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America's Iraqi Linguists - They Can't Escape Without Our Help!

Red T - Jim Vancura

Jeana, a loyal employee of the U.S. government, awaits safe haven in America. Since 2003, she has worked for the United States in Iraq as an interpreter. Her bachelor's degree in English qualified her at the young age of 22, and then her life in Iraq instilled the desire to migrate to America.

Jeana first came into contact with Americans in 1991, at 10 years of age, when U.S. troops forced Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Because of her Kurdish heritage, she supported America in its fight against the Saddam regime that had massacred or displaced thousands of Kurdish people. Growing up amidst the horrors of the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Jeana was so traumatized that escape became her only hope for survival. She is still haunted by memories of neighbors killed in the street, a family of four burning alive in a car bombing, a fellow interpreter assassinated on his way home from work, and her cousin gunned down at his jewelry shop.

After college, when Jeana told her family that she wanted to work for the Americans, naturally they were opposed. It was too dangerous - especially for a girl - but Jeana persisted, and in November 2003, she was hired to help the U.S. military train new Iraqi recruits at the police academy in Baghdad. Every day she would completely cover her head and face and make her way to the academy. In 2005, while at Mercy Corps, Jeana survived two attacks when mosques across the street from her office were bombed. Then, in 2006, she was offered a linguist job at the U.S. Department of State in northern Iraq. The improved security and presence of U.S. military was comforting, but kidnappings, sexual assaults, and assassinations were still common. Early in 2010, after seven years of faithful service to America, Jeana received Chief of Mission approval, the first step in the application for a Special Immigration Visa (SIV).

At the height of the American presence in Iraq - to the tune of 300,000 military and civilian employees - the U.S. mission relied on thousands of Iraqi translators and interpreters. No military patrol, U.S. ambassadorial envoy, U.S. contractor, or U.S. government official could complete their mission without the help of these Iraqi linguists, who risked not only their own lives on a daily basis but the lives of their families as well. All were, and continue to be, primary targets of violent extremists who threaten to hunt them down as traitors.

America's promise to provide safe haven to our Iraqi allies through the SIV program has become a quagmire of bureaucratic paperwork and security checks. The program, established specifically to offer SIVs to these allies, anticipated that it would only take six months to process an application. Tragically, in most cases the SIV process has taken over a year. And during that time, our ally interpreters remain at risk - even more so as the U.S. military prepares to leave Iraq.

In April 2011, after nearly a year of filling out forms, Jeana went to her SIV interview in Turkey only to be told, without explanation or recourse, that her application was turned down. Unable to return to Iraq or work legally in Turkey, her financial and emotional situation became desperate.

In May, the alleged attempt to purchase weapons by two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky shut down the processing of SIV applications. And the collateral damage is that our Iraqi supporters - those who worked side by side with American soldiers and government officials - languish, isolated and unprotected.

The SIV process has become a long, dark tunnel with no handrails or exit signs. Left to fend for themselves, some of our Iraqi allies go into hiding, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood or city to city at a moment's notice, leaving behind possessions, employment, and their children's educational opportunities. Many flee to neighboring countries, only to suffer as refugees. Unable to work legally, some become part of the underground economy - or worse. Many contact U.S. congressmen and senators through their constituent services offices. Congressional offices can't make the process go more quickly, but a good congressional staffer can gather information and encourage the consular officers not to sit on cases that are of humanitarian interest.

Jeana is just one example of the dangerous situation created by the SIV process. But she has not lost hope. She lives one day at a time, looking for alternatives, getting in touch with friends, and contacting members of Congress, the U.S. Department of State, UN-HCR, and others, trying to find a way out. She is temporarily safe, but most of our ally translators and interpreters still desperately need our help. To date, of the 25,000 available SIVs, fewer than 8,000 have been processed.

You can support these linguists by reaching out a helping hand in the darkness. Get involved: contact your congressman, senators, and especially, the White House. Ask them to not forget those who helped save American lives in Iraq. Remind them that America has an urgent moral and strategic obligation to resettle these dedicated U.S. employees.

Posted on September 10th, 2011