Friday, August 24, 2007

Hey, Freedom Man

It was back in the early eighties, at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, 'Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.'

A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a letter, couldn't get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I.
(President Ronald Reagan's farewell speech from the Oval Office on January 11, 1989.)

A few weeks ago The other day, I mentioned to spd that I had found a "feel good" story I wanted to post here at HH about the widow of an American journalist who, after a two-year crusade, was "reunited" with the Iraqi translator who was at her husband's side when he was murdered.

It took but only a few Google searches to realize that my "feel good" video byte, courtesy of late night cable, had a dark underside that didn't paint a pretty picture for Iraqis working with the U.S. government.

For a number of reasons Because of work demands, I chose to bail on posting the post but like the sailor in Reagan's anecdotal retelling, I couldn't get out of my mind the "small moment with a big meaning" of a young Iraqi woman exiting through JFK's automated doors in Jamaica, New York, and the determined American woman who made it happen. So here goes. Stains, and all.

I am the widow of Steven Vincent, the freelance journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in Basra, Iraq on August 2, 2005. Two days prior to his death, Steven had an op-ed piece published in the New York Times in which he broke the story of how the Iraqi police force was being systematically infiltrated by Iranian-backed fundamentalists and Shiite militiamen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr rather than to the central government. He also wrote of the "death squads" that roamed Basra in police cars and trucks filled with uniformed men who snatched their victims off the streets and murdered them with utter impunity. When one of those vehicles came for him in broad daylight, his translator, fixer and friend Nour al-Khal bravely stood by him as five men in police uniforms descended on them and wrestled Steven into the truck to take him to his death. From what I was later told by the FBI, the thugs who targeted my husband had no interest whatsoever in Nour; they repeatedly pushed her away, telling her to leave. But she would not abandon Steven; she kept inserting herself into the struggle until they took her as well. She had no idea what her kidnappers planned to do, where they would be taken, what, ultimately, the end would be. For all she knew she was going to her death, yet she did not hesitate for a moment, this tiny, 5-foot-tall woman, to try and protect the man who had hired her to be his guide.

She and Vincent were gagged, beaten, thrown in the back of a truck, driven to the outskirts of town, set free, told to run - and shot from behind. Steven was hit at close range and in a final act of God's mercy died instantly; Nour, who had been let go first, was farther from the truck, so even though she was shot in the back three times, she survived.

But Nour's nightmare was not over. Hardly. Rescued by the "good police" she was handed over to the Green Zone for medical treatment, then held incommunicado for three months while she was "interrogated, mentally and emotionally bullied, threatened, [and] told she would never be given a visa to come to this country." Finally released into the Red Zone without papers, and unable to return safely to her home in Basra or to the family who no longer wanted anything to do with her, she spent the next 18 months on the lam fearing for her life while Vincent's widow doggedly sought to gain her asylum.

[i]n some small attempt to repay her for her dedication, bravery and selflessness, I have spent the last year trying to get Nour into America. I have dealt with officials at the Baghdad embassy and the State Department. I have filled out forms. I have made countless calls, sent innumerable emails. I have pledged to stand financial security for her. I have gotten a promise from the UN Bureau Chief of Al-Arabiya that he will hire her when - if - she gets here. And each path I have gone down has proven fruitless. I have been told she does not qualify for refugee or asylum status because Iraq is now a democracy, hence there should be no reason she would need to flee. I spent months working with embassy people who assured me they were extremely touched by her plight, would move heaven and earth to see she got "special treatment" and who then, in the end, told me she needed to go to Amman and apply for a visa like every other Iraqi. I was told the U.S. government was no longer accepting Iraq's S-passports because supposedly there are so many forgeries it's impossible to know who is really holding them, so we won't take any of them. The embassy in Amman is no longer accepting applications from Iraqis; the Jordanian government is beginning to crack down, stopping Iraqis on the streets who then run the risk of being deported; Egypt is now demanding that before Iraqis come they get a letter of invitation from a certain government official. The noose is tightening, and soon there will be no place in the region where Nour will be able to feel safe. She sits and waits, still hopeful, but the reality is her hope is dwindling, as is mine."

It wasn't until Vincent's widow was afforded the opportunity to provide the chilling details of Nour's plight in her testimony before a Senate hearing in January--and with the cameras running-- that the wheels of "make it happen" justice began to turn in her favor. Six months later, Nour, who had risked her life to save Steven Vincent's, stepped off the plane at Kennedy Airport, and into the arms of the woman who had saved hers.

Since the war in Iraq began 4 years ago, approximately 600 Iraqis have been granted amnesty in the US. In the first six months of 2007, the US admitted 63 Iraqi refugees, including Nour.

I am not naive enough to think that the US could--or should-- throw open its doors to large numbers of people who have been uprooted since the war began. I recognize that it is enormously more complicated and dangerous than relocating 130,000 South Vietnamese as we did in the first year after the Vietnam War ended. I am cognizant of the fine line the Administration walks between wanting to provide aid, and not wanting to encourage more flight. Nevertheless, I do think that we owe special consideration to the brave Iraqi citizens who are risking their lives because of their association with the United States military, its contractors or the MSM news organizations.

Moreover, beyond the obvious morale or humanitarian responsibilities that we face, there are far reaching geopolitical reasons to extend a lifeline to our Iraqi friends:

"If we screw this group of people, we're never going to make another friend in the Middle East as long as I'm alive," said Kirk W. Johnson, who served as regional reconstruction coordinator in Fallujah in 2005 for the U.S. Agency for International Development, who is advocating the resettlement of Iraqis who have worked for coalition forces. "The people in the Middle East are watching what happens to this group."

Last month, a bipartisan group of senators, including Gordon Smith and Ted Kennedy another Senator introduced the “Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act” legislation that will create 5,000 special visas for Iraqis who work directly with the United States and are in imminent danger of death, and allow persecuted Iraqis with close work or family ties to the United States to apply directly for resettlement in the United States. In late July, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, called for issuing visas to all Iraqis who are employed by the U.S. government.

My "feel good" story is starting to feel...

* * * *
Beyond the 100,000 Iraqis who may be targeted as "collaborators" because of their work with the U.S -led coalition, there are an estimated 4 million Iraqis who have been uprooted by the Iraq conflict. Nearly 2 million (plus) Iraqis have fled to safety (?) in countries such as Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen; another 2 million are displaced within their country's borders. Approximately 40,000-60,000 Iraqis are fleeing their homes every month. The daunting effect of this migration (which is worthy of its own future post) should not can not not be minimized. The relocation of the Palestinians in 1948, alone, which is dwarfed by the size of the current migration, portends a similiar tipping point. You can read about more about this looming "crisis of historic proportions" here. You should. You. Really. Should.

Update: Here's the video clip of Nour's July '07 arrival at JFK.

(Posted by Portia)


Cassandra said...

The problem, Portia, is this:

The insurgents, from the beginning, have intentionally singled out Iraq's professional class and its intelligensia in Baghdad for special harrassment. They have already induced many of the most educated and most financially able to flee the country - they represent precious capital for rebuilding Iraq that is irreplacable.

Iraq's only hope, so far, for becoming a democracy has been that some within its ranks would eschew sectarianism and work with the coalition to resist the insurgency and the Shiite death squads.

Now our Congress thinks it would be "helpful" to issue visas to the ONLY remaining Iraqis who have been brave enough to support that effort?

You tell me: of course, on an individual level, this is the 'right thing'. But on a national level, if we issue visas to every person who is willing to work with us, what effect will that have? And what kind of behavior is that incentivizing?

I will be very interested in your answer.

And lest you think I am unmoved by Steven's death or the awful plight Nour has been in, I was a huge fan of his writing and his murder has haunted me almost more than any other. I don't know why - it just has. And so I have followed this quietly, though I can't write about it. I have tried.

But nothing comes out except grief for what might have been. Anyway, this was a fantastic post :p Thank you for writing what I could not.

We do not have to agree :) But it is good to know they are not forgotten.


Cassandra said...

Oh, and in case it isn't evident from my comment, I do hope she gets a visa, though I suppose that seems contradictory. I am just not in favor of a broad-based policy of issuing visas to everyone who is supporting the coalition, though I completely agree they are well deserved, for what I can only term public policy reasons.

Which is why I am a soulless conservative.

portia said...

Thanks Cass, it's an extremely disturbing issue, and Nour's story is only one among millions.

Actually, the legislation which requests visas for up to 5,000 Iraqis whose lives have been threatened (ie., those who have been outed like Nour) amounts to less than 5% of the Iraqis who work with us, and is far more modest than what Ambassador Crocker is requesting the Bush Administration to do, which is to issue visas for every Iraqi who works for the US government. Crocker claims that unless these Iraqis are assured eventual safe passage to US, they will quit and flee the country.

Last month, an Iraqi journalist who worked for the
NYT was murdered in Baghdad, and his assasins stole his cell phone which had the names of other Iraqis working in the Green Zone, and his accreditation papers. Those other Iraqis and their families are now targets, and put themselves as well as Americans with whom they associate at risk by continuing to work for the US.

Under the proposed legislation they would be eligible "to be considered" for visas. Without the legislation, they may be forced to go into hiding abandoned by their countrymen and the Americans. Just as Nour was.

The WaPo article I linked to has an interesting statistic:

"Since 2003, the year of the U.S. invasion, the United States has admitted 825 Iraqi refugees, many of them backlogged applicants from the time when Saddam Hussein was in power. By comparison, the United States has accepted 3,498 Iranians in the past nine months."

We can do better. We should do better.

portia said...

BTW, Nour was first non-military Iraqi interpreter given special refugee status, and she'll be eligible to apply for permanent residence after being in the US for a year.

Here's the brief video of their tearful reunion at JFK.

Watching them embrace and hearing her say to Vincent's widow "I'm so sorry I come back without Steven" still takes my breath away.

Cassandra said...

Insofar as reading up on the refugee issue, the WaPo lands on my driveway at approx. 5 am every morning. There was a huge op-ed in the Outlook section not long ago on the refugee crisis, and a page one article as well. It is a frequent topic in my hometown paper, and very deservedly so.

I hope she gets to stay. And believe me, I know there are more than 5000 Iraqis helping us :p

That's kind of the problem - where do we stop? I wish I had the answers. Like so many problems, the things we do aren't always 'fair', I know. They don't even appear to make sense most of the time, but often that's because we rarely are presented with the entire story.'s an extremely disturbing issue, and Nour's story is only one among millions.

Agreed. It's one thing when you are writing an op-ed - solving problems seems so crystal clear. It's quite another when you are the one on the pointy end of implementing policy. I have a sneaking suspicion that if this legislation were enacted tomorrow, there'd be another heated op-ed asking that the limit be raised to 50,000. Again, deservedly so - after all, far more than 5000 Iraqis are helping us - why not give them all asylum?

Anyway, I think I am at the limits of my ability to discuss this unemotionally :) Thank you, so much, for the video. You made my day, Portia. That was very kind.

camojack said...

An unutterably sad story...but with a somewhat happy ending, just not for all concerned.

War is like that...

spd rdr said...

Good post, Portia.

Damned blind bureaucrats have screwed the best intentions of their masters since Hector was a pup. I hope that one of our estteemed candidates has sufficient BALLS to stop pandering to the base and to start assessing what bills need paying and what works best for our nation's future.

George: You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it.
Billy: Man, everybody got chicken, that's what happened. Hey, we can't even get into like, a second-rate hotel, I mean, a second-rate motel, you dig? They think we're gonna cut their throat or somethin'. They're scared, man.

They're scared, man.

Ymarsakar said...

I don't know why - it just has.

His death lies unavenged. There are purges and executions awaiting the Shia question concerning Sadr, Basrah, Iran, and so forth. They must be solved eventually, one way or another.

I am just not in favor of a broad-based policy of issuing visas to everyone who is supporting the coalition, though I completely agree they are well deserved

That'll never happen Cass due to bureacracy and the limits on VISA application processes. Only a few will be able to make it to the US. Unless the President intercedes directly and issues an executive order, but that is unlikely given Bush's leadership style.

That's kind of the problem - where do we stop?

We stop at defeat or victory. These Iraqis are assets and in point of fact, something could be reached with Kurdistan. But regardless of that, these Iraqis must be safeguarded, regardless of the outcome in Iraq. America's problems with the Middle East will not end in a generation.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if this legislation were enacted tomorrow, there'd be another heated op-ed asking that the limit be raised to 50,000.

There will always be Leftist operators, provocateurs, and saboteurs working to undermine the lives of freed men, women, and children, Cass. We cannot allow such to stop us doing what is right and what is wise.

Again, deservedly so - after all, far more than 5000 Iraqis are helping us - why not give them all asylum?

Bureacracy doesn't work like that, even if politics did. Security is a concern as well as English as well as economic security as well as many other considerations, not least of all what our enemies, both domestic and foreign, might do to crash the party.

They're scared, man.

You know what I'm scared of? I'm scared that America won't ever execute an enemy with a nuclear device, that is what I am scared of.

Cassandra said...

I have discovered that if you type into the address bar, you do not come here.

I just thought I would let you all know that.