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.
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.
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.
Johnson, his co-workers, and the lawyers help the people on the list assemble their documents. Then they shepherd them through the process that, for fortunate ones, takes a year. It often takes much longer.
The Byzantine process requires Iraqis to travel to neighboring countries several times for interviews and background checks – costly and dangerous journeys. Countries often turn Iraqis away at the border. The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, passed as part of the Defense Authorization Bill for 2008, will allow select Iraqis to be processed in Iraq.
Johnson is from West Chicago: "Bush Country," he calls it. His parents twice voted for the president and support the war. But Johnson's efforts have shifted from trying to massage the bureaucracy to mustering public pressure on President Bush to address America's imperiled Iraqi employees.
"He's the only one that can save them quickly," says Johnson. He rattles off statistics of refugees evacuated on presidential orders – including Iraqis in 1996.
"The most difficult part is the fact that this list has become a source of such hope for these Iraqis," Johnson says, given their slim chances of making it to safety.
According to the State Department, just 1,068 Iraqis entered the US out of 7,000 allotted slots in fiscal year 2007. That's out of 4.4 million the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says have been internally displaced or fled.
Kelly Ryan, deputy assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, says they welcome Johnson's effort, particularly before the government had a way for Iraqis to contact them. Now, she says, they want Iraqis to contact the State Department directly through a new e-mail.
"What's so maddening about this issue is everyone agrees with you," Johnson says. "They've had security checks, marines vouching for them, yet we've been talking about this for a year and a half."
Those waiting include one man who "wrote to me last week and signed off saying, 'The destinies of my children are in your hands,' and he attached a picture of his kids," he says.
Another family on the list had a daughter killed in 2005 because she worked for USAID. Her sister escaped after a death threat. Their brother owned a printing press and, under a US-funded contract, printed materials for Iraq's elections. He too received a death threat, as did his wife, who worked for a US reconstruction company. His father worked for US contractor KBR and was kidnapped but escaped.
But there are a few bright spots. The three Iraqis working with Johnson here are former USAID colleagues who had been threatened. Also, Yaghdan, the colleague Johnson wrote about in the Los Angeles Times, has arrived here.
Johnson's is a "popsicle stand" operation, as he calls it. But demand is ballooning – one week he received 1,200 e-mails.
"He's got literally 1,000 people's lives on his mind. It's a tremendous amount of courage," says Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, whose group passes names along to Johnson.
But Johnson is uncomfortable with praise.
"I still at the end of the day go to sleep with the mountain of people who haven't gotten here," he says. "In the end, there are so many people left living in misery and fear … I don't feel like I've saved anybody."