As war winds down, organization helps Iraqis who risked their lives helping the U.S.

November 25, 2011

Download Story
(AP/Sarah Simonis)
A former translator for the U.S, Saif Alnasseri and his family moved to the U.S. after receiving death threats in Iraq.

Several years ago, west suburban native Kirk Johnson, a former USAID official in Baghdad and Fallujah, received a call for help from a former colleague. 

Johnson’s colleague, Yaghdan Hameid, worked with him at USAID in 2005 and was receiving death threats in Iraq. His life in danger, Hameid tried desperately to leave the country for the U.S., but he couldn't get anywhere.  The complicated and convoluted process of earning refugee status in the U.S. was too slow and unresponsive.  

So Johnson stepped in.

In December 2006, Johnson penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that garnered the attention of his former colleagues and other U.S. government employees in the Middle East. They recognized Hameid’s struggle through their own work with Iraqi civilians and reached out to Johnson for help.  

“They all started sending me their info,” Johnson said.

Soon thereafter, the List Project was born.

Today, The List Project bills itself as the home of "the largest list of Iraqis who are imperiled because they helped America."  The non-profit's purpose is to aid in the resettling of Iraqis whose lives are endangered as a result of their aid and service to the U.S. - through the military, private contractors, the State Department, NGO's or media outlets. 

“We’re getting new applicants to the list every hour at this point - more than we can handle," Johnson told Jerome McDonnell during an interview on WBEZ's Worldview.

In response to the growing number of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan whose lives were in danger because of their work with Americans, the U.S. government instituted the Special Immigrant Visa program in 2008. It supposedly allows 5,000 Iraqi refugees who worked with U.S. forces and contractors to resettle in the U.S. each year.

“That program -- as excited as we were when it was established -- has been an utter failure,” Johnson said. He said that only a small percentage of Iraqis who meet the program’s requirements have been allowed to settle in the United States. If implemented to its fullest, Johnson said, the Special Immigrant Visa program could clear his list of almost 3,000 Iraqis and still have placement spots available.

For many, the process is extremely frustrating. In addition to letters of recommendation, each candidate must have a professional email for the Americans with whom they worked.

“It’s absurdity for anyone who wades into this mess,” Johnson said. If they don’t have the correct email from a job from five or six years ago, they won’t qualify, he added. “All of these people have ID badges and have undergone polygraph tests. These are the most well-documented refugees in the history of refugees.”

Much of the hold-up for these refugees is due to security concerns. Earlier this year, two Iraqi refugees were arrested in Kentucky on charges they planned to send weapons to insurgents in Iraq. The safety concern, Johnson said, could be alleviated if the government relocates refugees to somewhere like Guam before clearing them to enter the country. This idea is nothing new. After the first Gulf War, some 6,000 Iraqi Kurds were brought to Guam.

It’s a matter of the Obama administration making refugee protection a priority, said Johnson.

“Do you think people were happy about bringing over Vietnamese refugees after that war?” Johnson asked. “But we did it, because our president said we have to do this.”

As the U.S. prepares to drastically reduce its troop presence in Iraq by the end of the year, time is of the essence. As Johnson explained, you don’t need a vivid imagination to imagine what will happen to those who worked with the U.S. when the troops leave.

“We finally have a window of time to prevent a massacre from happening,” he said. But, he added, “We have zero contingency plans to protect these Iraqis.”