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Iraqis Seek Refuge in U.S. After Working With American Forces

April 29, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Facing the threat of kidnapping, torture, and beheadings, Iraqi interpreters who have worked for U.S. forces are seeking refuge for themselves and their families in the United States. Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on their search for safety.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The long and difficult search for refuge for some Iraqis who have helped the United States. We have a report from Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: Back in his native Oregon after a year in Iraq, Army Captain Jason Faler is very worried about the interpreters he left behind in Baghdad.

CAPT. JASON FALER, U.S. Army National Guard: Interpreters that I worked with were being followed. Kidnappings, torture, beheadings, assassinations, threats, all of the above. They are marked for death.

LEE HOCHBERG: As many as 9,000 Iraqi civilians signed up as interpreters to help the U.S. military; 323 of them have been killed, many by insurgents punishing them for working with the U.S.

Since the war began, few interpreters have been allowed to take refuge in this country: 50 a year through 2006; 500 last year.

CAPT. JASON FALER: We’re blind as it is and, without them, would be an absolute bumbling nightmare. We owe them. We owe a debt to them. Have we no honor?

It’s hard to lay your head down on your pillow at night and know that, on the other side of the globe, there are people who served you well, protected you.

Escaping from the Assassin's Gate

LEE HOCHBERG: He started a foundation to help interpreters get to the U.S. He calls it Checkpoint One, after an entrance gate to Baghdad's Green Zone.

CAPT. JASON FALER: It's also better known as the assassin's gate, because this is somewhere from where they're often surveilled or followed and then, ultimately, sometimes kidnapped or murdered.

LEE HOCHBERG: Ahmed Ali, who came to Portland in October, was chased from that very checkpoint. He still shields his identity for fear insurgents will attack his extended family in Iraq.

AHMED ALI, Former Iraqi Interpreter: There was a BMW, black BMW, with four masked men. And I noticed that there were two with guns. I drove very speedy, like 130 kilometers per hour, which is very fast and very speedy driving, which I never made in my life.

LEE HOCHBERG: He eluded capture, but says he was chased at gunpoint three other times in his four years as an interpreter. Then, it got worse.

AHMED ALI: The final alert was by marking my house fence with a black X. That means that this house is going to be the next target.

And within 30 minutes, we put everything in the car trunk, and we fled our home. And the same day, according to witnesses of my neighborhood, they said, "Two hours later, your house was riddled with bullets."

Iraqis stranded in Jordan

LEE HOCHBERG: Ahmed and his family escaped to Jordan, where, like most refugees, he was not allowed to work and he ran out of money.

After nine months, only with the help of an American journalist, Ahmed was granted asylum here. Today, he's lecturing in Portland and looking for work.

Faler is trying to make sure other interpreters, like Ma'an, with whom he worked closely in Baghdad, also get asylum.

CAPT. JASON FALER: I feel so badly about your case because you had to sit there for, what, six months I think in Jordan.

LEE HOCHBERG: Ma'an was calling from Jordan where he'd fled last summer. He had sent dejected e-mails about the long delay getting to the U.S.

MA'AN, Former Iraqi Interpreter: The problem is that waiting for no answer, this is a problem.

CAPT. JASON FALER: I can't imagine the feeling of all the uncertainty.

LEE HOCHBERG: We caught up with Ma'an at a market in Jordan. He said his visa was expiring and he was deathly afraid of being deported back to Iraq.

MA'AN: What can I do? It was the final decision or it is the dead-end. I am horrified, of course, you can say, to have that decision to go back to Iraq, but there is no choice. I have to face my black destiny.

LEE HOCHBERG: Unsure what's next, he and his family cowered in a tiny Amman apartment, hoping his application for refuge in the U.S. would finally come through.

Bureaucracy and understaffing are blamed for long waits. Applications can take 10 months or more to process.

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LEE HOCHBERG: Such a delay was especially hard on the family of an interpreter named Walid. Faler got them into Oregon in January, 18 months after a car bomb exploded in Baghdad and traumatized their infant son. Only now with Faler's help is the trauma being examined.

WALID, Former Iraqi Interpreter: When we used to ask him to clap, he used to clap. He used to say, "Daddy, Mommy," some other words, you know, but he stopped doing all these things after this incident. Actually, he breaks our hearts, me and his mom's hearts.

Facing the refugee responsibility

Michael Kocher
International Rescue Committee
They have been traumatized. They feel as if they absolutely cannot go home and they have nowhere to turn. It hits you right in the gut. And it is outrageous that so little is being done about it internationally.

LEE HOCHBERG: The refugee crisis is not confined just to those who worked closely with the U.S. More than 2 million Iraqis have fled to Syria and Jordan.

The International Rescue Committee's Michael Kocher recently returned from a trip to those countries.

MICHAEL KOCHER, International Rescue Committee: This is one of the saddest, worst situations I've seen and one of the most underreported and least acknowledged situations I've seen.

They're living in cramped, dank apartments, often six to eight people in an apartment, and they're in hiding, and they're afraid to go out. They feel utterly hopeless.

They have been traumatized. They feel as if they absolutely cannot go home and they have nowhere to turn. It hits you right in the gut. And it is outrageous that so little is being done about it internationally.

LEE HOCHBERG: Overall, the U.S. has taken in only 5,000 Iraqis since the war began. The administration pledged to admit 7,000 refugees last year alone, but accepted only 1,600.

The administration's coordinator for Iraqi refugees James Foley refused to be interviewed for this report, but testifying recently before a congressional committee he said he's hopeful the U.S. will resettle 12,000 more Iraqis by this October. Only 2,700 have been processed so far this year.

JAMES FOLEY, U.S. State Department: It took some time last year to put the infrastructure in place. But now that they are able to process efficiently, our program can operate and is operating at a much higher volume.

Twelve thousand remains our goal, and it can be achieved. We can't guarantee that we can achieve it. We strengthened every link in the chain, but some links remain weak, notably our processing ability in Syria.

But what I can guarantee is that we're doing everything we can to put ourselves in a position to reach our goal.

LEE HOCHBERG: Foley said the U.S. has been processing Iraqi refugees mainly in Syria and Jordan, but recently began processing them in Baghdad, as well. The Department of Homeland Security's refugee coordinator, Lori Scialabba, however, cautioned that the process will continue to be slow.

LORI SCIALABBA, U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Refugee resettlement is a complex multi-step process involving a large number of players, all integral to the success of the program. We cannot control all the variables in this complex process that can affect refugee admissions.

Some handle the heavy burden

Jason Faler
Captain U.S. Army
It's overwhelming. It's hard for me to articulate. There's four lives that weren't going to end up dumped in the streets of Baghdad.

LEE HOCHBERG: Countries like Sweden, though, have taken in 40,000 Iraqi refugees. One Swedish town, Sodertalje, re-settled as many as the entire United States. At that same hearing, its mayor asked that the U.S. do more.

MAYOR ANDREW LAGO, Sodertalje, Sweden: My little town alone receives more Iraqi refugees than United States and Canada together. We did not start the war in Iraq; however, we assume a huge responsibility for those people who are affected.

LEE HOCHBERG: As for those refugees in particular danger because of their association with the U.S., like the interpreters, Congress in January passed a bill allowing up to 5,000 of them and their families to come to this country each year for the next five years, but the legislation has not yet been implemented.

In the meantime, interpreters like Walid say they're blessed that Captain Faler stepped up. Walid was on hand to honor Faler recently as the guardsman was promoted to company commander.

MA'AN: All I can say, God will reward him for that, for what he did. He's presenting, you know, the good, beautiful face of America.

LEE HOCHBERG: And at Portland's airport, after six long months in Jordan, Ma'an and his family recently arrived, dazed, but overjoyed.

Faler says he's unsure which of his many calls hurried the bureaucracy; Ma'an just breathed in relief.

CAPT. JASON FALER: You're here.

MA'AN: At last. At last. This is amazing. It can move from 100 percent risk to 100 percent safe. This is marvelous.

CAPT. JASON FALER: It's overwhelming. It's hard for me to articulate. There's four lives that weren't going to end up dumped in the streets of Baghdad.

LEE HOCHBERG: But Faler says much remains to be done. So far, he's been able to help only 25 Iraqis and a handful of Afghans.