Iraqi Interpreters Hope Visas Come Before Militants During the Iraq War, the U.S. military employed tens of thousands of Iraqis, many of whom were branded traitors. Now, the U.S. troops are gone. But some of those Iraqis have been left behind — in danger and desperately awaiting American visas so they and their families can leave.

Iraqi Interpreters Hope Visas Come Before Militants

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Over the course of the war in Iraq, tens of thousands of Iraqis took jobs with the U.S. military. For doing that, many were branded traitors by hard-line Iraqi groups and often targeted by militias.

Now, the U.S. troops are gone and there are still at least a couple of thousand Iraqis, especially interpreters, who worked with the U.S. and they're desperately waiting for American visas. That process takes years.

NPR's Sean Carberry brings us the story of one interpreter, or terp, as they're called, who's hoping to get his visa before militants get him.

JOHNNIE: My name is Johnnie. It's my nickname. I served from 2007 'til 2010 with the Marine Corps as a linguist with different units and from 2010 'til 2011, I also worked with the U.S. Army, as well, in Fallujah and Ramadi.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Johnnie signed up for the same reason many terps did.

JOHNNIE: Because I wanted to do a good job for Iraq and the United States to facilitate the mission between the U.S. government and Iraqi government.

CARBERRY: But it was a difficult decision that came with a great deal of risk.

JOHNNIE: It is difficult because the death we're facing, like, every day during the job and even when you going on leave, you have to do something to cover yourself, to protect yourself. I've been shot at multiple times.

CARBERRY: He's not talking about being shot on the job.

JOHNNIE: I also work in Diyala Province, which is located northeast of Baghdad. I went on leave with three or four terps and four of us, we got shot at, one of the guys wounded.

CARBERRY: Another time he was driving with his brother and they were chased. His brother was shot. He survived, but is disabled. Another brother was kidnapped in 2008 and hasn't been heard from since. Johnnie says that he didn't expect any of this when he signed on to be an interpreter.

JOHNNIE: If they find your house, you live in that house, they will come to your house and kill you, including your whole family. It's too dangerous for us. I don't feel safe. I don't feel safe. Not me, not my family.

CARBERRY: In 2007, the U.S. government set up a special immigrant visa program for terps and others who worked at least a year with the U.S. in Iraq. The number of slots is limited and the process is long and complicated, but Johnnie decided it was the only safe option for him and his family.

JOHNNIE: I gave all the information to the U.S. Embassy and, 'til right now, 'til this moment, nothing comes up. It's still in the process. It's still in the process. It's actually, it's a frustration.

CARBERRY: Johnnie has the support of the soldiers and Marines he served with, but the State Department has taken two and a half years processing his application and he has no idea when or if he will receive a visa.

In the meantime, he hides in his house. He goes out maybe once a week. He can't work to support his family.

JOHNNIE: My mom keep telling me - what you have done? What you have done? I said, mom, I've done a good job. And she'll be like, what do you mean, you have done a good job? You've been waiting for your visa for the last nine months. I just shake my head. I don't know what to tell my mom about it.

CARBERRY: Even though he believes in the work he did, he's now questioning whether he made the right choice to work with the U.S.

JOHNNIE: And I don't know what's going to happen after 2011. I never thought – I never thought that people's going to kidnap my brother and people are going to chase me and to kill me. I never thought about it.

CARBERRY: Advocates say there's no good explanation for why it takes so long and why so few visas have been issued. They say it's a lack of political will as much as it is a surplus of bureaucracy. Senior officials at the State Department say they're exploring all avenues to keep the U.S. safe from credible threats while meeting their commitment to the Iraqis who worked for the U.S.

But no matter how fast they process applications, it'll never be fast enough for the thousands of people like Johnnie who risked their lives and are now jobless and in danger.

JOHNNIE: And I don't know what I'm going to face, not today, not tomorrow, maybe next month or next year. I hope I get my visa after Christmas so I can leave. I hope so. I'm praying every day. My mom praying every day for me.

CARBERRY: At this point, there's not much else Johnnie or his family can do. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Baghdad.

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