Sherrlyn Borkgren/Genesis Photos

Multi-lingual limbo

Iraq | Iraqi interpreters risk their lives for U.S. forces and find the road out of danger hard still

Issue: "Four horsemen of the apocalypse," Oct. 4, 2008

One year ago Saadoun stood in his dim two-room home in Amman, Jordan, and flapped his hands helplessly at his side: "I am not an Iraqi anymore. I am not Jordanian. I am not American. I am only human."

Saadoun, who devours history books in his free time and devoured his study of English as a student in Baghdad, once thrived as an interpreter for the U.S. Army. But the work brought threats to his family from militants. And Saadoun himself made his situation more difficult by becoming a Christian in 2004. After that, death threats came not only from enemies of the United States but from his own family. On Aug. 29, 2004, after about 18 months working alongside U.S. forces, the former Shia Muslim, along with his wife Thariyya and their three school-age boys, fled for Jordan.

They quickly found a church and Americans who wanted to help them, but Jordanian authorities refused to allow the boys to attend school. And the U.S. government refused to grant Saadoun asylum, which would allow the family to emigrate to America. "I am human," Saadoun told WORLD in 2007, "but I have no existence."

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Veterans groups and other advocates estimate that as many as 20,000 Iraqis have assisted U.S. forces and civilian contractors by working as interpreters. The work gives Iraqis a unique opportunity to put their skills to work. And, as another interpreter, 19-year-old Fulla, explained, it often gives them an otherwise nonexistent way to support war-impoverished families.

But the role of interpreter also puts Iraqis out front and on the side of the Americans in tense street confrontations, in homes where searches take place, during interrogations, and at bedsides in combat hospitals where wounded terrorist bombers are treated and questioned. They are so often targeted and their families threatened by militants that most have taken to wearing masks while working and use only their first names. At least 250 have been killed.

Recognizing both their contribution to U.S. efforts in Iraq and the dangers they face, the United States set up a special visa program. But while nearly 2,000 interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan have applied for the Special Immigrant Visa, and nearly 1,750 were approved, the State Department planned to issue only 500 special visas in 2008 and to reduce that number to 50 in 2009. That left Iraqi workers like Saadoun and his family in limbo.

In May 2007 Congress passed legislation extending the special immigrant visas to 500 a year, but in August 2007 Saadoun said he'd received no word that his application would be accepted. In 2008 lawmakers tried to increase the refugee cap to 5,000 interpreters (from Iraq and Afghanistan) over the next five years as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill. President Bush vetoed that bill in December 2007, and a new bill passed the Senate Sept. 17 and must now be sent to conference before Congress adjourns, leaving little time to consider more than 100 amendments.

In general the Bush administration has been reluctant to support a wave of Iraqi refugees entering the United States, hoping that security would improve enough for them to return home and also recognizing that large numbers of asylum-seekers signal the failure of U.S. policy in Iraq. Under Saadoun's circumstances, returning home is not an option. He has too many enemies, he said.

This year authorities seemed to recognize that also, and his application made its way through the International Organization for Migration and State Department. On July 8 Saadoun and his family arrived at Chicago's O'Hare airport. They now live in Greensboro, N.C. Through the city's Westover Baptist Church, Saadoun found help locating and furnishing an apartment. Church members also located a 1995 Blazer for him to drive. On Sept. 15 he told WORLD, "There is good and bad everywhere, and nothing in the United States has surprised me, except the kindness of strangers." His boys are attending school after nearly three years of no schooling, and he found a job-working as a cashier at a gas station-on his fifth day in Greensboro. The voice of discouragement from a year ago has turned to a voice of elation: "Nothing is impossible in front of us," he said.

Like many former interpreters who emigrate, Saadoun and his family have changed their names. "Here everyone calls me Sam," he said, but not out of fear of old enemies. "There are 14,000 kilometers between us. If they want to shoot me, I think their bullets cannot arrive here," he laughs. Sam and his wife, now called Mary, wanted names from the Bible: "I am not shy to be a Christian in America."


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