Safaa Wadi moved to this former mill city after his life was threatened in his native Iraq while serving as an interpreter for the US Army. He expects to soon head back to Iraq – not as a civilian interpreter, but as a US soldier.
Mr. Wadi arrived in the United States in September with a special immigrant visa for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters. But with his savings nearly depleted and unable to land a decent job, Wadi enlisted in the Army. He begins training in South Carolina Monday.
Wadi isn't worried about returning to Iraq, where many of his countrymen considered him a traitor because he worked with American forces. His allegiance is now to the United States, he says.
"I want to serve this country because this country returned to me my life," Wadi says. "If I had stayed in Iraq, I'd be dead now."
In the modest two-bedroom apartment Wadi shares with three other Iraqi immigrants, the walls are bare except for photos taken in Iraq of him and other interpreters with US soldiers. He points to a fellow Iraqi interpreter smiling for the camera. "He was killed," he says.
Iraqi interpreters working for US forces often face grave danger. They receive instant messages on their cell-phones threatening harm to them or their families. Some of their cars get blown up. Some get shot. Some are killed.
The United States responded by increasing from 50 to 500 the annual number of interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan who were allowed to immigrate here in the past two fiscal years. Wadi was one of 1,880 applicants for the slots, immigration officials say.
For some who have moved here the realities of life in the US have fallen short of their hopes.
The men, many of whom studied at the college level and owned homes and cars in Iraq, have had a hard time finding work. There's no market here for Arab interpreters, so they're learning to write résumés, network, and apply for other jobs.
Nationwide, hundreds of interpreters are having a tough time, says Francie Genz, outreach coordinator with Upwardly Global, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps professionals re-establish themselves in the US.
Some face a daunting choice: stay in America and work in low-wage jobs or return to Iraq for high-paying – but dangerous – jobs as interpreters.
"It's kind of a shameful predicament that that's their choice," Ms. Genz says.
Few people in Iraq know he and his roommates are in the US, they say. Instead, people in Iraq think the men are attending school or working jobs elsewhere.
One of Wadi's housemates has found a job at a visa processing center. The pay is low, but it's a start, he says.
Despite difficulties finding work, decent housing, and convenient public transportation, Wadi and others resist the temptation to return to Iraq as interpreters. It's just not safe, they say.
Wadi decided last summer to leave Iraq. Now he says the time has come to put on a uniform. This week, he'll become Army Specialist Wadi. "I think I'm the first guy to do this," he says.
An Army spokeswoman says she's unaware of any other Iraqi interpreters joining the Army. But they are welcome to do so. Enlisting would give them good benefits and put them on the path toward US citizenship while filling a need for the Army, Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb says.
Wadi expects to be used as an interpreter again when he returns to Iraq. He plans to put in four years in the military.
"After the Army," he said, "I hope to go to an American university, get a job, and be a productive citizen."