Sunday, December 9, 2007

Thanks and Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

Local Iraqi interpreters working with either the State Department, Military or private organizations in Iraq have a limited shelf-life. Their ‘use before’ date has never been very long because they have to live among the ordinary population, while keeping their jobs hidden.

Iraqiinterpreter Local Iraqi interpreters working with either the State Department, Military or private organizations in Iraq have a limited shelf-life. Their ‘use before’ date has never been very long because they have to live among the ordinary population, while keeping their jobs hidden.

Try that sometime, when it’s a matter of life or death every single day.

Our occupying armada, made up of hundreds of NGOs and contractors wants an Iraqi at their side at all times, a kind of human Blackberry to ease the path for everything from street names to ordinary one-on-one communication. It’s not done from behind a mask. Iraqi eyes are everywhere, watching who rides in escort vehicles, who gets out, who gets in and where they go at the end of the day.

A major business-plan of the insurgency (which may or may not include the real or possibly mythical ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’) is to punish those who would help Americans. It’s not hard to know who tops that list in an Arabic-speaking country and punishment in this case is not a euphemism. To punish means to kill and that very often includes family, friends and acquaintances.

One becomes isolated, friendless and paranoid. Nice job-description, huh?

Mainstreamislam But not to worry, America takes care of those who put their lives on the line, right? Maybe not. Add to the cost of weapons lost and billions gone missing, the human toll of those who helped us and fled Iraq because they helped us and are no longer recognized.

AMMAN, Jordan (Washington Post Foreign Service)
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.

In a metaphoric reference to kicking desperate Vietnamese off the skids of helicopters departing Saigon over thirty years ago, a hundred thousand Iraqis (maybe twice that) are left to rot in Baghdad or Amman.

In Amman, stay and starve or go home and die are the choices.

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.

Blackwatersecurity Post 9-11 security concerns? In the warped reality of administration choices, we have contrived to protect murderous (but American) Blackwater employees from any form of punishment. Instead, after begging (and paying and promising) Iraqis for their help, we’ve cut them loose, essentially kicking them off the skids.

The entire American effort, flawed as it was, would have been impossible without these Iraqis They braved lethal consequences to do what they believed (and we encouraged them to believe) was a service to their country.

"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.

On that basis and assuming Mohammed shuffles in the same line as everyone else, it will take 669 years.

Insurgent But thanks, we really needed multi-lingual computer engineers and we’re sorry you got tagged for helping us. Look on it as a learning experience. Next time some world-class nation comes along and invades you, when they ask for help, just shrug and say something in Arabic.

Or pick up a gun and just shoot them, it’s all the same and at least you can stay in your own country.

"If you put somebody's life in danger, just to say 'Thank you and goodbye' is not enough. 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."

You International Organization for Migration people just don’t get the picture. Immigration is a very hot-button issue in the United States these days. We’re up to our ears in fences along the Mexican border. What do you want, special treatment just because there’s a war?

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.

I suppose there is someone who can make sense of that. But lives are long and interest is fleeting. You may or may not read this and, if you do, it will be part of your personal background noise by breakfast tomorrow. For Ms. Ibrahim it has been over 700 breakfasts and they shimmer off into the horizon like a mirage—without end, without hope.

Joseph Stalin was right. Paraphrased, “The death of a single person is a catastrophe and the death of a hundred thousand is a news event.”

Parishilton A news event. We thought ourselves better than old Joe Stalin and yet two million Iraqis who helped us and upon whom we have turned our back, are a news event without so much as the staying-power of Paris Hilton fluff pieces.

Maybe because we don’t have to do anything about Paris.

You should know Intisar Ibrahim. Sit down with her over a cup of coffee, experience the perfume she wears and look into the depth of her eyes. She is lovely, but even if she were not, she is important for her humanity and the things she values, one of which—inexplicably—is America.

Others are more circumspect.

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."

Think about that background noise at breakfast tomorrow. Think about L. Paul Bremer and Intisar and her nephew. Think about old Joe Stalin. Remember, if only for a moment, that this war is about far more than Nancy Pelosi and George Bush. It goes beyond the simple numbers of 4,000 American kids dead and another 200,000 hurt, way past billions stolen and millions displaced.

It’s a personal story, Intisar’s and Ammar’s story, times a hundred million in the Middle East.

Orange juice and coffee with those eggs?
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