Option Of Last Resort. Iraqi Refugees In The United States
Interview by Gabriela Bulisova
One of the least reported stories of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is the dispersal of close to 5 million Iraqis displaced either internally or forced to flee across the country’s borders. This exile is one of the greatest refugee crises in modern history—the statistical equivalent of nearly 50 million Americans leaving the United States. These masses of people displaced by the war in Iraq have become invisible and insignificant, overshadowed by other war-related events. Many of the displaced were the brains, the talent, the pride, the future of Iraq. Many of them, stigmatized by unforgettable violence, will never return to their homes.
In 2007 and 2008, I traveled to Syria to photograph Iraqi refugees living in Damascus. I found them in dire economic and emotional straits—often traumatized, desperate, and disillusioned. Uprooted from their homes and families with no future and no hope for return, they bear witness to the lesser seen, lesser-known consequences of the war. I wanted to tell their stories.
While working in Syria I heard about the plight of Iraqis who were forced from their homes specifically because they had helped the United States. Some of them had made it to America where they were having experiences and feelings both similar to and different from those of Iraqi refugees who had remained in the Middle East. By focusing on the struggles of those in the United States, I hope to create greater understanding for both the Iraqi refugees in our midst as well as the millions who are largely out of sight in Syria and the Middle East.
Some of the most recent Iraqi refugees in America had signed up to serve as translators working for the U.S. military or as experts with other U.S. government agencies, NGOs, or American companies in Iraq. They saved lives; they built cultural and linguistic bridges; they sacrificed their own safety and the safety of their families to help participate in what they thought would be the creation of a better Iraq. They quickly became one of the most hunted groups in the country. They bore a lethal stigma as “collaborators” or “traitors” that transcended sect or tribe, and they were targeted in assassination campaigns that drove many of them either into hiding or out of the country.
For people who fear for their life and seek refugee status in America, the U.S. government offers resettlement as the “option of last resort” for the most vulnerable refugees. In this project, I photographed and interviewed Iraqi refugees who have been resettled to the United States and are living in Washington, D.C. or other American cities.
In some respects, these immigrants might be considered lucky, since they made it safely out of Iraq where their lives were in immediate danger. Thousands of others are still in Iraq or neighboring countries. In fiscal years 2007 and 2008, the Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs issued only 1,490 special immigrant visas for Iraqi translators and interpreters who had assisted the United States. This number includes family members.
Once in the United States, these refugees encounter the intricate, challenging, and often disillusioning process of transitioning to life in America. Many feel abandoned by the country they helped and risked their lives for; many are unemployed and facing dire financial crises; many yearn for the embrace of family and friends left behind; and many wish they could return home. Still fearful for their own safety and the safety of family members in Iraq, many refugees asked that I not reveal their faces or names.
Under President George W. Bush, questions about assistance and safety did not receive serious attention until 2007 when Congress passed legislation to facilitate asylum for Iraqis who had aided the United States. As a candidate, Barack Obama declared, “We must also keep faith with Iraqis who kept faith with us. One tragic outcome of this war is that the Iraqis who stood with America—the interpreters, embassy workers, and subcontractors—are being targeted for assassination. Keeping this moral obligation is a key part of how we turn the page in Iraq.” However, a new challenge is emerging as the United States cuts back its military presence in Iraq and has less ability to protect the Iraqis it employs.
The bonds of war are not like others: you sleep together, you eat together, you do missions together, and sometimes you are injured together. Working as a translator for the U.S. Army, I witnessed the deaths of some of the soldiers in our unit. I used to come to Arlington cemetery to visit fallen friends. They sacrificed themselves for this country, and I admired their heroism, their ultimate sacrifice. We all die sometime, but what matters is how you die: will people remember you?