Iraqi Journalists Offered U.S. Asylum Face Fears
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Reporting the news from Iraq is a dangerous endeavor. And you find out just how dangerous when you hear this number. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 179 reporters and media workers have been killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion back in 2003. We hear about it when Americans are killed. We hear about it more often anyway. But most often the victims are Iraqis.
In a new program, the U.S. government is now allowing Iraqis who work for American-based media companies to apply for refugee status in the United States. Those eligible include NPR Iraqi staffers in Baghdad who've brought you many stories. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has this Reporter's Notebook.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pretty much our entire Iraqi staff wants to go to the U.S., and I can't really blame them. Take what happened to our local reporter, Keis(ph), two years ago.
KEIS: Two cars were following me, and then eight people, I mean, came, carrying weapons. They hit me five, six times in my neck. They tried to kidnap me and then ask my family about money, you know.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: They dumped his unconscious body onto the street. Keis suffered severe head injuries. It took him a year to recover.
Being linked to an American organization here can get you killed by militants, or kidnapped by people thinking you have a lot of money. Every single one of our Iraqi staff - from the cleaner to the drivers to the guards to the local reporters - have to lie about where they work.
GUSAN(ph): I'm a journalist. I'm supposed to tell the truth. But my own life, I'm telling lies.
SALEEM(ph): My family, I always tell them if anybody will call you and even if you hear my voice, do not ever, ever bring any American media into my home, because that means death penalty.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Gusan and Saleem, two of our Iraqi reporters. Despite the risks that they and other Iraqis have faced, it's been almost impossible up until now for them to get to the U.S. A newly expanded refugee program is supposed to make it easier.
For many of the staff, getting to the States has been a treasured dream. Still, when I first told them about the new opportunity, there was a kind of stunned silence.
I need to know who's doing it, how many family members you want to bring, you know…
I thought there was going to be a stampede. Instead, there was nothing for days. Then one by one they came to talk to me. They'd finally been offered what they had said they wanted. But they were finding it harder than they thought to decide what to do. Saleem has gone back and forth. It's the small worries that keep him awake at night, pondering whether or not to take the chance.
Are you scared of going to the States?
SALEEM: It's the scariest feeling that I ever have, you know. If I had lost my wallet over here nothing can happen. I can get a taxi, go to one of my brother's old friends and they will, you know, get me the money. But if I get lost in the States or if I lost my wallet, what am I going to do? You know, all these things keep stuck in my head.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraqis have a strong sense of family. Saleem wonders who'll be there to help them in the vast unknown that is America.
Gusan is afraid of losing his cultural identity.
GUSAN: The picture that we're getting from movies is very bad. People getting drunk everyday, having no social life, killing each other, dealing with the drugs, dealing with sex in the streets. So everything that our values reject, our religion rejects, I find is in the States.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's also heard that after 9/11, Muslims are treated with suspicion. At least here, he says, he's among his own kind.
Keis loves American films and American clothes. He's single and hip and young. He's been afraid of his fellow Iraqis ever since he was attacked.
KEIS: Everybody see me, they told me you fit in States. You don't fit here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You think you'd fit in there?
KEIS: Yeah. I mean, everybody's told me that, and I think that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the end, despite their worries, almost all of our Iraqi staff wants to apply to become a refugee. I'm happy that after sacrificing so much for us, if they're approved, they and their families will be safe. What's so sad is that most of our employees don't want to leave this country. They feel they have to.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.
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