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.)
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.
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
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)