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.
"I always felt like they are my family," Ibrahim said. "All my employees liked to work for the Americans. Those were the best years of my life."
By 2004, Ibrahim had started carrying a gun in her purse and had hired a bodyguard. When she entered the Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and American contracting firms are based, she wore a head-to-toe black abaya. Once inside, she put on jeans and running shoes.
"I changed my personality," she said.
Then, one Friday, her bodyguard was kidnapped. A few days later, his kidnappers called his family seeking Ibrahim's whereabouts. They knew she worked for the Americans.
For three days, Ibrahim and her family stayed inside their house and slept with guns beside their beds. Within a week, they fled to Amman.
That was two years ago. Since then, Ibrahim has seen scores of colleagues and friends who worked for U.S. contractors flee Iraq. "I have never heard of anybody who went to the United States," she said.
Her nephew Ammar Ibrahim, a Shiite, lived in the Sunni-dominated Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiyah, but his biggest fear was not sectarian strife. He worked at a Baghdad power plant operated by General Electric.
"There is no difference between Sunni and Shia when you work for the Americans," Ammar said. "Both sides want to kill you."
He didn't trust anyone. He hired relatives of employees to avoid meeting strangers. Each day, he traveled a different route to and from the plant to avoid suffering the same fate as his aunt's bodyguard. He always hid his GE identification card in case he was stopped. "Even my closest friends didn't know I worked with the Americans," he said.
Eleven months ago, when the contract expired, the slim, serious 25-year-old engineer arrived in Amman. He applied for resettlement and in June interviewed with a U.N. refugee officer. Ammar pulled out his GE identification card and expressed his hope of going to the United States. The officer, he said, hardly glanced at his card.
"He didn't care," Ammar said. "It was irrelevant to him."
In a situation in which virtually every Iraqi has a history of misery, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees gives priority to such people as victims of abduction and torture, and those in dire need of medical care. More than a quarter of the referrals for resettlement in the United States this year were women put at risk by the war, U.N. officials said.
Ammar Ibrahim resents that employees of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and U.S. military interpreters have better odds of reaching the United States than he does. "It's not fair. We were in more danger than them. We worked on different sites, and none were as secure as the Green Zone," he said. "The translators for the Army covered their faces when they worked. Nobody knows them. I could never cover my face at my job."
Mustafa Ahmed, 33, a computer engineer from Mosul, received a letter in October 2004 that branded him "a traitor" and said he "deserve[d] to be beheaded." His crime? He worked for ACDI/VOCA, a U.S. government-funded nonprofit that hands out micro-loans to impoverished Iraqis. So he fled to Jordan.
"Until this day, I look over my shoulder," Ahmed said.
Mohammed Ameen, burly with a long face and moustache, used his engineering skills to help set up MCI's telephone network in Baghdad, which is used by U.S. and Iraqi officials. He fled Iraq last year after a neighbor told his mother that he must stop working for the Americans -- or else he would die. Today, he walks around Amman with his expired U.S. Embassy Baghdad badge and credentials from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq until 2004.
His hopes of finding refuge in the United States rest with a small group of Americans who run the List Project, which promotes the resettlement of Iraqis who worked for the American effort. Ameen, after answering 150 questions about his plight and background, was added to the List this year.
"Am I a security risk? I've worked with the Americans for so long, and I never had a problem. Why should they be afraid of me?" Ameen asked. "Why should I not be allowed to find a job and have a decent life? I'm afraid to go back to Baghdad. I can't find a job here."
Nearly 800 Iraqis who worked for the Americans have joined the List. Nine have been resettled in the United States, along with six relatives, according to founder Kirk Johnson.
The money Ameen earned from working for the Americans is running out, and soon he may have no choice but to return to Baghdad. "The countdown has started," he said, shaking his head.
Intisar Ibrahim, the engineer, says she cannot work in Iraq again. "When you've entered the Green Zone, it's finished. There's a cross against you," she said. "You have to be killed."
Waleed Mohammed and Ghada Mohammed -- no relation -- both work inside the Green Zone. But their futures will soon diverge.
Waleed, who works for a small U.S. communications firm, tells his neighbors that he does computer maintenance for an Iraqi company. "After work, I go home and stay at home. I don't go outside," he said.
Waleed wants to move to the United States, but Iraqis cannot apply for resettlement from inside Iraq, and he can't afford to travel to Syria or Jordan. Those who manage to get a referral from the United Nations still face a long process of interviewing with U.S. officials, with no guarantees. "That would mean two years waiting for nothing," he said. "It needs a lot of money. Where would I get money from? Spend my savings? I've got a family, a daughter. I also have my old mother and father."
It's getting more difficult for Iraqis to leave. Burdened by the massive influx of refugees, Syria now admits Iraqis only with certain types of visas, and Jordan is considering similar restrictions.
Ghada, 36, also works for a U.S. military contractor but deals directly with the American Army. In March, she flew to Jordan to apply for a special immigrant visa for U.S. military interpreters. In August, her visa was approved. But her good fortune is tinged with guilt. "I have so many colleagues and friends working for Americans who do not have this chance. They face the same problems. But they can't apply because they don't have people with high ranks in the Army to vouch for them."
This month, she's headed first to Washington, then to settle in Baltimore. She's looking forward, she said, to finally feeling safe. She paused, realizing where she was, and added, "I hope I will stay alive until I leave."
Special correspondent Yasmin Mousa contributed to this report.