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The List Project: a commitment to helping Iraqis find refuge in the US

Kirk Johnson is devoted to helping Iraqis resettle in the US. Hundreds, faced with death threats, are still waiting.

By Jill CarrollStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2008

Casework: Kirk Johnson, a former USAID worker in Iraq, thumbs through a binder filled with cases of Iraqis who worked with the US government or military in Iraq. All want to live in the US, afraid they will be killed if they remain in their country.

Jill Carroll

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New York

The e-mail attachment reveals a face disfigured from eight bullet wounds. The message, sent from Iraq, could have been pared down to a single word: Help.

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Kirk Johnson carefully files it with hundreds of others from Iraqis who are in peril because they worked for the United States or its allies.

It is the personal pull of such messages that drives Mr. Johnson and his List Project. For a year, he has doggedly worked to help Iraqis enter the US. To date, 20 have arrived. Yet more than 800 people remain on his growing list. "I will have people die on my list before the next president is elected," he says.

Saving lives is not how Johnson had planned to make a difference. He went to Iraq in January 2005 to work on reconstruction projects for the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

He traded the relative safety of Baghdad's Green Zone for the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah and spent eight months intensely focused on making change. His first project was almost ready to start when he left for vacation in December 2005.

But while away, he suffered a serious injury. His job contract in Iraq expired while he recovered, setting him adrift. Then in the winter of 2006 a former Iraqi colleague, Yaghdan, e-mailed him. Someone had left a severed dog's head with a death threat on his doorstep. Johnson sought help and discovered the US government had no system to bring its Iraqi employees to safety. Outraged, he penned a commentary in the Los Angeles Times. E-mails poured in.

"I hadn't realized how many people had suffered Yaghdan's situation or worse," Johnson says. So he searched for his other Iraqi colleagues and found that 50, roughly half, had fled Iraq or were in hiding.

The State Department's Bureau of Population, Refu­gees, and Migration promised to give them priority. That was in February 2007. But time passed, and none seemed any closer to coming to safety. "The bureaucracy is just incapable of saving these people," Johnson says.

He pulls up a picture on his computer, a group shot of USAID workers he took in Baghdad in 2005. His finger touches the faces of those now dead or forced to flee.

The imminent danger facing the people on his list drives Johnson through long days juggling phone calls to two law firms helping to handle the cases pro bono. He also talks with key agencies in the refugee-processing system and to groups that might have still more names. He sifts through the e-mails that keep pouring in with pleas for help. Ties to the US or its allies can still be a death sentence in Iraq.

When Johnson started, he dedicated every penny he had to saving lives, relying on friends for housing. "There was a point when I'd buy a box of Triscuits and see how many meals I could get out of it," he says.

Today, one of the law firms lets him use an extra apartment. He funds the Project, including hiring three Iraqi staffers, from money donated by a philanthropic couple and the California-based Tides Foundation – enough for seven more months.