Iraq translators struggle for safety, visa

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Aug 26 13:14:08 UTC 2007

Iraq translators struggle for safety, visa

Paul Tait


ABU Usama, accused of being a spy for working as a US military
translator, thought he would protect his family from retribution if he
left Iraq. In January, four months after he went alone to Jordan, his
father, brother and brother-in-law were snatched by suspected al Qaeda
fighters near their home in western Baghdad. None has been seen since.
All are presumed dead. Abu Usama's story is typical of many of the
thousands of Iraqis who put their lives at risk by working as
translators for the Americans, British and others whose forces are
fighting Iraq's relentless insurgency.

For a few hundred dollars a month and with a dream of helping to build
a new Iraq _ or of a visa to get out _ they put themselves and their
families in danger of reprisals by Sunni Islamist militants and
Shi'ite militias. Many are in limbo, stuck in third countries like
Jordan and Syria, where an estimated two million Iraqis have fled.
Translators interviewed by Reuters refused to give their names for
fear of retribution. "Abu Usama" _ the name is an alias _ earned about
US$350 ($530) a month working for a US military police unit in Abu
Ghraib, a violent Sunni Arab neighbourhood in western Baghdad. "It was
a very terrible place," he said.

He twice received death threats, one delivered in a message to his
front gate. He decided to go, leaving behind his wife, 6-year-old son
and 4-year-old daughter. Their third child was born two months after
he left. "I am without work and it is very difficult for me to get
them here," he said by telephone from Amman. "I came here to Jordan to
emigrate to America. It is very difficult. I have passed one year here
trying," Abu Usama said.

It is hard to get an exact figure for how many Iraqis work as
translators for US military and reconstruction teams. Most work for a
contractor which pays about 8,000 translators a flat fee of US$750 a
month. They can earn bonuses of US$150 a month if they live with their
units and another US$150 if they go out on patrols. "Shak", who lives
in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone with his wife and five
children, believes in his work and says US forces are trying to help
the people of Iraq. But he also knows the risks after the body of a
26-year-old colleague was found last year near Sadr City, a sprawling
Shi'ite slum in Baghdad and stronghold of powerful anti-American
cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's feared Mehdi Army militia.

"They found an ID badge in his pocket that said he worked for US
forces. Unfortunately, they cut off his head. He was my friend," Shak
said. Many try to keep their work secret in a bid to protect
themselves and their families. "A woman in my neighbourhood stopped me
and asked if I worked for the Americans," said "Sal", who lives in
Rusafa in Baghdad's predominantly Shi'ite east. "I laughed and said:
'I wish I worked for the Americans. I don't speak English. I work in a
supermarket'. I don't think she believed me," he said. The US
Department of Homeland Security said in May it could accept as many as
7,000 refugees through the 2007 fiscal year. This was after President
George W Bush's administration came under fire from Congress for
accepting only 466 Iraqi refugees since the US-led invasion in 2003.

The US embassy in Baghdad said in a statement that the Bush
administration was separately seeking legislation from Congress that
would grant special immigration visas to all eligible "locally engaged
staff" after three years of service. "The administration is committed
to taking care of the many brave Iraqis who have worked or are working
for the United States in Iraq," the statement said. The treatment of
translators in Iraq gained greater prominence in July after Denmark
said it had secretly airlifted about 200 translators and other Iraqi
employees and their families out of Iraq. An admission this month that
automatic asylum would not be granted to the 90-odd interpreters
working with the 5,000-strong British force in southern Iraq was soon
followed by newspaper headlines like "Abandoned _ The 91 Iraqis Who
Risked All".

US efforts so far come as little comfort to the thousands of Iraqis
like Abu Usama who are still without visas and want Washington to
follow Copenhagen's example. "We helped them undertake their mission.
We are not warriors, we are civilians," Abu Usama said. "We helped
free Iraq. It was bad luck for us."


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