The military aide: He risked his life to work for the U.S. government in Iraq


(Photo: US Marines)

Mahmood will never forget the date: April 6, 2017.

He had spent more than two years in the application process for a special immigrant visa, which is available to Iraqi and Afghan citizens who worked for the United States government in their home countries. Mahmood’s experience as a translator for the U.S. Army had made him a target. He had received a death threat at his family home. Three times, he traveled the dangerous road from where he lived in the Kurdistan region of Iraq to Baghdad to quietly obtain the paperwork needed for his visa.

His efforts stalled temporarily when Iraq was included on a list of seven Muslim-majority countries subject to President Trump’s original travel ban, which was later revised and is being challenged in court.

But, on April 6, 2017, Mahmood logged onto the website where he could track his application status. He had been approved.

“It was the best day of my life,” said Mahmood, now 28.

Mahmood arrived in the United States on May 31. He is one of more than 23,000 Iraqi and Afghan people who worked with the U.S. military in the Middle East and then immigrated to the United States. The personal risks they took as translators or in other supporting roles for the American forces earned them special immigrant visas for themselves and their families.

Mahmood said his family is still at risk. He agreed to tell his story if he was identified only by his first name because he is afraid family members in Iraq could still be targeted because of his work.

Mahmood grew up in a city in the northern, mountainous region of Kurdistan. His family often spoke of gratitude to the United States for removing from power former dictator Saddam Hussein, who orchestrated the killings of tens of thousands of their fellow Kurds. Mahmood’s parents encouraged him to support the American forces however he could. So he got a job in the laundry department on a U.S. military base in the Kirkuk province in 2008.

“We owe the United States forces,” Mahmood said. “That’s what I believe, and that’s what my family believes, too. Because they came to Iraq to give us freedom and democracy.”

Mahmood had learned some English by watching American movies such as “The Day After Tomorrow.” At the front desk in the laundry department, his language skills improved as he talked to the soldiers. One of his regulars was retired Army Col. Mark Leahey, a Maine native who worked as a military analyst and deployed to the Middle East with the New Hampshire National Guard.

“I always came to see him during the slow times so we could talk, and so he started asking more questions,” Leahey said.

What did Americans think of Iraqis? Mahmood wanted to know. Does everyone in California drive expensive cars?

Leahey showed him New Hampshire on a map and told him about snow in the winter. Mahmood said his dream was to live in the United States, and Leahey encouraged him to become a military translator, a job that would allow him to apply for a special immigrant visa.

Those who aided US are targeted

Iraqi and Afghan citizens who aided the U.S. mission in the Middle East have been targeted by insurgents for years. If Mahmood was discovered to be working for the American military or a contractor, he could have been kidnapped or murdered.

There is no reliable data on the number of Iraqi and Afghan people who have worked for the U.S. military in recent years or the number killed for their service. But the nonprofit List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies has estimated nearly 1,000 Iraqis have been killed because of their support for the American government. In 2014, the nonprofit International Refugee Assistance Project estimated an Afghan interpreter was being killed every 36 hours.

The Army began to house translators on bases because they were being hunted in their communities by militants. But Mahmood did not hesitate. He became a tactical translator first in the Kirkuk province, riding into the field with soldiers in MRAP, or mine-resistant, vehicles.

Mahmood, like other translators, wore a mask to protect his identity and his family. He donned body armor over his civilian clothes in case of an attack. When he transferred to Diyala province to further guard his identity, he lived on an American base and translated reports about attacks using crude bombs or improvised explosive devices and other news from Iraqi officials. Between those two locations, Mahmood served as a tactical translator. In total, he said, he worked on behalf of the U.S. government as a translator and in other roles for 29 months.

“A lot of people are impressed with the bravery of the service members there,” Leahey said. “We cannot forget about the translators. When an (improvised explosive device) comes ripping through an MRAP, it kills anybody that’s on there. It doesn’t discriminate. He was at risk as much as the average soldier.”

When the United States began drawing down its forces in Iraq, Mahmood moved back to his family home.

Visa application submitted

He worked on the base in Kirkuk until 2011, and then attended college in Kirkuk to earn a degree in education. He submitted an application for a special immigrant visa in 2015. Leahey, meanwhile, had returned to his home in Rochester, New Hampshire, but the two friends stayed in touch via Facebook. Leahey agreed to help him obtain the necessary paperwork for the visa application, such as recommendation letters from his former superiors.

“I think it goes somewhat to the Army motto that we’ll leave nobody behind,” Leahey said. “That really stuck with me. I said, ‘I will not leave you behind.’ “

Three times Mahmood had to travel to Baghdad, for a police certificate stating he has no criminal record in Iraq, an interview and a medical examination. The road between his home and the capital was controlled by renegades who would stop cars to steal money or other valuables. If they had identified Mamhood as a Kurd, he said he could have been killed on the spot. His language skills saved him; he would tell anyone who stopped him, in Arabic, that he was a student headed into the city.

It took more than two years to collect and submit all the application materials. In the meantime, Mahmood finished his degree and got a job teaching general history to middle school students. But he worried every time he left his home. He said his mother discovered a death threat against him from the Islamic State on their door. Another Iraqi translator Mahmood knew was murdered.

Mahmood’s application process was almost complete when President Trump issued his first travel ban this year. Because Iraq was on the list of countries subject to the ban, Mahmood and other translators who were trying to come to the United States were stranded. Lawmakers and veterans condemned the decision to bar these wartime translators from the United States, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ultimately clarified that special immigrant visa holders would be exempt from the ban.

“Every day delayed over there was a dangerous day for him,” Leahey said.

Finally, that day in April came.

Within two months, Mahmood landed at Washington Dulles International Airport, just outside of Washington, D.C.

“They treat me so well,” he said of the immigration officers at the airport. “They appreciate me for my job and for my services to the United States forces. They welcome me so beautifully.”

Settled in Portland

Mahmood stayed at Leahey’s home in New Hampshire while he searched for an apartment in Maine. Leahey wanted to settle Mahmood in Portland, where there were more job opportunties and more Iraqi immigrants.

They watched soccer games together – Mahmood is a Real Madrid fan, while Leahey roots for Barcelona. The Leahey family brought Mahmood to their family lake house, where he went kayaking for the first time. By the end of June, Mahmood moved into an apartment in Portland. By August, he had received his green card, which gives him permanent legal residency and permission to work in the United States.

Mahmood looks over a manual while sorting books at LearningWorks in Portland, where he volunteers. He hopes to become a teacher. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

General Assistance from Portland helps Mahmood pay for his apartment and other needs. As part of the city’s workfare program, Mahmood volunteers in the community. He spends two days a week at LearningWorks, a nonprofit youth support and adult education agency in Portland. This fall, he also started working and coaching soccer two days a week at a local elementary school through AmeriCorps. He hopes those experiences will help him get a full-time job in a classroom. Eventually, he said he might become certified as a teacher in the United States.

“I don’t like just sitting and using that assistance,” he said. “When I start working, it makes me feel happy. I’m giving back.”

Mahmood talks to his family every day. They ask about his safety. His mother makes sure he is eating enough. He can see the faces of his young niece and nephew.

“The technology and the Internet makes the world small,” Mahmood said.

Mahmood rides a bicycle around the city and walks to the Iraqi markets, but he is anxious to get his driver’s license. He was animated when he described the first meal he cooked in his new apartment – a type of dolma, a traditional Iraqi dish of stuffed vegetables – and the kebabs he made for the Leaheys at their lake house. He hopes to join a local soccer league. He is anxious about his first Maine winter, when he will see snow for the first time. He hopes to become an American citizen someday.

And given the opportunity, he would still do whatever the U.S. military needed.

“I’m so proud of what I did,” Mahmood said. “I would serve again.”

What is a special immigrant visa?

“Special immigrant” is a term that broadly applies to any person who qualifies for a green card because of specialized work he or she does. A green card signifies legal permanent residence in the United States. Since 2006, the United States has issued special immigrant visas to Afghan and Iraqi citizens who worked for the U.S. mission in the Middle East, often as translators for American troops and diplomats. Many of these people faced threats on their lives for aiding the U.S. government, and these visas help them and their families flee to safety.

Who qualifies?

There are three types of special immigrant visas. The first is open specifically to Afghan or Iraqi citizens who acted as translators for at least one year. This is a permanent but limited program. Only 50 people, excluding spouses and children, are admitted each year.

The second is open to Afghan citizens who have been employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan for at least one year since March 2003. This could include people who were hired by a U.S. contractor. That program is temporary, but still open for applications.

The third was a similar temporary program open to Iraqi citizens. The deadline to apply for that program was Sept. 30, 2014, and it is now closed.

What does it mean to be granted a special immigrant visa?

A person who receives an SIV receives a green card, which grants him or her legal permanent residence in the United States. Once in the United States, an Iraqi or Afghan person with an SIV is eligible for eight months of government assistance. A resettlement agency such as Catholic Charities Maine will help that person secure money for rent and other basic necessities, as well as services such as medical assistance and food stamps, if needed. A green card also allows immigrants to work in the United States. Normally, a permanent resident of the United States can apply for citizenship through naturalization after five years.

How are applicants for a special immigrant visa screened?

The application process for an SIV includes a background check, letters of recommendation from American supervisors or military personnel, fingerprinting, a medical check and an in-person interview.

How long does the application process take?

The State Department has estimated the average processing time for an SIV application is at least one to two years, depending on the type of visa. That doesn’t account for the time it takes the applicant to collect his or her documents and application materials.

How many people receive special immigrant visas?

The program specifically for translators is now capped at 50 recipients per year; a greater number were allowed in the first two years of the program. Their spouses and unmarried children under 21 may be granted SIVs as well. Since fiscal year 2007, these visas have been granted for more than 1,500 translators and more than 2,000 family members.

Since fiscal year 2006, the State Department has issued more than 63,000 visas through the other two programs. About one-third – 21,000 – were Iraqis or Afghans employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government. The rest were their dependents. A total of 35 immigrants from Iraq and Afghanistan arrived in Maine in 2016 with special immigrant visas.

Will this program change under the Trump administration?

The SIV programs for Afghan and Iraqi citizens received bipartisan support at their outset. In more recent years, however, the non-translator programs in particular have been the subject of political turmoil. At the end of 2016, Congress reauthorized the Afghan program for four more years, but capped it at 1,500 additional visas. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has warned of potential abuse in the program

President Trump’s first travel ban included Iraq on its list of Muslim-majority countries. As a consequence, SIV holders were initially blocked from coming to the United States. However, after pressure from veterans and lawmakers who support the SIV program, the Department of Homeland Security clarified that those translators would be given waivers.

Iraq

The United States led an invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it’s probably safe to say that most Americans know someone who served in the military there. U.S. military personnel remain in Iraq, although the Trump administration, in a departure from previous administrations, won’t say how many. In November 2016, the number deployed in both Iraq and Syria was 5,000-6,000, The Washington Post reported at the time.

Last year marked some of Iraq’s best economic performance of the last decade, led by the oil industry. However, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reports that the country has a bloated public sector and most people haven’t benefited from economic gains.

Since 2005, the Middle East nation’s government has wobbled toward stability. The Iraqi armed forces last year scored multiple successes in a military campaign against the radical group Islamic State, which terrorizes pockets of the civilian population. However, as government forces press the Islamic State, life becomes perilous for civilians living in the contested areas, and many have fled. Continued armed conflict, violence and terrorism plague civilians, according the United Nations. A U.N. bulletin on Iraq in September noted that millions of displaced Iraqis live in camps and host communities, and the insecure environment in Iraq prevents them from returning home.

Minority ethnic and religious communities, including in the Kurdistan region, are particular targets. The U.N.’s secretary-general has expressed concern that the Kurdistan region’s recent vote for independence could detract from the fight against the Islamic State.

By Megan Doyle, Portland Press Herald, Maine

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©2017 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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