Driving Cabs Instead of Building Bridges, Iraqis Languish in U.S.

"I can do many things. I have many ideas," says refugee Firas Safar, a former printer living in Takoma Park. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Two years ago, Firas Safar was a successful Baghdad printer, winning contracts with U.S. authorities to produce brochures for aid missions, posters for army units, and several million copies of the new Iraqi constitution.

Today Safar, 31, is a jobless refugee in Takoma Park, part of a new wave of professional Iraqis who have received special immigration privileges because, in many cases, their work for U.S. authorities or organizations resulted in threats or violence back home. For many such as Safar, it has meant trading economic security in Iraq for personal security here.

He, his wife and two small daughters just moved into a tiny apartment. Half-opened suitcases spill off the bed, and toys are jumbled on a donated crib. Safar's most valuable possession is a laptop computer that contains images of his work in Iraq, images he hopes will win him a new career in the United States.

"I can do many things. I have many ideas," said Safar, restless in his cramped quarters and eager to start over. On his kitchen table is a reminder of the dangers he left behind: an educational comic book he designed and dedicated to his small cousin, who was killed by gunfire in an Iraqi schoolyard.

"That is the sadness of the past," Safar said. "Now the future is here: four people in one room."

Safar has gotten further than many. According to U.S. groups who advocate for their cause, thousands of Iraqis eligible to immigrate have not yet reached this country. They remain either stranded in Iraq, vulnerable to retaliation from anti-U.S. groups, or elsewhere in the Middle East, waiting out the long and cumbersome approval process.

State Department officials said the delays have stemmed in part from overburdened consular offices in Iraq and nearby countries, and in part from the bottlenecks caused by a need for exhaustive background checks by the Department of Homeland Security, especially for immigrants and refugees from Middle Eastern countries, in an era of heightened terrorism concerns.

"The demand has far exceeded what we initially anticipated," said one State Department official. He also noted that there had been a major change in U.S. policy, which was initially aimed at encouraging skilled Iraqis to remain home and help rebuild their country.

"For a long time, we did not want to open the floodgates," he said.

Last year, however, with the conflict continuing and danger increasing, Congress passed the Iraqi Refugee Crisis Act, which opened up more avenues for eligible Iraqis to immigrate. Officials said more than 6,800 Iraqis have reached the United States since early last year, and they expect to meet their goal of bringing 12,000 by September.

Under the act, Iraqis who "believe they are at risk or have experienced serious harm" because of their work for the U.S. government, multinational forces or other U.S.-based organization qualify to be resettled in the United States with their immediate families. In addition, all Iraqis who have worked with U.S. authorities may also qualify for less-urgent "special immigrant visas" to move to this country.

In the past, similar special immigration privileges have been given to groups that supported U.S. efforts, including Cambodians and Laotians who came to this country after the Vietnam War.

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