Interpreter Prepares for Return to Iraq Almost 500 men and women who worked as interpreters for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been moved to the U.S. in the past year. But one woman is returning to Iraq after having trouble adjusting to life in America.
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Interpreter Prepares for Return to Iraq

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Interpreter Prepares for Return to Iraq

Interpreter Prepares for Return to Iraq

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This year, 500 Iraqi and Afghan interpreters are receiving special visas. They leave dangerous jobs working with the American military to seek lives of safety in the U.S. But for many, the story doesn't end there.

Chana Joffe-Walt of member station KPLU met one of those interpreters.

U: (Foreign language spoken)

CHANA JOFFE: It's quiet here in suburban Seattle. The kids have been playing outside all afternoon, and Usrah al-Ani(ph) has not worried about them once. But when her three boys finally come in, sweaty foreheads, their new skateboards tucked proudly under their arms, Usrah's mind is back in Baghdad.

She's sitting at the computer watching a slide show, friends and memories from four years as an interpreter.

NORRIS: That's Lieutenant Colonel Leonard, the Marine.

JOFFE: Watching Usrah here, it's almost like watching a kid exclaim over a photo album from summer camp. Her boys gather around, and she's filled with sentimental giggles and anecdotes, pointing.

NORRIS: This is me and a captain. (unintelligible) This is me.

JOFFE: There is something so strange about this moment right here, the longing in Usrah's voice, because here is what is not in this syrupy trip down memory lane: Because of her job, Usrah was shot at in her car from a rooftop. She was harassed, followed home from work at night.

Her middle child, Abdullah, has Down's syndrome. Insurgents nearby were tying bombs to disabled people and sending them into crowded markets. Usrah stopped letting Abdullah leave the house. But the real end for her came when another interpreter, a woman who had worked alongside Usrah, was killed.

NORRIS: And they still have pictures on the Internet, and it was really, you know, bruises and the nose broken, and then she was killed, but not straight away.

JOFFE: Usrah applied to come to the U.S. after that. The family received special immigrant status. She's here. Her family's here. They're safe. But ask Usrah what she wants to do...

NORRIS: To work as an interpreter for the U.S. troops back in Iraq.

JOFFE: Do you want to go back?

NORRIS: Yes.

JOFFE: Why would she want to go back to the very job that put her life on the line? Well, first off, let me show you Usrah's new American workplace.

NORRIS: Do you want to go outside, Mike?

MIKE: Is it cold today?

NORRIS: Well, if you want to try it. Just open the door and see.

JOFFE: Usrah is now a very part-time caretaker for the elderly. Her husband, who doesn't speak English, has only found sporadic landscaping work. It's been seven months since the al-Ani family escaped danger in Iraq, only to face a brand-new problem: They don't make enough money. And all the while, Usrah knows there's a job she can do.

NORRIS: I'll keep my children and husband safe here. I'll go back to Iraq and work, and I can send them money, and that's how they can live until we can stand on our feet, until, you know, most of the interpreters, that's what they're all thinking of.

JOFFE: Usrah means other former Iraqi interpreters who have since been welcomed to the U.S. like her. She says everyone she came over with wants to go back. I mentioned that to Jason Fayler(ph), an Army captain from Oregon who helps bring Iraqi interpreters to the U.S.

NORRIS: It doesn't surprise me. Every single one of them that I've spoken to has contemplated going back because things are just so hard here.

JOFFE: It may sound like a questionable move, to abandon hard-earned safety just for some dough, but it's a lot of dough. As Iraqis, interpreters like Usrah made a thousand bucks a month, about 12,000 a year. That's a lot in Iraq.

NORRIS: But if you're hired from the United States, the base salary level starts at about $140,000.

JOFFE: That's Terry Sharp, director of recruitment at Global Linguistic Solutions, or GLS. It's the defense contractor that hires interpreters for the troops. And he estimates that about 5 percent of his American hires already served U.S. troops as Iraqis.

Usrah has applied to GLS to return to Iraq, but she's been on hold for the past couple of months. Meanwhile, the company has been sending Arabic-speaking American citizens, which Usrah finds really upsetting.

NORRIS: Sending the U.S. citizens, the Iraqis who have been here for so long, or the Egyptians or the Sudanese, I mean, that doesn't make sense, because they don't know what war is. And they don't know what really happened there, and they didn't live with it. We're the ones who lived with it.

JOFFE: Iraq, she says, is her country. This war is her war. Last week, Usrah got an email from GLS asking for her paperwork and documentation. They're beginning to send her former colleagues back to Iraq. If they call her up to service, Usrah says she'll kiss her kids and her husband goodbye and be on the next plane back home. For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt in Seattle.

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