Millions Stranded by the War in Iraq
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
Some two million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes since the start of the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq, and thousands more leave their home country every month. Many of them have fled to neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan.
NPR's Deborah Amos has spent a lot of time talking with Iraqi refugees in that part of the world, and she did a big series on the refugees for NPR's MORNING EDITION last week. We at the BPP wanted to hear more about what life is like for these refugees. So we gave Deb a call, and she told us about one man she met, Yusef Mohammed, who worked for the U.S. government in Iraq, but like so many Iraqis, he had to flee to save his life.
DEBORAH AMOS: Mohammed Yusef and his family arrived in Damascus in June. And I met him in September, and he told me that he had worked for the Americans as soon as they got there in 2003. He was an adviser in the finance ministry, and who he was helping were the Americans who were helping the Iraqis. He could speak Arabic, he could speak English, and he knew about finances. So for 18 months, he worked there.
Two of his colleagues were killed. It's kind of that you get a bullet in the mail, and the next time they're really serious. And he felt that he was next. So the next thing he did is he worked for the BBC, the British Broadcasting Company, because he had great English. And he worked there for another 18 months. But here was his problem. He lived in a neighborhood where the Mahdi Army, the militia - and that's the Shiite group in Iraq - had taken over his neighborhood. They moved into his own building and they set up an office on the bottom floor. And he told me what happened next is they were going to begin investigating, interviewing everybody in the building. It was a security issue. And he just felt that he couldn't lie to them. He'd been lying to his neighbors and everybody else in the neighborhood about what he did, but he was afraid he couldn't lie to them.
BURBANK: Was that because he was worried that they would literally kill him for that?
AMOS: Not literally. They would kill him for that, and he knew it. And so, he decided in June that he'd had enough, and it was time to go. And what he thought was, okay, I worked for the Americans. I worked for a Western company. So I keep hearing that you can get asylum. So he goes to Syria and he finds out he's got at least a six-month wait, maybe years. And here's what he said about it.
Mr. MOHAMMED YUSEF (Employee, British Broadcasting Company): They told me to have to wait for six months just for the interview. And I think even after the interview, maybe I get a year or two, even after that because I see the Iraqis. They're here. They make the interviews, but they're still here. That's why I don't get the hope.
MARTIN: So what happened? Clearly, his expectations weren't met. He's just sitting and he's waiting now for something to happen?
AMOS: Well, he's actually done kind of a clever thing. He made a pretty good living, for an Iraqi, working for these two companies. So he has to figure out - now that he knows he's got at least six months before he even gets an interview to become a refugee. Let's not talk about the Americans. He has to go see the United Nations people first. So he doesn't know how long he's going to be in Syria. So what he did is he took part of his savings and he got himself a Syrian partner, business partner in Damascus, and he's opened a little minimarket. And I went and visited him in the minimarket.
It's a wonderful little place, very tidy. He's got a great variety of goods and a lot of penny candy in the front so little Syrian kids are coming in to buy from him, because he doesn't know how long he has to wait. He's got two daughters and a wife to support. And, in truth, it is illegal for him to be working in Syria, but he's done this with a partner. So he set himself up. Not everybody is as clever or has the resources to do what he's done.
BURBANK: Do you get the sense that for people like this guy and others who sort of worked with Westerners and put themselves in harm's way, were they explicitly told they would be taken care of, or was this just kind of assumed?
AMOS: In the beginning, it was neither. They worked with the Americans because they believed in the project to bring democracy to Iraq. And they signed on because that's where it looked like Iraq was going. And as time went on, they became the targets of the insurgents, of al-Qaida in Iraq, and finally, the Mahdi Army on the Shiite side who said anybody who works for the Americans or any Western organization is a traitor. And let's hear again from Mohammed Yusef.
Mr. YUSEF: Even here I didn't tell anybody that I worked with the Americans. If anybody asked me and they asked me, I told them I have a shop there, and that's it, because I know Mahdi Army are here. They couldn't kill me - not here, of course. But they can hurt my family, and I have a family here. I have my parents and I have my brothers and I have to care about them, and I have to concern about them.
MARTIN: So Deb, explain to us, he's talking about in Syria. He's still afraid even in Syria for his life and for his family's safety, correct?
AMOS: Exactly. That's what's so interesting about what is going on. The Mahdi Army is in Damascus. In fact, Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery cleric who we hear about a lot in Baghdad politics, he has an office in Damascus.
BURBANK: But do you think he's worried about, you know, you using his name? Could this get back to somebody?
AMOS: Luke, that's not his whole name.
BURBANK: I see.
AMOS: There is plenty of Mohammed Yusefs. There's so many Mohammed Yusefs, that it would be - they'd have to be very clever to find this particular one who has a…
BURBANK: That's the John Smith of Iraq.
AMOS: Well, there's a lot of names like that. You know, on any visa application that you make to the Middle East, they want to know what your father's name is so that, you know, there's a million Mohammeds. So what's the second, the third and the fourth names so we know the difference?
MARTIN: Deb, Ambassador Ryan Crocker - he's the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad -has urged the United States to move quickly to get these visa applications through for Iraqis who've worked with the Americans in Iraq. What is holding that up? Why is this so difficult?
AMOS: There's a lot of reasons. Bureaucracy is one. And here's another one: We haven't done this particular kind of refugee resettlement before. There is a concern about security with these Iraqi refugees. As people in DHS will tell you, we have al-Qaida in Iraq. What if they sneak through our process? What if they get into the United States? So they have been very, very, very firm about we're going to see every single one of them, face-to-face interview, and that takes a while.
MARTIN: NPR's Deb Amos. She's been reporting extensively on Iraqi refugees living in Syria and Jordan.