Transcript - May 4, 2007
HINOJOSA: Lisa Ramaci and Steven Vincent met and fell in love in New York City—two bohemians at heart mixing in a community of artists, writers and iconoclasts. But they had a traditional side too. They got married and found good jobs in the art world, she at Sotheby's and he as a writer.
But then on September 11, 2001, tragedy hit very close to home... Steven was on his rooftop apartment that morning witnessing first-hand the terrorist attacks on the world trade center...
RAMACI: He watched the towers burn. And he watched both towers collapse. And ... he knew immediately ... that this portended a whole new world. And that he would need to be part of it.
HINOJOSA: Steven soon lost interest in covering the art scene, but he became impassioned by America's struggle with radical Islam and terrorism. Two years later, he took off to Iraq to become a war reporter...
HINOJOSA: Why do you think Steven was so drawn to Iraq? I mean someone said ... on of his friends said that he was drawn like a moth to a flame.
RAMACI: Steven always loved the Middle East. We had done traveling in a number of Middle Eastern countries and he loved the people. He loved the religion.
HINOJOSA: In the fall of 2003 —Steven Vincent took the first of three trips to Iraq. As a freelance reporter, he didn't take the conventional route. He couldn't afford armored vehicles, bulletproof vests or other major security precautions. And he didn't hide out in a hotel room.
Instead, he dared to venture out to talk to Iraqi people... businessmen and taxi drivers and sheiks.
Steven believed the U.S. had been right to overthrow Saddam Hussein. And he spoke out publicly about why U.S. Troops had to stay.
VINCENT: Because if we leave Iraq the Iraqis are going to suffer worse than they suffered under Saddam Hussein.
HINOJOSA: His reporting appeared in prominent national publications... and he published a book called "In The Red Zone."
In 2004—on his second trip, he met Noural Khal. This is Nour's first television interview. The two met at a gathering of intellectuals.
NOUR: I thought, "I—I need to talk to—to that man." Because I was working on a program to offer training for the journalists. So, I stepped out and said hello.
HINOJOSA: In this male-dominated culture, even this simple gesture of stepping forward to say hello was exceptional. Steven was instantly impressed and soon hired Nour to be his translator and guide.
RAMACI: He once said ... and he even put it in his book, that if you could take a thousand Nours and let them loose on Iraq, the country would change overnight.
HINOJOSA: Nour lived with her traditional, middle class Shia family in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Her greatest dream was to become a poet...
HINOJOSA: How many women in Basra dreamt about being a poet?
NOUR: I think so many women actually. But unfortunately, we haven't yet—made any progress in that. Because whenever you try to—to say something you—actually you get banned of saying it.
NOUR: Yeah, because of social and religious and tribal norms, you know. Poetry can not live under such circumstances.
HINOJOSA: Even from an early age, she was fearless. When Nour was seventeen, under Saddam, she was jailed for eleven months for a satirical poem she wrote. With the fall of Saddam's dictatorship and the arrival of the Americans, she held great hopes that she and her fellow Iraqis—especially women —could finally live more freely...
HINOJOSA: Why did you, an Iraqi woman from Basra, feel so strongly about democracy?
NOUR: It is the urgent need we—actually we have to—to promote it in—in Iraq after more than 35 years of oppression and anti-democratic society.
HINOJOSA: And to you, what does democracy mean?
NOUR: Actually, democracy everywhere is—it's the same democracy.
Without democracy and without having your rights, you can not make any progress.
HINOJOSA: Steven found a kindred spirit in Nour. The two worked closely together in Basra, bonded—as he wrote —"by the intrigue and danger that permeated the city."
He returned to the U.S. but immediately made plans for a third and final trip to Iraq... He first had to convince his wife. While Lisa had backed Steven's earlier pursuits in Iraq, the idea of him returning to the war zone now gave her pause.
HINOJOSA: The first two times that Steven said he was going to Iraq, you said, "Go."
RAMACI: I said, "Go." Yes.
HINOJOSA: The third time, when he was going to Basra you said ...
RAMACI: The third time he was going I said, "Do you really need to go? You've ... you've been there twice. You've written a book. Things are getting a little dicier. Is it really imperative that you go? There's books here that you could write." And he said, "No. This is ... I need to write this book and then I will have it out of my system."
HINOJOSA: Steven reassured Lisa that he would not be heading to Baghdad, which was reeling from deadly car bombings and insurgent attacks. Instead, he would go to the relatively calm city of Basra.
RAMACI: He assured me that it was safe. ... he said, "You know, the British know how to handle these things. There's nothing going on in Basra."
And it was true. At that point, there was not. It was very quiet down there. You never heard about Basra in the news. So against my better judgment, but again, not wanting to stand in his way, because he was in the process of becoming the person he wanted to be. I said, "Okay." Not that if I had said, "Don't go," he would have listened to me. Let's not go there.
HINOJOSA: Basra was once known as a cosmopolitan, tolerant city where Sunnis and Shias lived together in peace... but Steven discovered that this crumbling port city had become a hotbed for religious conservatives... Shia fundamentalists loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada Al Sadr had taken over the town...
In the spring of 2005, Steven and Nour traveled everywhere in Basra together —asking tough, probing questions...
NOUR: Steven wasn't afraid of going anywhere. He was so brave. And, even the places I didn't want to go, I was afraid to go, he went to these places.
HINOJOSA: People often took notice of the two- many wondered why this single Muslim woman always appeared alongside this American man.
RAMACI: I remember there was a blog post that said, "What did he think he was doing having this woman be his translator?" And somebody answered it and it was the most classic answer. And he said, "That's like asking white people who went down to work in the Civil Rights Movement in the sixties what they were thinking." Why should he not have had this woman be his translator if she knew the territory and spoke the language and could help him...
HINOJOSA: By the summer of 2005, there were threats and ominous warnings... Steven's life was in danger. And he realized that he had unwittingly placed Nour's life in jeopardy too.
RAMACI: He told me that he had been walking down the street and somebody came up to him and said to him, "You realize that when you leave, your translator's life is worth nothing?" And ... he had started getting strange phone calls on his cell-phone. Either people would call and hang up, or they would say they had the wrong number.
HINOJOSA: One night, Steven called Lisa in a panic. It was a conversation between husband and wife over a long distance phone line. They hatched a desperate plan to save
RAMACI: Steven called me at 3 o'clock in the morning. I'm one of these people that will make a snap judgment or a decision ... And I said to him, "Will they let her out of the country if she's married?" And he said, "Yes." And I said, "Well, then you have to marry her."
HINOJOSA: The plan sounded crazy: Steven would convert to Islam. As a Muslim, he could then take on a second wife. He would marry Nour on paper so that he could take her out of the country. Once she was out of harm's way, Steven would divorce her.
RAMACI: If I had had more time to think about it, maybe we could have come up with a better plan. Didn't have a lot of time. The noose was tightening.
So ... he approached her parents. He told them he was going to convert to Islam. He asked for their permission to marry her. They said, "Yes." He paid them a dowry of $2,500. He was a week away from converting and they would have been married that same day. And then he would have taken her to Jordan or to Kuwait.
HINOJOSA: But Steven wasn't ready to leave just yet. He had uncovered a huge story that the editors at the New York Times wanted. This was his big break and he didn't want to get scooped. So his first piece in the New York Times ran—even in the face of those death threats.
He reported that while the British were training and arming the Basra police force, they were turning a blind eye to Shia militiamen within the force who were now terrorizing the city. The assassins rode in a specific type of vehicle—a white truck like this one. Steven called it "a death car".
Two days after that story was published —a group of armed men, dressed in police uniforms, jumped out of the very death car Steven had just written about...
NOUR: They were waiting, just waiting. So they jump on us and took us inside. Steven resist ... resist for a long time. And I myself went hiding myself into one of the shops on the main street. Just to give ... give the people a chance to help us. But they just ... Iraqis just crowded around us wait ... they were looking at us doing nothing.
HINOJOSA: You're in the middle of being kidnapped.
HINOJOSA: And people are crowding around you watching?
HINOJOSA: And doing nothing?
NOUR: Yeah. Yeah, doing nothing.
HINOJOSA: The two were abducted in broad daylight on a major street. The kidnappers then drove them to the outskirts of town. Nour and Steven were gagged; Steven was bound and beaten.
After several hours of this harrowing ordeal, they were told they would be released.
NOUR: In the beginning, they swore to God, to Allah, they are not going to kill us. But they told Steven, "you should from now on know what to write about." This phrase actually made me think they took Steven because of what he wrote. And then at midnight they drove us in the streets, in the main street, and they ask us to run. But once we stepped out of the car and I ran for a minute, they shoot us. And I knew at that time Steven actually died, has died.
HINOJOSA: They shot Steven at close range in the back. He died instantly. Nour was shot three times. She's fully recovered, but she had to escape Iraq and now lives in hiding in a Middle Eastern country. She still fears for her life so we've agreed not to disclose her location. Nour feels she failed Steven.
NOUR: He was my responsibility actually. I had agreed to work with him, to help him. And he was my person ... my responsibility. He had no one actually at that time to help or to stand by him. He had only me at that time. He was my responsibility. That's unfortunately I could...I couldn't keep my promise to him, to save him or to protect him.
HINOJOSA: The pain of Steven's loss still cuts deep for Lisa Ramaci. She says there isn't a day that goes by that she doesn't think about her life partner of 23 years...
RAMACI: Sometimes I stand here and I cry... Sometimes I stand here and I think, OK, I've been given another day to get through ...
HINOJOSA: Lisa also feels indebted to the friend who stood by her husband in those final moments of his life...
HINOJOSA: Um, but Nour is probably the woman who is your exact opposite. Devout ... um, traditional ... Muslim, head covered. So what do you think you share?
RAMACI: We share Steven. She was his friend. He was my husband. But we both loved him in different ways. And for the exact same reasons. He was a wonderful man. So that is ... that is the tie the binds us.
HINOJOSA: Since Steven's death almost two years ago, Lisa has been pushing nonstop to bring Nour to the safety of the United States. She got nowhere. And she soon learned why. As one government official told her, Iraq is now a democracy, there is no need for Iraqis to leave.
Then, this past January, there was a breakthrough... A senate committee held a hearing on the plight of Iraqi refugees, and Lisa Ramaci was invited to testify.
"I am the widow of Steven Vincent, the journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in Basra, Iraq in 2005."
HINOJOSA: Everyone was gripped by Nour's story... the courageous Iraqi translator who would not leave the side of her American colleague and friend.
"Nour bravely stood by him while five men in police uniforms wrestled him into the truck that was going to take him to his death... they had no interest whatsoever in her; they repeatedly pushed her away, told her to leave..."
HINOJOSA: Suddenly, the doors Lisa had been knocking on began to crack open...and Nour's visa application is finally in the works...
But tens of thousands of others who also worked alongside Americans—often directly with the U.S. military—are still being shut out of the United States. Most are too fearful to speak openly to reporters, but we found this Iraqi man who was willing to share his story with us. For his safety, we will only use his first name: Amjad.
When the Americans first came—Cmjad was glad to see the end of Saddam's oppressive rule.
HINOJOSA: When you realized that the United States was going to come into Iraq, did you want the Americans to come into your country?
AMJAD: Actually, yes. In fact, I want to—Americans to come and to liberate the Iraqi people to live in—another way. And the—they have their freedom to say what they want, and to do whatever they want as—as a democratic people.
HINOJOSA: Amjad worked as a translator for a large U.S. defense contractor and then later for the Iraqi ministry of justice. For that, he received this chilling letter: a death threat—handwritten in neat Arabic script.
AMJAD: I—decided to leave Iraq because my life and—my family's life was in danger. After I received—this—death threat—which—says that we should—we will kill you if you—because of your work with the Americans. And you are considered just infidel and—we will behead you and all your families.
HINOJOSA: Those who backed the Americans—largely moderate, urban professionals like Nour and Amjad- have been under assault in Iraq. Hundreds of Iraq's doctors and teachers have been killed off since the war began...
Amjad and his family left Iraq... they now live in this modest one bedroom apartment in a neighboring country—not sure of what lies ahead. They hope to be able to reach California, where his wife's sister lives.
HINOJOSA: Do you believe that the United States is opening this door for Iraqi refugees, or do you believe that essentially the door is closed?
AMJAD: I think—Americans are—are opening the—the door—their doors now.
But slowly, I call upon them to open it a little faster. Because there are many people here who are suffering from this—from the violence in Iraq.
HINOJOSA: But as Iraqis line up at the border posts to leave their country, the u.s. government has allowed fewer than 500 Iraqi refugees into this country—compare that to the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees this country has taken in since the war in Vietnam ended.
At a congressional hearing in March, the state department was on the defensive.
ELLEN SAUERBREY, STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL (March 26, 2007): Up until January, February of 2005, our country, along with the international community, was focusing on helping to return Iraqis to Iraq.
ACKERMAN: Yeah, but we're talking about the most vulnerable people who can't return to Iraq because they're going to be murdered or their family is going to murdered or someone's already been murdered...
HINOJOSA: A million Iraqi refugees have overwhelmed Syria, 800,000 Iraqis have made their way to Jordan... and tens of thousands more now live in Egypt, Lebanon, turkey and Iran.
The vast majority of these refugees hide in the shadows. Since they have no legal right to work, they are becoming more desperate... in Damascus—Iraqi families line up at soup kitchens... while in Amman, Iraqi women sell smuggled cigarettes on the sidewalks for a few dollars a day...
Meanwhile, Nour's visa application awaits a final security review. If all goes well—by this summer, she will be one of the few Iraqis to be able to find refuge here in America...
HINOJOSA: When you think about perhaps living in the United States, what do you think your life will be like there? Will it be the freedom that you have been looking for?
NOUR AL KHAL: That's—that's part of it, yeah. It would be that freedom I was actually looking after. But, there's still the point that I want this freedom to be in my country. I want what I have to do in America, I want to do it in my country.
HINOJOSA: Refugee groups say the U.S. has done little to address this enormous humanitarian crisis. So far, the only legislation congress is considering is a bill that would slightly increase the number of visas allotted to afghan and Iraqi military translators: from 50 to 500.
And the state department is just beginning to start the paper work in the cases of some 7,000 other Iraqi refugees this year... meanwhile, every month, tens of thousands of new refugees continue to flee Iraq to save their lives...
HINOJOSA: Many Americans say, "Look, it would be nice to open up our country but frankly, we don't know who these Iraqi people are. There could be, ah, fundamentalists, there could be terrorists, they could want to hurt us." So from your perspective, who are these people who you think should be given a refuge here?
RAMACI: Artists. People who work for the telephone companies. Translators. People who do the laundry for the Army. Middle class people...
You know, they ... they wanted Saddam Hussein overthrown. They were grateful that the Americans had come in.
We ... we're abandoning these people ... we're using them like ... and throwing them aside like they're just Kleenex. And even the people who did not work for the Americans, but whose lives have been uprooted and who are now displaced, it's like ... it's the 1930's all over again. I mean did we learn nothing from the Jews during World War Two?
If a ... if a shipload full of Iraqis steamed into New York Harbor would we turn them away? I think, yes. And that, to me, is ... utterly shameful.