JACKI LYDEN, host:
Millions of Iraqis have fled their homes since the U.S. invasion in 2003. More than two million have fled the country, but the greatest number taking refuge in Syria. People like Allam Jaburih(ph) and Mohammed Yusef(ph).
Ms. ALLAM JABURIH (Iraqi Refugee): There was so many trashing letters against me from different kind of militias. In 2005, I was kidnapped.
Mr. MOHAMMED YUSEF (Iraqi Refugee): I am in vengeance because I worked with the Americans. And to be honest with you I don't want to be a body in a plastic bag. I prefer to stay alive.
LYDEN: NPR's Deborah Amos recorded those voices over the past few weeks in her reporting in Syria. She told me Mohammed Yusef's story stands out in her mind.
DEBORAH AMOS: He worked for the Americans in 2003. He helped with the advisers to the Finance Ministry. There came a moment in his job when two of his Iraqi colleagues were assassinated on the street and he said this is too dangerous for me. So, he switched jobs and he started to work for the British broadcasting company as a translator and that went on for about a year.
His problem was that in his neighborhood, the Shiite militia - the Mahdi Army took over his apartment building and they set up an office. And they began to investigate every neighbor in the building. And Mohammed became very afraid. He'd kept his associations with the British and the Americans a secret from everybody but his closest family. He just didn't think he could withstand that investigation. And he knew he would be a marked man.
LYDEN: The United States is supposed to take in 7,000 Iraqis this year. But so far, just about 1,100 have been admitted. What's going on?
AMOS: It's been a bureaucratic nightmare. Homeland Security decided that there would be an even more rigorous interview for Iraqis than any other refugees in the world. And so each one who is eligible for resettlement in the United States has to have a face-to-face interview with these officials from Homeland Security who are known as circuit riders. And they're called that because they make this refugee circuit from Turkey to Syria to Jordan. There're simply not enough of them.
And so it's a backlog, and that is where the bottleneck is. The U.S. ambassador in Iraq in a cable to the state department that was leaked to the Washington Post suggest perhaps, we should scrap the system especially for people - Iraqis who worked for the U.S. These are people, Jacki, who have already been through a rigorous security check. They had to go through it before they worked for the Americans.
LYDEN: What about Iraqis who left years ago? Are exiles helping the brethren who are recently arriving?
AMOS: I met an Iraqi sculptor who had been in Syria and in Europe for 30 years. He'd always sent money back to his family, always longed to see them. He was in political exile. There was no way he could go back to Baghdad. And finally, in 2003, his family was able to rejoin him in Damascus, Syria. And he said, they blackmailed him. They wanted him to give them money. They saw him, as he told me, as an ATM machine.
I hear this so often from Iraqi exiles. They had a fantasy about who the Iraqis were inside Iraq. And they say that Saddam damaged this population. They don't recognize their relatives when they arrive.
LYDEN: Did you meet anybody in Damascus who had returned after the fall of Saddam feeling confident, having returned from exile and then would later on forced to flee?
AMOS: There are many people like that, Jacki. Both in Jordan and in Damascus and even in Lebanon - people who thought in 2003 that this was the beginning of something. And now, this entire population of people are out and will not go back. These are the very people that Iraq needs to rebuild.
LYDEN: NPR's Deborah Amos, speaking to us from Amman, Jordan. Thank you very much, Deborah.
AMOS: Thank you, Jacki.