December was the first month since the U.S. invasion of Iraq when no American soldiers died in combat. But life remains dangerous for Iraqis, especially those who have worked with U.S. forces or American media and humanitarian organizations.
In 2008, thousands of Iraqis began applying for visas to America under a special State Department program. But that was before the U.S. economic meltdown. Now, some of the applicants are having second thoughts.
On any given morning, a long line of Iraqi families forms outside the U.S. base in the center of Baghdad where visa interviews are conducted.
The applicants pass through a chain-link gate guarded by private security contractors, where they are met with rigorous body searches and various metal-detecting machines. Then finally, they are interviewed and required to submit letters of recommendation. And more interviews are required on subsequent visits.
Most Iraqis consider the ordeal worth the prize: a visa to the United States. About 17,000 Iraqis won visas to the U.S. in 2009. But lately, there are some doubts among Iraqis, fed by a small but surprising number of Iraqis returning from the United States.
Unknown Dangers Worse Than Bombs
Abu Haidar, 47, worked for several years as a driver for NPR in Baghdad. His trip to America was a shock.
"When I arrived in America, there was no work, especially for someone without a degree and with no English. Such people can't make it in America," he says.
Haidar's experience may be a worst-case example. The visa program settled him in Houston, and everything went wrong from the start. Food, lodging and transportation were too expensive, and his salary as a cleaner at a hotel was too low. And he had arrived in the U.S. with some pretty harsh stereotypes about some of the people living there.
"There are Mexicans living there. So I felt scared to go out. I worry about my son and daughter. My son almost went crazy — he's used to coming home at midnight, but there, he had to be in by 8 [p.m.], just like a prison," he says.
Somehow, the unknown dangers in America scared Haidar more than the car bombs still exploding back in Iraq. Besides the racial stereotypes, his son also protested that sweeping floors was a shameful job for a man of his age. After just two months, Haidar called it quits.
"I'm not going to tell anyone else what to do," he says, but for himself, he is happy to be back in Iraq.
Such stories have set off an earnest debate among visa candidates. The International Organization for Migration has published a small guidebook for Iraqis outlining the challenges.
Sami al-Hilali recently got the call that he had been awarded a visa, and he turned it down.
"I want to go to America because my daughter and my son could study English. But the IOM, they give me book, and it's tough," he says.
Hilali says he has worked hard all his life and dreamed of opening a restaurant in America. But he is not sure that he and his wife are ready to start from scratch during the U.S. economic crisis. He worries about the cost of health care for the two of them.
"America is better, but different economy. There is crisis economy in America," he says.
Hilali knows the dangers of staying in Iraq intimately: He lost a leg during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and worked through the worst of the sectarian violence after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. He thinks constantly about what might happen to his family if he were killed by a bomb, but that reminds him that in Iraq he has the support of friends, family and tribal relations, something else America can't offer.
But it might be a great opportunity for a younger family, Hilali says.
Worth The Hardship
Husam and Yasmin (not their real names) are just such a family. The Iraqi couple — with two young daughters and an 8-month-old son — recently had a final interview before they head off to a new life in North Carolina.
Of course life in America is going to be better, says Husam. He adds that he doesn't think Iraq will be stable for another decade. Looking at their daughters, who are 5 and 6 years old, Yasmin says it is worth whatever hardships they might face.
Things will be difficult at the beginning but we have to endure it for the sake of our children, Yasmin says.
I'll go to America with my eyes closed, she adds, but gradually my eyes will open and I'll learn how to live there.