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Week of 5.4.07

An Iraqi Translator Turned Refugee

Maria Hinojosa speaks with "Saleh," an Iraqi who worked as a translator after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Because he worked with American and international organizations, he was threatened by insurgents. Fearing for his life and his family's lives, he left Iraq and is now living as a refugee in the Middle East. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Maria Hinojosa: Why did you decide that you had to leave Iraq?

SALEH: I had this idea since long before 2003. But I urgently did that because I had received many threats. And finally I could not move on anymore inside my neighborhood. So I decided to leave.

HINOJOSA: What kinds of threats were you getting?

SALEH: People like me are always targeted and considered spies—or supporting the invasion forces. Because we were translators. So I cannot work anymore inside the country because this is the only career I can do.

HINOJOSA: What was the specific threat?

SALEH: They said if you are not going to quit that career, you shall be beheaded.

HINOJOSA: When you knew that the U.S. was coming into Iraq, what did you think?

SALEH: It was a mixed feeling. First of all there was some happiness that we would get rid of Saddam Hussein's regime - all these years of a bad life that we had. And the other thing was a bad feeling that we are not liberating our own country from that regime.

HINOJOSA: As a young man from the middle class in Iraq, when the U.S. came into the country did you think that you were going to have a good future?

SALEH: Yes. That was the first thing that I had in my mind. That's because the U.S. is the dream of many people in the world. The freedom, the democracy, everything. I even started to correspond with the U.S. before that in 2000. And I was trying to get any opportunity to go to the States. But it happened that the States came to my country, so I said, 'Let's try inside my home.' I ended up working for many companies working for reconstruction or rehabilitation. I'm thinking that I would have my shot... but it turned out to be false.

HINOJOSA: What was going on inside for you as a young Iraqi man when you realized that you were going to have to leave your country, your home and your family?

SALEH: It was a bad feeling to leave the country without coming back anymore. There is a bad feeling. I realized finally that that's it, that's the end. Iraq will never be the same.

HINOJOSA: What does that mean inside for you?

SALEH: Iraq is divided. Whether we like it or not, it is divided. I mean through the invasion everything has collapsed. The unity is lost. So right now even if I'm not considered like an enemy to one of the groups, the other would consider the others as the enemy.

So it is like that. It's a war inside. It's a sectarian violence everywhere. It is hidden because of these security plans and whatsoever. But it's only a matter of time. I realized that before 2004. But I had a feeling, 'Let's try another six months. Let's try another month.' And on and on. But I was wrong once again. That is a dream that will never come true, that we shall have a unified Iraq.

HINOJOSA: So you're essentially saying you are an upstanding young man who's never broken the law, good student, wants to have a professional career. But at this moment in your life you're prepared to perhaps emigrate into a country illegally because you feel like you have no choice at all?

SALEH: Of course. I have to go to an environment of freedom, democracy. An environment that can guarantee my rights as a human being, not as a slave. Not as a decapitated citizen in my country.

HINOJOSA: When you were working in Iraq as a translator, you essentially felt that you were doing work to make your country better?

SALEH: Yes. I felt that with the help and support of the multinational forces to secure the place, to rehabilitate, to reorganize the country. And because I have the ability to speak and because of my background of course, I thought that I'm going to offer my country a big help. Or I mean just a hand. One of thousands of hands that are trying to do the same like me. But, again, it was impossible. I mean there were many factors preventing me from doing that.

HINOJOSA: What does that say to you when you feel like you're trying to do the best for your country but simply because you speak English, because you translate, because you have worked with NGOs and Americans, you're now hated by your fellow countrymen?

SALEH: Sometimes I forgive them. Even those that are trying to get me. Because they are ignorant. And they are seeing the small picture. And sometimes I give them the right because they are defending their country. That's the only thing that they have in sight.

And they are thinking that I'm one of the enemies. So it's a feeling that I cannot define. It's up to them right now. I cannot go and tell them that 'what you're thinking is wrong, because what's going on in the country is really chaos.'

I mean when you see a child, a 10-year-old child, being hit by one of the soldiers for doing nothing, only crossing the line, it is not right thing. So I cannot prevent his brother or his father from getting his vendetta. I cannot.

This is indeed a hard issue. I cannot separate the feelings of being Iraqi and being a supporter of those forces or those people. But it really hurt me when I was trying to support my own citizens—through working with international NGOs or international organizations as a humanitarian activist, and I found out that I'm a target as well. That really hurt me.

HINOJOSA: Most 31-year-old young men in the U.S., they've got a family. Maybe they have a job. They have plans for their future. What do you have?

SALEH: It's really hard feeling because you find yourself as a stateless person. A person without any state—don't have a home, don't have a family, don't have a career. Nothing, the only thing that I have is a salary.

HINOJOSA: So take me into your soul as a man of 31.

SALEH: I spent the last 15 years in fear. I mean fear of the former regime.

And in 2003, we started a new stage of fear. Fear of no future. I mean you might be killed. You might be kidnapped. You might lose a hand. A leg. I mean just like that. Your life is—is part of the chaos.

We cannot schedule one day. Can you imagine that? If you said, 'I'm going to go to the work,' the next day you might have a brother killed, a cousin killed, just like my cousins. And so on. I mean this is our life. It's impossible.

So I left that state of fear for another state of fear. I thought that I might have that feeling of rest. That I might take my breath once again to move on for the future. But I was shocked. Shocked by the effect the war is having on Iraqis. I mean thousands of Iraqis right now, millions outside the country. Just like me. Families, young children.

HINOJOSA: What do you think that the American people need to know and understand about Iraqi refugees like you?

SALEH: Well, Iraqi refugees are part of the whole population. I mean—in the first place, they should know the Iraq people themselves. When I see that the news, the American news—CNN or ABC—I see small films about the Iraqi situation. And the only thing that I see is the scenes of the American forces and how they are having hard times in Iraq for freedom and democracy. Well, they are never showed the other side of the picture. What's going on for the Iraqi population.

If it's a soldier and he is ready to fight and to shoot, then he's confronting sometimes a citizen without any weapon. A child without any weapon. I mean he came from the States to fight. To do something by weapon. But there are some women, children, old people. So this is the thing that the whole U.S. should consider when they see Iraqis and refugees, for instance.

HINOJOSA: What do you say to Americans who believe that Iraqi young men in their 30's are all potential terrorists?

SALEH: It's a wrong image. I mean they can find many people like me. Many people that are really open-minded for democracy. For freedom.

HINOJOSA: If you could talk to President Bush about the case of Iraqi refugees like yourself, what would you say?

SALEH: If he can, to use his power to help those most vulnerable people of the refugees. Those who do not have anything for the coming year. I mean there are some people who are afraid to go outside from their own apartments, because if they did something wrong they might be deported back to Iraq, for example.

HINOJOSA: Do you think that the world essentially, and the U.S., has been ignoring Iraqi refugees?

SALEH: From the way I see it, definitely yes. It's a bad feeling. And they should feel ashamed. Because they claimed to stand for freedom and democracy. And they said that they would bring all these principles to Iraq and to the world around us. But the only thing that they have brought is death and tragedy.

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