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Dream come true: Iraqi interpreter for military gets a U.S. visa

July 13, 2012|By David Zucchino
  • Translator Tariq Abu Khumra had applied for a special U.S. visa promised to Iraqis who had served the U.S. It was held up for more than two years by red tape and security concerns.
Translator Tariq Abu Khumra had applied for a special U.S. visa promised… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

While under death threats from insurgents in Baghdad last year, Tariq Abu Khumra mailed a prized possession to his girlfriend in California: a huge American flag signed by 50 American military officers whom Khumra had served as an interpreter for theU.S. military.

Kohima was afraid the flag would get him killed if the wrong people found it at his home in Baghdad. Insurgents had already marked him for assassination, even though he had lost his interpreter job when U.S. militarybases in Iraq shut down last fall.

Desperate to leave Iraq, Khumra had applied for a special U.S. visa promised to Iraqis who had served the U.S. It was held up for more than two years by red tape and security concerns, as described in a Los Angeles Times article from Baghdad in December.

But this week, the American flag was waiting for Khumra at his girlfriend’s apartment in Glendale after Khumra arrived at LAX, visa in hand, for a new life in the United States.

"I can’t even describe how good it feels,’’ Khumra said Friday, still jet-lagged a day after his flight from Baghdad.

Khumra said -- in nearly flawless English, of course -- that his visa was finally sprung loose through the persistent efforts of Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit organization in New York.

"Just saying 'thank you' is not enough for what Becca did for me,’’ he said.

Heller said constant pressure, media coverage and a letter from U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) helped secure Special Immigrant Visas for Khumra and three other Iraqis. Heller, whose group has pushed for expedited visas for thousands of Iraqis who worked for the U.S., was especially moved by Khumra’s plight.

"His emails made me cry,’’ she said. One was sent while Khumra was in Dubai, awaiting a connecting flight to Los Angeles. He told Heller he was waiting to get on his "fantasy flight.’’

Heller has criticized the government’s handling of the Special Immigrant Visa program, instituted in 2008 to help Iraqis who had served the U.S. But she said government performance has improved recently, with more than 1,500 Iraqis arriving under the visa program this fiscal year, versus 618 approved last year.  Thousands more applicants are still awaiting approval.

"I have to say the U.S. government has really gotten its act together on Iraq,’’ Heller said.

She is less optimistic about Afghan interpreters serving theU.S. militaryin Afghanistan. Those interpreters face even greater threats from insurgents, she said, and she fears they will be cast aside as U.S. bases there shut down.

Khumra, 26, survived a 2010 attack by gunmen who fired on his car. Later, someone taped a red "X" on his windshield. Month after month, he pepperedthe U.S. Embassyin Baghdad with calls, emails and visits, trying to shake loose one of the special visas.  After the U.S. base where he worked was closed in October, he went into hiding.

Even after landing at LAX, he refused to believe he was actually going to be standing on U.S. soil. Only after three hours of processing, forms and fingerprinting at the airport did he receive what he had been seeking for more than two years: a U.S. entry stamp in his Iraqi passport. He walked outside into the California sunshine.

Khumra is staying with his girlfriend, an Iraqi who emigrated 18 months ago, while he looks for an apartment. He’s already discovered that, unlike in Baghdad, apartments in L.A. won’t take cash. He’s trying to find someone with a good credit record to sponsor him as he tries to set up a bank account and get a credit card.

He’s looking for work -- as an interpreter, of course. He said he also is certified as a computer technician for Microsoft products. He’s considering taking an English as second language course to improve his writing skills.

Meanwhile, he’s been reunited with his American flag, which he plans to put up on the wall once he is able to rent an apartment. He’s left a special spot on one of the flag’s white stripes for the signature of Becca Heller.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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