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Op-Ed

U.S. pullout leaves Iraqi interpreters out on limb

Iraqis who risked their lives to work for the U.S. military no longer have the protection of living on base. They want to move to the U.S., but red tape is holding up visas.

November 07, 2011|By Tariq

I am an Iraqi citizen who worked as an interpreter with the U.S. military for two years. It was an honor to serve, and I did it because I believed that bringing freedom to Iraq required brave people to stand up and try to make a difference. Now, as a result of my service, I find myself in a dangerous limbo.

Before 2003, I thought of the U.S. primarily as the home of Bruce Willis, Hollywood and Las Vegas. But it was also a dream, a dream of freedom.

Then, a bit of America came to my country. On every street I began to see Americans who were real, not just characters in movies. I saw the U.S. soldiers with their awesome weapons and gear, and I imagined Iraq becoming like their country, with American ways of life and freedoms, and American-style schools. I learned to speak English so I could assist the American soldiers.

The U.S. mission in Iraq has been immensely difficult. As time passed, more and more Iraqis were fooled by the insurgents' propaganda, and the attacks aimed at Americans and their supporters increased. Your country lost more than 4,400 troops. . My country too has suffered greatly from the insurgency, and we have lost many people who believed in the U.S. message

My fellow translators and I have been an integral part of the U.S. mission. We do just about exactly the same work as the American soldiers, except we don't carry weapons. And we are in some ways even bigger targets than our soldier colleagues, because many Iraqis consider us to have betrayed our country by working for what they consider "the invaders." Our families are also in grave danger because of our work. We are branded as outcasts by the militias, and hundreds of us have been killed along with our families.

We have soldiered on in spite of this danger, and we have received great support and encouragement from the U.S. military. Now, everything has changed. U.S. forces are being pulled out by the end of the year, and this has left many people like me in acute danger.

Like thousands of interpreters, I had been living full time on U.S. military bases because it was the only way to remain safe from the threats against me. Then, on Oct. 13, my job — and my safety — ended. After a small ceremony with my unit and close friends, I was escorted off the base where I had lived for the last nine months. Since then I have been in hiding, constantly on the run, constantly looking back. I feel as if I am in a prison. There are no guards, but I can't leave my cell because I will be killed.

My fellow interpreters and I were promised by the U.S. government that special visas would be made available for us to move to the United States if our lives were put in danger by our work for the military. Congress backed up that promise by passing a law setting aside 5,000 such "special immigrant visas" per year for Iraqis.

But the process is broken. The program is going so slowly, it is barely a program at all. In August, according to American news reports, a mere 10 visas were issued, and that is typical. We all have been told that our applications are on "administrative hold" while the U.S. runs security clearances on us (even though we already have gone through exhaustive security checks to get clearance to be on the bases). We are despairing at this point, and we worry that the U.S. government is closing the door on us. The looming pullout leaves us in extreme jeopardy as the Americans not only continue to delay issuing us visas but also expel us from the only safe places for us in Iraq.

My fellow interpreters and I have worked as one with your military. We shared pain and laughter; we shared the same objectives. We grieved together over fallen colleagues.

Here is what I would now ask of the Americans: Please help us. Let us come to the United States. I can promise you we will work hard and be productive and good citizens. Please, please expedite our visas. We may not be able to hold our breath much longer.

Tariq is the first name of an Iraqi interpreter who worked for two years with the U.S. military in Iraq. He has received awards for his work and has been recommended by an array of his American employers for a special immigrant visa. His last name is being withheld for his safety. This op-ed was facilitated by the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which provides legal assistance to thousands of displaced Iraqis. http://www.iraqirefugee.us

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