Thursday, June 28, 2007

Trapped Inside Iraq: The Added Immigration Burden for Displaced Iraqis

The situation in Iraq is extremely fragile. Thousands of patriotic Iraqis have voluntarily come forward to work as interpreters and staffers with Americans. Many of these Iraqis risk their lives every day to continue to work with Americans. Many of these Iraqis, including several friends of mine, have been assassinated for working with Americans. While it is very unlikely that we may have to evacuate the Embassy and the Green Zone, if we evacuate we must not leave these people banging on the gates of our Embassy – again.

Gerald (Jerry) F. Burke
Major, Massachusetts State Police (Retired)
Former Senior Advisor, Iraqi Ministry of Interior and Iraqi Police Service
Testimony before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on
Oversight and Investigations, April 2007

My conversation with Jerry was brief, only about 45 minutes, but it was enough time for me to realize that he will never get Iraq out of his system. His frustration over botched police training (a complete failure) and the embarrassment of the transitional government (a disaster) verges on anguish when he talks about all the Iraqi translators, drivers and policemen who are now targets because of their work with him and his criminal justice team.

“I had to do something,” Jerry says about protecting his Iraqi friends and colleagues.

I contacted Jerry because we’re developing a documentary that follows three Iraqi families during their first full year in America. What challenges will they and their families back home face as they begin new lives and form new identities here? What dreams will they pursue, and how can they be fulfilled? How will they be received as our country’s newest Americans?

This year Jerry succeeded in bringing Asma’a Abdi, his first translator in Baghdad, to Boston as part of the new special immigrant status available to translators with the U.S. Armed Forces. She’s one of the people the Bush administration says it feels a “moral obligation” to help… one of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who work for the U.S. military in Iraq, putting their lives in imminent danger.

Ultimately, 7,000 Iraqi refugees will be allowed into America over the next year, and, according to UNHCR, Washington is leaving the door open to accept another 18,000.

Is it too little, too late? I ask Jerry. “Yes. It has been – and continues to be – hard for the administration to encourage this legislation at an acceptable level because it shows a bit of defeatism. After all, why would Iraqis want to leave? It’s a democracy now, right?”

There are about 2 million Iraqis who have fled the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, most of whom sought refuge in Syria and Jordan. There are another estimated 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), Iraqis forced to flee their homes because of persecution and war but who, unlike refugees, remain inside their country.

“For them [the IDPs], finding a way out almost impossible,” Jerry says. “We make it so difficult. The process is almost designed to fail… designed to hinder people who need the most help.”

Because the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad does not issue immigrant visas, Iraqis who want out need to get to an American Embassy in another country. Most will choose to go to Amman, Jordan, and flying is the fastest way to get there. It’s also the most expensive – about $500 roundtrip. And Airport Road is notorious for crime, making the four-lane, six-mile journey from central Baghdad to the airport one of the most dangerous in the world. At the airport there’s the threat from Iraqi insurgents who force pilots to make corkscrew maneuvers during take-offs and landings, in hopes that the spiraling pattern will keep planes from being hit by missile fire.

The other option for getting to Amman’s American Embassy is to make the 13-hour road trip from Baghdad. Bandits with AK-47s are known to terrorize the region closest to the border, and for those trying to keep a low profile, the fear of discovery – never mind robbery, kidnapping or worse – is terrifyingly real.

Once Iraqis reach the U.S. Embassy, their application can be filed. Filed, not finished. Later, they’ll have to do the whole trip all over again to pick up their visa.

For the chosen few, it will all be worth it. But Jerry has no way of knowing if his friends who remain in Iraq will ever make it out. “I know they’re being threatened. I just hope we do the right thing and increase the numbers of people we’re allowing in… so that it’s not too late.”


PRI’s Here and Now

Refugees International Report

Iraq: The World’s Fastest Growing Refugee Crisis

Christian Science Monitor Article

First Big Wave of Iraqi Refugees Heads for the US

All Iraq News Website

No comments: