Iraqis With Ties to U.S. Cross Border Into Despair

Mustafa Ahmed holds a written death threat and a letter that praises his work for ACDI/VOCA, a U.S.-funded nonprofit group for which he worked.
Mustafa Ahmed holds a written death threat and a letter that praises his work for ACDI/VOCA, a U.S.-funded nonprofit group for which he worked. (Photos By Yasmin Mousa For The Washington Post)

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 17, 2007

AMMAN, Jordan -- At every opportunity, the Iraqis pull out photos of themselves side by side with U.S. soldiers, photos they feared to share inside their country. They offer up laminated notes of appreciation from American commanders. They flash expired U.S. Embassy badges they still keep in their wallets.

Thousands of Iraqi employees of U.S. contractors, forced to flee to this capital out of fear, are desperately trying to leverage their American ties into entry to the United States. But most languish for months in a bureaucratic and psychological limbo, their status as uncertain as their future.

"We are here only because of our work with the Americans," said Intisar Ibrahim, 53, a tall, solemn engineer who left Iraq two years ago. "They have an obligation to help us, but until now we have not seen any help."

More than four years after the U.S.-led invasion, the number of Iraqis being resettled in the United States is expanding, although the numbers are minuscule and the pace is glacial. Only those who have worked directly for the U.S. government or military -- a tiny percentage of the refugees -- are eligible for fast-track immigration processing. An estimated 100,000 Iraqis employed by U.S. contractors -- from office cleaners to managers to highly skilled professionals -- have much lower priority, although they faced similar dangers and underwent rigorous background checks.

In Iraq, these workers paid a price for being America's allies. They led double lives sheathed in lies and secrecy. Many were killed. Those fortunate enough to make it to Jordan have found that life as a refugee is precarious.

Their fates are influenced by post-Sept. 11 security concerns, dwindling bank accounts and the growing impatience of Iraq's neighbors with the flood of refugees. They fear having to return to Iraq, their clandestine lives and, in their minds, certain death.

"For how long can I wait?" asked Mohammed Ameen, 40, a computer engineer who arrived here 20 months ago. Ameen and other Iraqis interviewed for this article asked that only portions of their names be used to shield them and their relatives in Iraq from persecution.

Between Oct. 1, 2006, and Oct. 15 of this year, 1,636 Iraqis were resettled in the United States at a time when as many as 3,000 a day were fleeing Iraq. Last month, the United States announced it would accept 12,000 Iraqis over the next year. But with 2.2 million Iraqis displaced abroad, human rights groups and some members of Congress have criticized the overture as a token gesture. In comparison, the United States has taken in 1 million refugees from Vietnam, 600,000 from the former Soviet Union and 157,000 from Kosovo and Bosnia.

Rafiq A. Tschannen, Jordan director of the International Organization for Migration, which oversees the U.S. resettlement program, said the United States has a responsibility to take in many more Iraqis who worked for the U.S. war effort.

"If you put somebody's life in danger, just to say 'Thank you and goodbye' is not enough," Tschannen said. "They are highly educated. They come from good families. They are the best of immigrants. It's not as if you are taking in people who will be on Social Security for the rest of their lives."

Ibrahim, the engineer, a lavender scarf covering her brown hair, stared in silence at a letter thanking her for "exceptional dedication and quality of workmanship" in rehabilitating living and working quarters for the U.S. Army. Dated Nov. 17, 2003, it was signed by Lt. Col. Charles E. Williams, commander of the 1st Armored Division's 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment.

She smiled and remembered when she won the contract to do the work from KBR, a Houston-based engineering firm. Company managers, she said, treated her as an equal and rewarded good work with more contracts. As she spoke, she pulled her expired KBR badge from her handbag.

CONTINUED     1           >

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