The recent 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, has led many commentators to reflect on what was undoubtedly the biggest U.S foreign policy mistake of a generation. Many have noted the human cost of a conflict which has thus far claimed the lives of 4,488 U.S. soldiers, perhaps 3,400 U.S. contractors, 318 of our Coalition allies. In addition, well over 10,000 Iraqi police and soldiers in total some 190,000 people have been killed in the conflict. Yet, one of war’s forgotten tragedies is the continued plight of the brave Iraqis who worked as translators for US forces, diplomats and development organizations operating in Iraq.
As the U.S main force commitment in Iraq began to wind down, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., led a bipartistan Coalition to pass the 2007 Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act. The legislation was meant to bring as many as 25,000 of our former allies to the United States by 2013.
According to data from The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, the issuing of visas has been held up by a plethora of bureaucratic red-tape. Just 5, 500 Iraqis have managed to get visas under the 25,000 allotted under the act due mainly to bureaucratic foot dragging. The act will expire this year unless it is reauthorized.
The numbers of visas delayed or those killed in Iraq can mask the plight and extraordinary risks these men took while working as translators. During a trip to the North of Iraq in 2010, I met scores of former translators from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Yet, a sizable number of those were Iraqi Orthodox Christians and the story of one translator in particular struck me as illustrative of the wider issue.
I met “Yahya” by chance the day after he was discharged by U.S Forces in Southern Iraq in 2010. Mr. Yahya asked that his real name and other details be hidden as he feared Iraqi militants. Yahya agreed to tell me his story as we traveled together from Erbil further north to Dohuk, in the traditionally Kurdish area of the country.
Yahya, told me he had fled his native Bagdhad as a refugee to Erbil shortly after the US invasion. Though a skilled plumber he had trouble finding work an Arab Christian in a Kurdish region he was a minority in a minority enclave. Then one day in 2007 his cousin came to him with an idea join the U.S forces as an interpreter. When Yahya joined the U.S Army as a translator only his wife and children the dangerous job he’d found. He has never told even his best friends and neighbors for fear that he could be targeted.
For one of the most dangerous civilian jobs in the world the pay is surprisingly low. “First (tour as a translator), the pay was $55,” he said. “The next time, [it was] $40.” He opens his wallet to show the fresh U.S currency he was given as his final payment. He was given roughly $1,000 for his final month’s work. Other translators who I met in Northern Iraq gave similar numbers. They all voiced concerns about their fate as the U.S forces as the U.S withdraws. Yahya also flashed me his ID card and release papers before getting nervous and asked that his image and these documents not be recorded
Yahya claims to have learned most of his English watching American movies with subtitles repeatedly. He received “just a little English” instruction in school while studying to be electrician. He learned to love the language, however, by watching movies such as Braveheart. (Yahya identifies Mel Gibson and Samuel L. Jackson as his favorite actors.) He claimed that, while technically proficient in the language, he had never spoken more than three lines of English until he took the test to be a translator with American forces.
As we cross one of the numerous checkpoints in the Kurdish region a large sign, he mused on life working with the multi-ethnic Army like that of the Americans.
“I think the Mexicans are good people, they are religious people,” he said. “I see all the time they go pray before missions and they go [for religious services] to the chapel.” He explains that though he was an Orthodox Christian, he was frequently invited to pray with Catholic soldiers from California and Texas.
Being a Christian Iraqi had other benefits as well. “The other translators had to always worry in the cafeteria and ask ‘Is this Pork?’ I would just eat everything…that is why I’m so fat,” Yahya told me with a smile. He laments lack of real hamburgers in Northern Iraq. In Iraq, “hamburgers” are usually served with Pita bread rather than proper American buns.
The cab driver chooses his route carefully. Driving on a well-paved road just outside the Kurdish region of control, he spies some military vehicles and trucks in the distance. “American forces, American forces!” he says excitedly. The taxi shakes as the military vehicles pass. Yahya’s eyes darts back and forth in rapid succession as the vehicles pass and he grows silent. This patrol would be one of America’s last. Just over a month later on August 30th, the U.S would halt all combat operations in Iraq. As the interpreter, Yahya rode in the lead vehicle during patrols; an IED attack on his convoy a few months prior had injured one of the U.S soldiers a few feet from him.
“From Mosul,” the driver of our cab says, though it’s hard to tell if it’s a question or comment. The ancient city is only a few kilometers away.
Translators typically get ten days off for every 20 worked. For Yayha, that meant thirteen hours crammed on the back of on the road in the back of taxis going from the outskirts of Basra to the North where his wife and children live. Though the endless checkpoints were tiring as a Christian he had little to fear. He explained the long trips away from home to his friends by saying he’d found work as an electrician in his native Baghdad.
Now with the further reduction in pay and the risks mounting, he’d asked to be discharged. At the time, Yahya hoped to resume his profession as skilled electrician – perhaps by finding work in one of the booming Turkish construction companies in Northern Iraq. As of 2010, some ninety-five percent of construction in the Kurdish Regional Government area is done by Turkish companies.
Yahya found the Kurds to be tolerant, but worried about his children’s future. Since the First Gulf War, language instruction has been in Kurdish. Exceptions are made for Arab and Assyrian children. Thus, in 2010, one was hard pressed to find people under the age of 20 who speak Arabic in Northern Iraq. Yahya worried that this will only make things more difficult for Arabs and Kurds to get along in the future.
Yahya told me that, as an Iraqi Christian, it would be quite easy for himself to be granted asylum. While some of his siblings had left for Europe, the U.S., or Australia, Yahya hoped that fleeing the country would not become necessary. Instead he dreamed of one day returning to a peaceful and vibrant Baghdad with his family. Almost three years later, Yahya’s dream of a peaceful Bagdhad, once home to one of the Arab world’s largest Christian populations, seems remote.
At one point the road strays near the Mosul Dam — once known as the “Saddam Dam.” The water behind the dam provides a contrast to the barren surroundings. The dam holding it back is structurally fragile and on the brink of collapse.
I then asked Yahya’s about the future of the country. His pessimism seems just as valid nearly three years later.
“Nour Maliki, Made in Iran,” he says dismissively as he peers out the window. A heavy truck loaded with goods towards the Turkish border at Zakho rattles past the taxi cab and for a moment Yahya glances at it
out the window.
Joseph Hammond is a writer based in Cairo, Egypt. Image of Saddam Hussein statues courtesy of Big Stock Photo.