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World Refugee Day: US Criticized for Failing to Help Iraqi Refugees and Iraqis Who Aided US Occupation

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Over the past five years, the US has resettled just 5,000 Iraqis. Compare that to Sweden, a country of only nine million people, which resettled 18,000 Iraqis last year alone. And among the most desperate seeking asylum are those Iraqis who have been forced from their homes because they helped the US government in Iraq, serving as interpreters and civil society experts for the military, State Department and federal agencies such as USAID. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, it’s World Refugee Day. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, an estimated 4.7 million Iraqis have been displaced both within and outside Iraq. And for many, the situation is desperate.

Jordan and Syria alone have taken in some two million Iraqi refugees but are not equipped to meet the needs of those arriving. In a new report, Amnesty International accuses the international community of failing to respond to the crisis in a meaningful way. As of 2007, only one percent of the total displaced Iraqi population was estimated to be in the industrialized world.

To mark World Refugee Day, Amnesty International is calling on the international community, in particular those countries who participated in the US-led invasion of Iraq, to take real steps to alleviate the suffering of those displaced.

Nowhere is this more relevant than the United States. Over the past five years, the US has resettled about 5,000 Iraqis. Compare that to Sweden, a country of only nine million people, which resettled 18,000 Iraqis last year alone. And among the most desperate seeking asylum are those Iraqis who have been forced from their homes because they helped the US government in Iraq, serving as interpreters and civil society experts for the military, State Department and federal agencies such as USAID.

Today, we’re joined on the phone by one of the few Iraqis who was resettled in the US. Haydar Saeed Assad worked as a translator with the US Army in Najaf for four years, fled Iraq after two attempts on his life, now lives in Ithaca, New York. Maura Stephens is a journalist, educator, peace activist. She recently started a non-profit called Iraqi Refugees Assistance Connection. They’re both with us from Ithaca.

And we’re joined on the phone by Kirk Johnson, founder of the List Project, that helps safely resettle in the United States people whose lives are endangered because of working with the US in Iraq.

Kirk Johnson, tell us the extent of the problem.

KIRK JOHNSON: Boy, that’s a tough question to answer. There has been a number of gestures and good steps by Congress to try to resolve this problem, but the plight of those who have helped us carries on. The List Project is working with roughly 1,000 Iraqis who meet that criteria who are still languishing in the region trying to make it to the US. And we’re dealing with numbers of Iraqis who have been waiting for years trying to make it through this very complicated process. And there’s no signs of this abating. I mean, we’re still getting, you know, dozens of new applicants to join the List Project every week, basically.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the List Project?

KIRK JOHNSON: So, it was founded actually a year ago today. I’ve been so busy, I didn’t realize it was World Refugee Day today. But it basically is a group of, right now, three top law firms, where we’ve managed to get roughly 200 attorneys to represent pro bono the cases of the Iraqis on my list. And they push these cases with the US government and try to help push them through the bureaucracy. We’ve managed to get around a hundred Iraqis in so far.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you’re a former USAID worker in Iraq, suffered PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, when you came back home?


AMY GOODMAN: You tried to get your own translator, interpreter into the United States?

KIRK JOHNSON: Yes. It all started with my — the first friend of mine, who — he had been identified by a militia as having worked for the Americans, because somebody took his picture coming out of the Green Zone. And the next day, he came home and found the severed head of a dog on his front steps with a note pinned to it saying that his head would be next. And when he went to the US government — this was in fall of ’06 — to ask for help, there was nothing they did or apparently could do for him at the time, and I thought that was outrageous. And so, I wrote an op-ed about his situation and thought that that was going to be the extent of my involvement. But that op-ed circulated throughout all of my other former colleagues, and the list sort of began because I started hearing from a number of them who had suffered similar fates.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you get him in?

KIRK JOHNSON: Yes. He actually lives with my parents now in Illinois.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Haydar Saeed Assad, worked as a translator with the US Army in Najaf for four years. How did you get into the United States? And how are you doing in Ithaca, New York?

HAYDAR SAEED ASSAD: Well, thank you very much. It started after 2003, when militias and some people started targeting translators, because of they started work with the United States government. I applied through the bill that passed by the Congress in 2006, allowing 500 translators to come into the United States to live permanently in the United States. Within the help of Maura Stephens — she’s one of the dearest friends of mine — I moved to Ithaca in October of 2007.

AMY GOODMAN: And you came through Syria to come to the United States?


AMY GOODMAN: With your family?

HAYDAR SAEED ASSAD: Yes. This is one of, in fact, the more difficult experiences for me and most of the refugees and the [inaudible] and Iraqis, in general. They have not been treated very well by either government, either two governments, Syrians or Jordanians. They really struggled to live. They really struggled to manage their daily lives. They don’t have any type of income. They don’t been granted as resident for short time either. So this is a very tough problem for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Maura Stephens, you’ve worked with Haydar Saeed Assad, as well as other Iraqi translators, to try to get them into the United States, and then, once here, to deal. You wrote a piece for AlterNet, “US Failing to Help Iraqi Translator and Family Targeted for Execution.” Explain.

MAURA STEPHENS: Yes, that was actually Haydar’s colleague, Dhia Abed Waheed, who with his family — well, his family’s home was bombed. He was a friend of mine from before the invasion. I met him just a few weeks before the invasion and got to know him well in Baghdad, where he was working. And I went back looking for him in the summer of ’03 after the invasion, couldn’t find him. Six months later, I heard from his officer, US Army officer, telling me that he was safe and that he was working for the Army. Well, he worked for the Army four years, and he and his family endured unspeakable hardship because of his work with the US government. And I spent two years trying to get him out. And it was really a nightmare working through the State Department and the National Visa Center. And fortunately, he made it here safely in September, and Haydar came shortly after.

AMY GOODMAN: Maura Stephens, what are you doing around Congress now? This figure of, you know, small Sweden accepting 18,000 Iraqis; the United States, which led the invasion, over five years accepting 5,000?

MAURA STEPHENS: I know. It’s simply disgraceful. And I actually — my new group, Iraqi Refugee Assistance connection, has petitioned Congress for certain things, including ensuring that the criteria for acceptance into the United States as a refugee for interpreters should not include needing a letter from a general or a flag officer. There was a law passed saying that that would not be allowed, but both Dhia an Haydar were forced to get letters from generals. And you probably know, there aren’t very many generals walking around Iraq talking to interpreters.

Also, they had no financial assistance. They had to pay their own way to Syria or Jordan and often lived there for months while waiting for approval. And then they had to pay their own way here. So we want to speed the visa application process to no more than four days and offer financial assistance during the waiting period, as well as airfare to the city where the interpreter is going, and other things.

AMY GOODMAN: Kirk Johnson, the piece that you wrote that got so much attention, “Hounded by Insurgents, Abandoned by [Us],” what can people do today?

KIRK JOHNSON: Well, I mean, they can support groups like Maura’s that just started up. There are so many people who have been trying — who care about this issue, who have been trying to make a difference. And sometimes it gets a little frustrating, because it seems as though this is the most obvious moral imperatives that the war has presented.

And frankly, Congress, you know, they have tried. There was a bipartisan group of senators that passed legislation. But the main hang-up right now is the White House. And our president still hasn’t uttered a syllable yet about what he thinks we owe Iraqis who are running for their lives because they decided to help our troops and our State Department and government officials.

To that end, I mean, you know, the List Project, we have things — people are forming List Project chapters throughout the country now that are working —- we give them sort of the rough idea, but then they work with their local congregations and other networks to try to help the Iraqis that we’ve helped get in. So, you know, they’re going to figure out what -—

AMY GOODMAN: Is there any chance of increasing the number that are allowed into the United States? Amnesty International particularly calling on the United States and the countries that were in the invasion to accept the refugees.

KIRK JOHNSON: What I’ve been pushing for, I think, is a reconsideration of Operation Pacific Haven, which is what we did in 1996 after a failed coup in the north of Iraq. And President Clinton surveyed the traditional resettlement process and realized that it wasn’t going to move quickly enough, which is emblematic of today. And so, he ordered an airlift to our military base on Guam. And over the course of a week or so, he airlifted out nearly 7,000 Iraqis, where they were processed there. They were kept safe from Saddam in Guam, and Americans were kept safe from any potential bad apple. Those Iraqis are now all Americans. They’ve been living in our country for a long time. They’re productive citizens. There’s no reason to suggest that we couldn’t do the same thing again.

AMY GOODMAN: Kirk Johnson, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us, former USAID worker, works with the List Project; Maura Stephens, for being with us from Ithaca; and finally, Haydar Saeed Assad, an Iraqi translator now living in Ithaca, New York.

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