One small group of refugees are here because their work with U.S. forces and contractors have put their lives at risk.
More Iraqi refugees are arriving in the Philadelphia region every day. One nonprofit group has settled 245 Iraqis in the area since 2007. One small group of refugees are here because their work with U.S. forces and contractors have put their lives at risk.
Muhammed aal-Muhi once worked as a taxi driver in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq. But soon after getting his college degree in English, he began working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army.
aal-Muhi: The time I went to work with the army it was good time, nothing was happening up in the north. But then what happened is, we started get threatened, not to myself, to other interpreters, some others got killed.
aal-Muhi arrived in Philadelphia two months ago, on a special immigrant visa. The visa program allows those who worked directly for the military, or civilian contractors, to gain entrance to the U.S. aal-Muhi says he’s lucky to be here. Although, he himself was not was not threatened, another recent arrival, Ommar Thamir, was.
Thamir is a software engineer who worked as an IT person and liaison with the Iraqi Ministry of Health for a U.S. contractor that built hospitals. He began soon after the invasion in 2003. But, he says, in 2007 he came home to find a note in his front yard from Al Qaeda.
Thamir: They say you must leave your home, and your job with the U.S. side. We give you ten days as a maximum and then we will kidnap, we’ll kidnap your family members and you will get killed. This was the first day, the second day, I received a second paper, second paper give me an order to leave. Leave my neighborhood, leave my house.
Thamir already knew our Iraqi co-workers who were killed and three who were kidnapped.
Thamir: So I bring the ID’s, my documents paper, the contracts and my laptop, that’s it, and my wife and son… we get in the car and go.
They left everything and fled to the north of Iraq, where he could continue to work for the contractor.
Thamir: I worked for my people. I build the hospitals, the primary healthcare centers. I be sure to approve the medical insurance like here the same system. We want to establish the same system as here. I work to help my people, the Iraqi peoples. I didn’t work in the military camp, the prisons, I didn’t make that. Its just the hospitals and the healthcare centers.
Thamir is one of more than 600 Iraqis who worked for the U.S., and have arrived in the country since October. But advocates say thousands more are left behind because of a thicket of bureaucratic red tape. Congress passed a law in 2007 that set aside 5,000 visas for those whose lives are at risk. But in 2008, only 371 Iraqis used those visas to come to the U.S.
Kirk Johnson is a former government worker who helped rebuild Fallujah. Now he runs a nonprofit called The List Project. The project helps resettle Iraqis who have helped the U.S. He says he has a list of more than 4,000 Iraqis who are at risk. He worries that as U.S. forces withdraw, these workers will face retaliation.
Johnson: And for once it would be nice to do something preemptive in a positive sense and get these people to safety before something happens to them. You don’t have to be an intense student of history to know what has happened to quote unquote collaborators.
Congressman Patrick Murphy, himself an Iraq war veteran agrees. Murphy’s own Iraqi interpreter now lives in the U.S.
Murphy: These true Iraqi heroes who stood with us in 130 degree heat in Baghdad and risked their lives, we need to do everything we can to help them.
Many, including Ommar Thamir, say they can never go back to Iraq.
Thamir: What is my country? I leave my home in one night. I leave everything. I establish my home by myself, I spend all my money in my home and they take it. They take it from me. So I don’t have a country now.
Thamir is now looking for work and lives in Northeast Philadelphia with his wife and 2 year old son. Another 43 Iraqis are expected to arrive in the city within the next week.