S. Department of State will be bypassed by congressional decree, or by executive order of George W. Bush, granting asylum to all Iraqi employees of the United States. Perhaps, at the very least, Andy and Alysse will make it here soon, and in so doing they will help open the gates for the thousands more Iraqi innocents who, like them, still believe in the welcoming spirit of the United States of America.
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 .