Iraqi Tells Of New Life In U.S.A.

Basim Alkhafaji, a senior interpreter for the U.S. military in Iraq, flees his country after receiving death threats against him and his family. He says the best part of his new life in the U.S. is freedom and safety, but after eight months here he misses his family and home country.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, to Iraq. We've been following the story of the millions of Iraqis who've been forced from their homes since the coalition invasion began in 2003. As insurgent groups gained strength, and sectarian violence increased over the years since the invasion, about five million Iraqis have been displaced, about half of whom have left the country. Facing increasing numbers of refugees, surrounding countries have become less and less hospitable, with some closing their borders and others actively pushing the refugees to go home.

But few have. A report last month from the nonprofit research organization, the International Crisis Group, says the situation is indeed a crisis, and it says the international community has done little to support these refugees. The report was particularly critical of the U.S. for failing to do more to assist those at risk because they helped support the U.S. military or contractors, such as translators.

Joining us now to talk more about this is Basim Alkhafaji. He worked as a senior interpreter for the U.S. military in Iraq for two years, and he's been in the U.S. about eight months. Is that about right?

Mr. BASIM ALKHAFAJI (Former Senior Interpreter, U.S. Military in Iraq): Yeah. Yeah, it is.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you for talking to us.

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Thank you very much for having me here.

MARTIN: Tell me about your work while in Iraq. Why did you decide to become an interpreter?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: That is a job that I like to do, you know. I love to work with the U.S. Army. And this is the best way to help my people to understand why the army or the U.S. Army is here to create a new life for the Iraqis.

MARTIN: Was the job always dangerous, or did it start to become so later on?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: No, actually, it started later on. At the beginning, it was so safe.

MARTIN: About how long were you doing it before you started to feel whether it was unsafe?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: First year was safe. The violence started the second year.

MARTIN: What happened? Can you tell me what started to concern you?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: You know, because I was a senior interpreter, some of my interpreters, they got shot, or they got killed. And I myself, one day, I was driving going to work, I got shot at three times, but I was lucky. I survived.

MARTIN: It must have been frightening.

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: There was some threatening. I've got some threat on my cell phone and at work at one point, they started...

MARTIN: You mean, I am sorry. You received threatening phone calls on your cell phone?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. And at work one day, I thought that they were going to reach my family. So I decided to leave the country.

MARTIN: Was it a difficult decision to leave?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: It is.

MARTIN: What are some of the things that you think about when you are making the decision to leave?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: You know, leaving my home and my family back, it's a big decision. But I was looking forward for my kids to have a better future. But I was thinking at that time to help with the rebuilt of Iraq, you know. But I didn't get that chance.

MARTIN: You felt in a way that you might be abandoning your country?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Yes. Somehow.

MARTIN: How long did it take you to actually leave the country? From the time you decided to leave to the time you actually arrived in the U.S., how long did it take?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: From the time that I decided to leave my country and go in to Jordan, let's say...

MARTIN: That's how it went. You went to Jordan first?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Yeah, I went to Jordan. And I spent about 14 months over there, and then I left to the States.

MARTIN: It was about 14 months between the time you left Iraq to the time you arrived in the U.S.?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: No, a little more. It's about 20 months or two years.

MARTIN: About 20 months or two years all together. And you were able to bring your family with you?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Yeah.

MARTIN: But I understand that you were not able to bring other family members with you who are also important to you, sisters, brothers, your mother. Is that right?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Yeah. Yeah. Well, because all of them, they are back in Iraq.

MARTIN: How are they doing?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: You know, one day they'll say it's OK. The other day they'll say it's not safe. But the whole picture is not safe.

MARTIN: Is it hard to talk to them there and missing them and worrying about them?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: It is very hard, you know, because I am dividing myself here between creating a new life for me and my family and worrying about my other family back in Iraq.

MARTIN: What was it like coming here?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: The journey was so hard. It takes about 24 hours, but being here in the States was kind of a dream. But at the same time, you know, part of me is still back in Iraq.

MARTIN: Did you feel welcomed when you came?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Very. Very.

MARTIN: How? Like give an example.

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Because, you know - you know, the agency that are responsible for me, they were arranging some airport - greeting for me at the airport. There was church members, families, a case manager, some employee from the agency that welcomed me at the airport. It was very nice of them to feel that you are among a family.

MARTIN: And you felt that your presence was welcome, that, you know, your people were happy to see you?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Exactly.

MARTIN: And it was easier for you to come, I take it, because you had worked for the military, is that correct?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you are listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We are speaking with Basim Alkhafaji about efforts to resettle Iraqis who have been displaced by war.

I'm sure you are aware of this, that the U.S. has been criticized by many international organizations for not welcoming more Iraqis here. To this point, about 7,000 Iraqis have been resettled in the U.S. And when U.S. officials have been asked about this, one of the things that they say is that it's very important to investigate the backgrounds of the people who are being brought here. Were you asked many questions, sort of to determine, you know, whether, you know, what your ties were and so forth, and how was that process?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Actually, because I have a lot of documents, recommendations, that helped me a lot for my interviews and the processing. So I think I got less questions than everybody else because I documented everything, even my incident, you know, the shooting. So that things I think helped me a lot.

MARTIN: Was it you specifically that was under threat, or was it just anybody working with the U.S. was - became a target?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: No, actually, anybody.

MARTIN: So what are you up to now, and how is your family doing here, your children and your wife?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: They are doing fine, but you know, the first year, it's very hard because it's a new place, a new life, a new system. And my wife, she is not working right now. She is taking care of the kids. And sometimes, she feel lonely at home since I'm spending most of the day outside working.

MARTIN: You are working now helping other refuges resettle, as I understand it?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Exactly. Yes.

MARTIN: What are some other challenges they face, and can you talk a little bit about that?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Everybody here has to work as soon as possible, especially for the people who cannot speak English. Of course, therefore, the key for the success in this country, communication with other people, so the language. This is the challenge that I have with the refugees who cannot speak the language.

MARTIN: I can imagine. It's difficult especially, I would think, if you haven't had prior English.

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: It's hard to start over in any language.

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Yes. But I keep telling the other refugees, it's only hard at the first year. After they settle, they start their first job, things will come easier more and more, especially they are getting some support from the government, from the agencies.

MARTIN: What's the best part about being here, and what's the worst part?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: The best part here is the freedom and safety. And the worst part is being far from my country and my family.

MARTIN: The reports say, though, that perhaps the violence is diminishing, that perhaps the situation is becoming more stable. Does your family feel this way also?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Sometimes. It will be stable for a month, two months. But after that, it will get worse.

MARTIN: And just finally, I don't know if you are in touch with the people who are in either Jordan or Syria, but the other reports say that the conditions there for some people are not particularly good, that there is a sense that perhaps their host countries are becoming tired of having people, and that there is pressure for people to leave. Are you hearing that as well?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Yes. And because even before I came here to the States, I start to feel this, that the Iraqis, they are not welcomed anymore in Jordan.

MARTIN: Does anybody say that to your face? I mean, does anyone say to you directly, you know, go home, or why are you here, that kind of thing? Or is it more just in the atmosphere?

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: No, no, no. In the atmosphere.

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you.

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Thank you.

MARTIN: I hope all goes well for you.

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: Basim Alkhafaji worked as a senior interpreter for the U.S. military in Baghdad. He now helps other Iraqis resettle through Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest in Arizona. He joined us from his office. Thank you again for joining us.

Mr. ALKHAFAJI: Thank you very much.

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