Iraqi interpreters: hope rises to go to U.S.

President Bush extended a law that could give some of the thousands of interpreters working for the American military refuge in the US under a special visa program.

Sam Dagher
Love in A Time of war: Iraqi interpreters Sarah (l.) and Chris hope their service for the US military earns them a special visa to immigrate.

In war, love tends to blossom quickly. Just three months after Sarah and Chris met in Baghdad, they were married. Now, three years later, they hope to raise a family in America, far away from the sectarian violence and turmoil that they witness every day.

Chris and Sarah, nicknames they asked to use because of security concerns, are interpreters who work for a civil affairs unit of the United States Army. Like thousands of other Iraqi nationals working for the American military here, they have risked it all for their jobs.

Sarah says her name is on a militant hit-list. Her mother was forced to flee her own home because of death threats. Chris's parents' home was bombed twice. And he has lost 11 of his interpreter friends and colleagues since 2006.

The Shiite couple say there is even a $20,000 reward offered by militants for killing interpreters. The amount is double for female interpreters. Extremists consider it a dishonorable profession for women, says Sarah.

"We need a long time before we become a good country. We want kids but we do not want to raise them here," she says.

"It's a violent and sectarian society; I do not want my kids to grow up here," adds Chris.

Their dream of leaving Iraq appears to be more within reach.

On June 3, President Bush extended a law through 2012 that will continue to offer Iraqi and Afghan interpreters working for the military and the State Department possible entrance to the US under the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. It comes after his administration has been criticized for making the process too restrictive and complicated for Iraqis working to serve the American missions.

According to the State Department, the US says it will resettle 12,000 "of the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees by September 30, 2008." But progress has been slow. So far, it says, the US has resettled 4,742 Iraqis "in the United States as refugees" as of May 31, including 763 Iraqi interpreters and 690 of their dependents.
The US had met its quota of 500 SIVs for interpreters for 2008. New legislation passed in January, however, made 5,000 additional SIVs available in a separate category. Until September this year, applications from both Iraqi and Afghan interpreters that were approved after the visa cap for the translator program was reached will be processed under this new category.
In 2009, however, the State Department will revert to legislation passed in 2006 and grant only 50 SIVs to translators. [Editor's note: The original version did not give the full picture of how existing and new US laws apply to Iraqi translators working for the US military and government.]

The first time Sarah met Chris was when he was with a group of American soldiers transporting a suspected senior operative of Al Qaeda in Iraq to a maximum security US detention facility in Baghdad.

While their courtship and marriage was relatively speedy, their actual wedding party had to wait until they could go on leave together in 2006.

Last year, new Army rules allowed the couple to work and even live together on the same base in Baghdad.

Sarah is an observant Muslim who has found a creative way to wear her hijab, or head cover, on duty. All interpreters are issued the same digital camouflage pattern uniforms worn by the US soldiers. Sarah has turned the Army balaclava of the same pattern and color into a hijab.

Chris hopes to soon get a date for their appointment for an interview at the US Embassy in Jordan to move along the process for the SIV.

He has completed all the steps of the arduous application that requires an Army general to vouch for their character and good standing.

Their sponsor is Sgt. Howard Kott of Muskegon, Mich. The scenic Great Lakes city will be their destination if their application is approved. They will receive money from the government for resettlement and a Green Card within three months of their arrival because of their special status.

"Even if the situation in Iraq improves, the influence of extremists will always be great," says Chris.

The couple speak of the endemic corruption and sectarianism they witness firsthand among Iraqi officials they come in contact with because of their jobs.

"Trust me, you do not know what the truth is. The politicians may say a lot of good things on TV but it's not true," says Sarah.

They say that they have no faith in their own security forces either and even accuse an Iraqi Army unit of having raided an apartment that they had rented off base to use when on leave and stolen their money, Sarah's jewelry, and other possessions. They say US troops can't leave the country for a long time because Iraqi forces are not ready to take over responsibilities.

"You have to baby-sit the Iraqi Army, you can't leave them alone," says Chris. "If multinational forces leave Iraq it will be a humanitarian, social and political catastrophe."

They say they are willing to come back to Iraq to be interpreters again after they spend some time in America.

Both describe the frequent arguments they have with US soldiers stationed in Iraq who do not believe they are fighting for a worthy cause and speak disparagingly of Bush.

Chris says he reminds soldiers of the "mass graves and horrors" of Saddam Hussein.

"I tell them 'you have to thank God for a president like Bush,' " says Sarah.

Jill Carroll contributed reporting from Washington.

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