Iraqi Translator Flees After Working with Americans

Thousands of Iraqis flee their homeland every day. One Iraqi refugee named Aamer fled for Jordan when it was learned that he was translating for the Americans.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. Every month, nearly 50,000 Iraqis flee their country. The exodus has created what the United Nations high commissioner for refugees calls the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians, when Israel was created in 1948.

Among the nearly two million Iraqis who have fled their homeland are people in danger because of their association with Americans. The growing refugee crisis has sparked a debate over whether the U.S. government should be doing more to resettle Iraqis in the United States.

We'll have more on that in a moment, but first, the story of one Iraqi, now living in Jordan, who is trying to come here. Kristen Gillespie has our report.

KRISTEN GILLESPIE: Aamer is a 34-year-old Iraqi wearing a sporty red T-shirt, jeans and leather sneakers. He spent nearly two years working as a translator on an American Army base in Iraq. As the violence in his hometown of Mosul began to worsen in 2004, Aamer decided to move out of his family's house and onto the base.

Mr. AAMER (Former Iraqi Translator): I stayed at the base and I find a room. I had a vacation, actually, five days per month, to visit my family. In Iraq. Because I wasn't in Iraq actually. I was in an American base.

GILLESPIE: Though Aamer says mortar attacks regularly targeted the base, it was worse trying to go home for his time off. An American escort would drop him off near Mosul.

Mr. AAMER: It was really like you can expect in any time an IED, a sniper or a car bomb might hit you or your comrade in the patrol, and we die.

GILLESPIE: Aamer explained his absence from home by saying he was working for a company in another part of Iraq, but he says people in Mosul found out that he and other members of his family were working for the American Army. That's when the phone calls began, threatening him and his family.

Aamer says that with his secret out, he had no choice but to leave Iraq. Six months ago, he arrived in Jordan for what he thought would be a brief stay before moving on to the United States. But the American embassy in Amman, he says, couldn't help.

Mr. AAMER: They said we have specific kind of visas in U.S. embassy here in Amman, like visit, marriage, but they said refugee applications is not in our responsibility. They say you have to travel to Turkey or Greece or Italy.

GILLESPIE: Aamer says he doesn't have the money to travel, since the Iraqis escaping the war aren't permitted to work in Jordan. The American embassy in Amman wouldn't comment about their procedures for Iraqis seeking asylum in the United States. A spokesman for the State Department says that the government is committed to looking at the cases of those classified as refugees by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, known as the UNHCR.

Iraqis come to the UNHCR offices every day to register in the hopes of being resettled in another country. Aamer came by last week and was told the process would begin at his next appointment, scheduled for June 17th. That's four months after his residency in Jordan runs out. If he's still here, he'll be in the country illegally.

Robert Breen(ph) is the UNHCR representative in Amman. He says that while unfortunately a majority of Iraqis in Jordan probably meet the broader definition of a refugee, the UNHCR can only apply it to those most in need.

Mr. ROBERT BREEN (UNHCR): Based upon our agreement with the government of Jordan, we are restricted in how we can actually apply that refugee title to them, because anybody that we declare as a refugee, we are obligated by the government of Jordan to find a third country of resettlement.

GILLESPIE: This is why only 600 Iraqi nationals out of up to 700,000 in Jordan have been designated as refugees.

Mr. BREEN: The prospects of finding a third country of resettlement for 500,000 or 700,000 persons is impossible.

GILLESPIE: But after his time on the American base in Northern Iraq, Aamer hopes to be one of the few selected. Iraq won't see security anytime soon, he says, and only a dictator, preferably a peaceful one, he says, can do that job.

Mr. AAMER: Because we are different group. That needs one man. Iraqis say a ship guided by two captains will get sunk, so we need one, just one.

GILLESPIE: For NPR News, I'm Kristen Gillespie.

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