NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Over nine years, the United States hired thousands of Iraqis as interpreters, people denounced as traitors or American agents by some of their fellow countrymen. As the U.S. military withdrew, many interpreters lost their jobs and U.S. military protection. Amid death threats, a lot of them want to relocate to the United States but can face long waits for a visa. If you worked with interpreters in Iraq, call and tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
A former interpreter for the U.S. military we're calling Tariq joins us now from his home in Baghdad. He's requested we not use his full name. And, Tariq, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
TARIQ: Hi. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And I know you've gotten death threats. How do they arrive?
TARIQ: Well, when I worked with the U.S. military, because everybody who works as an interpreter the U.S. military in Iraq is considered a traitor to the country because he is working with the - what they call the occupation forces. So we are, you know, a lot of people try to watch our steps and see when are we going off base and - because sometimes we take, like, about four to five days off each month when we go and visit our families. So that was when I went out one day from the base and my brother was picking me up, and we had a car following us.
And I found out that these guys were, you know, tracing us all the way, and they were having - they were armed. So thanks, we were lucky that we had a nearby U.S. patrol where we stayed there and - while they - those guys left. But - and some - yes, there's a lot of other incidents, yeah.
CONAN: The unit that you were working with pulled out of Iraq, I believe, in October. And what have you done since then?
TARIQ: Well, since October, I'm staying home. I went once to meet an L.A. Times reporter downtown Baghdad. That was last month. And the other things, I'm just staying home. I have some new seeds. I bought some seeds and trying to have a little garden to just kill some time, you know?
CONAN: And you're waiting for a visa.
TARIQ: Exactly, yeah.
CONAN: Is there anything you can do to speed up the process?
TARIQ: Well, many senior officers in my command have tried to - there are letters to the U.S. Embassy, and they have contacted some embassy, the consular officers. But unfortunately, it didn't work. And they said that even - we contacted some senators, and the senators are saying that this process cannot be expedited nor waived.
CONAN: There is an American law that was passed by Congress which calls for expedited visas to be provided to, I think, to as many as 20,000 Iraqis who worked for the U.S.
TARIQ: Yes. It is called the Special Immigrant Visa Program. And in the Congress, they call it the Kennedy Act, which allows 5,000 Iraqis to travel to the United States on special immigrant visas from 2008 to 2012. And this number should not exceed 5,000 a year for five years, so it should be 25,000. But until now, only about 20,500, kind of like that - something like that, were granted those visas. And we're waiting, like - me, personally, I'm waiting for - since June for my visa to come.
CONAN: Your cause was not helped when two Iraqis in this country were charged with plotting terrorism.
TARIQ: Well, yes. Those two guys that were caught and, you know, aiding al-Qaida and trying to fund it in Iraq, they did not work for Americans nor they did have (unintelligible) like what we do nor - they don't have any letters of recommendation. They went through a very different program. But unfortunately, everybody is in the same basket now, and we're held like anybody else.
CONAN: From the - you mentioned letters of recommendation. This is from the Los Angeles Times article, this is the reporter citing these letters that you received, an American colonel wrote: In the performance of his duties, Tariq has received many death threats and murder attempts. Tariq never faltered. And that he mentioned you had passed stringent U.S. military security clearances. An American lieutenant colonel wrote: I would employ and/or work with Tariq anytime, anywhere in the world.
And an email to the Los Angeles Times, the officer, who asked for anonymity, wrote: He's a very smart young man and is more well-read than most people I know. So you do have glowing recommendations. Again, that doesn't seem to be much help at the moment.
TARIQ: Well, yes. Unfortunately, no. That's when we contact anybody in the State Department or in the - especially those two - colonel and the lieutenant colonel. They tried their best to, you know, try to expedite the visa by contacting senior officials or writing to the U.S. Embassy. But they said that it's not the U.S. Embassy call. It's the security checks that is conducted by different department, so they have no say in it.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd like to hear from those of you who worked with interpreters in Iraq. And we'll go first to - and this is Marie. Marie with us from North Smithfield in Rhode Island.
MARIE: Good afternoon. How are you?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
MARIE: I'm calling because I was in Baghdad with the Civil Affairs unit from '03 to '04. And consequently, we worked with a lot of interpreters because that's what Civil Affairs soldiers do. We, you know, we work with civilians all day long. So over the entire year, we worked with about 12 interpreters, most of whom, actually, my battle buddy found and hired. And, you know, they receive threats all the time when we're in country. And about nine months after we left, two of our interpreters were shot, execution style, as soon as their car left the compound where they were working.
And another one of my interpreters was struggling to get out until late 2006, and there is just nothing we could do. You know, he would call and he would email and he was just desperate. And, you know, your guest, Tariq, has referred to, you know, the red tape, the bureaucracy. You know, the paperwork with the visas, it's so complicated and it's so heartbreaking hearing them - sorry, it's very upsetting.
CONAN: Are you OK, Marie?
MARIE: I am. I am. But, you know, good people were lost and I think a lot of Americans don't think about that.
CONAN: Did you ever ask your interpreters, when you were there, why, given the risk, they decided to do it?
MARIE: Yes. And, actually, one of our best interpreters who ended up being shot to death by a U.S. soldier on his second day in country, told that me that it's because he loved his country, and he really believed that the Americans being there was going to make it a better place, that he wanted to help. And that's how so many of my interpreters felt. There weren't just doing it for the money, although they needed the money because everything was a mess since he have gone in and ruined it. But so many of them genuinely wanted to make their country better. That was just the most heartbreaking part.
CONAN: Marie, thanks very much for the call. And we're sorry that your friends got killed.
MARIE: Thank you.
CONAN: Tariq, I know you must know people who shared the same fate. And let me ask you the same question, given the risks, why did you decide to do it?
TARIQ: Well, it was the same reason, because when the Americans came in, after having - especially people on my age, we didn't even, like, see a good day in Iraq since our childhood because we were born in a war. And then in 1991, we had another war, then the embargo. Then in 2003, when the U.S. forces came and they toppled Saddam, everybody was very, you know, happy that, OK, we have the United States in Iraq now. We're going be the 51st state. We're going to have schools like they do.
We're going to have all those theme parks. We're going to have everything like the U.S. And we even - we didn't - and in Iraq there is not much a presence of a foreign population, so you always see locals. So when they the U.S. forces came in with their wonderful gear and soldiers and people that we have only seen in movies, we were very eager to work and help because we felt that working with them will be a good thing. But then, I don't know, a lot of people started to get fooled by insurgent's propaganda and - which is fueled by, you know, the neighboring countries and a lot of different organizations, terrorist organizations. So when we worked, we were - we felt that we're going to make this country a better place, but unfortunately we didn't.
CONAN: No, I understand that. Was there a time when you became disillusioned?
TARIQ: Well, it, kind of, in 2009 and 2010, me personally, when I started to work in a direct contact with the Iraqi government and being a liaison between the U.S. military, between my unit, which was a contracting unit, and the U.S., and the Iraqi government, and I started to see how the Iraqi officials in the government deal with the issue. That they are not even taking Iraq as a priority, nor they are trying to get use of the American presence and American, you know, ways of managing the - anything and, you know, in their work or - like Americans were fighting corruption more than Iraqis. So I was like - yeah.
CONAN: All right. Go finish your thought.
TARIQ: Yeah. So I was, like, then I realized that the people who are in charge are corrupted and are not willing to do something, so I won't be able to make something.
CONAN: This, an email we have from Jacob: I was a rifle platoon leader with a Stryker infantry battalion serving in Baghdad 2006, 2007. I'm eternally grateful for the service that our Iraqi interpreters gave to us. Not only did they enable us to accomplish our missions on a daily basis, but they also gave me a personal insight into Iraqi culture. I spent countless evenings drinking chai and drinking - eating Iraqi food with our platoon interpreters. I gladly wrote letters of recommendation for four of our interpreters, and thankfully, all four are in the U.S. I wish the same could be said for those who did not make it. I think it's a travesty that after the sacrifice made by these brave Iraqis, so many are essentially being held out to dry.
We're talking with Tariq, who served as an interpreter with U.S. forces in Iraq. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And as I understand it from that Los Angeles Times article, your fiance is among those Iraqis who did managed to make it out.
TARIQ: Yes. Her mom used to work for the U.S. - for a company, a U.S. company. She was a civilian, and she applied one year before me. So luckily, she made it out before the - that, you know, Kentucky incident.
CONAN: With the Iraqi refugees - when review processes were stalled, as new securities procedures were put into effect. Is there any timetable that you have from the embassy or from the State Department?
TARIQ: Well, when I was interviewed in June 2011 and the consular officers said that it should take about eight months after this interview. She said, I can't guarantee that you will get it within eight months. You might get it earlier. You might get it later. I have so many friends that are waiting in their 14th or 15th month, and they didn't get their visas yet. I didn't finish up that period, but unfortunately because of the situation in Iraq and because things are going bad very quickly, you know, the same day when the U.S. forces pulled out, the prime minister has issued these arrest warrants and asked for a no-confidence vote for his deputy, which has sparked some sectarian tensions.
And then two days later, we have - about 16 explosions struck Baghdad, killing about 200 civilians. And lately, he declared that the militia that was publicly attacking the U.S. who are in Iraq because of request from Iraq - the Iraqi government, he declared that this militia will join the political process. And they held a huge ceremony close to where I live in Baghdad. And they were, you know, publicly celebrating the withdrawal of the U.S. forces and saying that we have conducted about 5,200 operations against the U.S. military and killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers.
In addition, they said, we kicked the Americans out. So these people are the same people who killed interpreters, doctors, professors and American soldiers and contractors. These are now being part of this government, so you can expect which kind of government is ruling Iraq now.
CONAN: If you did get the visa, if it did come through, where would you go? What would you do?
TARIQ: Well, I'm going to California. And what I'm going to do is I'm going to look for a job and try to start a new life, get married, get a life like anybody else. But unfortunately I have to leave Iraq now within - until the - because I have requested the U.S. Embassy to send my passport back because when we interview at the U.S. Embassy, they keep our passports. But now, I - because the situation has gone very bad so I've requested my passport back, and I'm going to some - to a neighbor country, probably Jordan, and wait there.
CONAN: Is your family at risk as well?
TARIQ: Well, not as much as I am because I am - I'm not a kind of person who talk a lot about where do I work. And so nobody - not a lot of people knows my family and knows that I was the one who worked for the U.S. But they are in danger like anybody else. You know, everybody in Iraq is at danger. But they are not at danger because they worked for the Americans. But us, interpreters, we're, you know, we're treated in a different kind.
In a late interview that was broadcasted on your news, they met a cleric who works for the anti-American Muqtada al-Sadr. They asked him if the order to kill the interpreters that was issued before is still valid and he said, it is fully valid and it's forbidden to collaborate with the invaders and occupiers in Iraq. And if you collaborated, you have to face the Islamic justice.
CONAN: It must be maddening to spend all your time indoors, tending that little garden, as you say, raising tomatoes from seeds, yet given that atmosphere, you know it must be even more crazy to think about going outdoors.
TARIQ: Well, I'm not exaggerating if I said I haven't seen daylight since like three or four weeks because even I'm trying to sleep, you know, the difference in timing between Iraq and the United States. So - and my fiance is in California, so she's about 10 hours far from me. So I almost sleep the day here and wake up at night, which is night - it's just midnight now in Baghdad and...
CONAN: Well, Tariq, good luck to you. We wish you the best. Tariq, a former interpreter for the U.S. military. We've agreed to identify him by only his first name for his protection, with us from his home in Baghdad. Tomorrow, Jennifer Ludden will be here. Before we go today, special thanks to our hosts at New Hampshire Public Radio, especially Andrew Parrella, Nathan Chervek, R.J. Perkins and Michael Saffell. Thanks to all of you for listening. We'll be back in Washington on Monday. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.