Veteran Helps Family Of Fallen Iraqi Comrade Get Safely To U.S.
February 14, 2013 1:10 p.m.
Ibrahim, 24-year old Iraqi Translator
Katie Reisner, National Policy Director, Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project
CAVANAUGH: The consequences of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just beginning to unfold. Recently the family of a slain Iraqi U.S. interpreter managed finally to resettle here in San Diego. KPBS Fronteras reporter Jill Replogle tells us the story of that interpreter.
REPLOGLE: They called the lanky looking teenager Roy. During nine months of fire fights, Roy interpreted the country's language and culture for the platoon led by U.S. Army captain Blake Hall. He helped him identify the signs of a hostile neighborhood and impending attacks. The two became very class. Hall admired Roy's witty one liners and bravery.
HALL: Not allowed to carry a weapon, but still with bullets flying overhead, still doing his job faithfully by my side.
REPLOGLE: Roy wasn't eligible for a special visa. He still have three months of combat work left. He returned to the U.S. and began the paperwork to bring Roy over. Then one day, he got an e-mail. Roy was dead.
HALL: I felt like I had just been punched in the stomach.
REPLOGLE: Hall says he spent the next 18 months numb, trying to process his combat experience and his loss. One thing kept nagging him. His promise to Roy.
HALL: And ultimately I decided I needed to find his mom just to tell her how important he was to us and how special he was. And really in some ways to ask her for her forgiveness. I still felt guilty about leaving him behind.
REPLOGLE: Hall finally got in touch with Roy's mom, she didn't hate him. But she and her family were in danger. Iraqis seen as U.S. collaborators are potential targets for insurgents. Hall vowed to get them out of Iraq. He worked with pro bono lawyers and the refugee assistance project. He called legislators and went to the media. He said the long wait is unacceptable.
HALL: Every one of them that's hunted down, that has to live in danger because they served with American, it's a tarnish to our national honor.
REPLOGLE: According to the assistance project, Iraqis who worked for the U.S. and their families if they apply for refugee consideration in Iraq, will have to wait 18 months just to get an interview, and it still takes at least a year after that before they complete the process and get on a plane. In Afghanistan, under a special visa program, there's a backlog of 5,000 applications just to apply for the program. Roy's family waited nearly two years to get refugee status. And now we're at the San Diego airport waiting to meet them. Roy's aunt and grandmother are already here. They left Iraq several years ago and now live in San Diego. Roy's cousin who was also an interpreter has flown in from El Paso to be part of the greeting committee. Airport construction drowns out their arrival. Hugs and kisses are passed around. Roy's parent, 11-year-old sister and 22-year-old brother, the family looks exhausted. They have been traveling for nearly 40 years. The women bring out plates of food. They order us to feast. As it is for most refugee, finally arriving in a new country is a mixed bag. This is Roy's mother. Her name will remain anonymous. Other members of the family are still in Iraq.
ROY'S MOTHER: I happy to future, my children. But I'm sad to future of my country. Bad, really bad.
REPLOGLE: In the next few weeks, a local refugee resettlement agency will help them find an apartment, get Roy's sister enrolled in school, and help his father start looking for job. For now, they are relieved to be safe. And they credit Hall for that. In the morning, they'll start the rest of their lives.
CAVANAUGH: Joining me now in studio is Roy's cousin, Ibrahim, welcome.
IBRAHIM: Thank you so much.
CAVANAUGH: And on the phone is Katie Reisner, national policy director of the Iraqi refugee assistance project. Welcome to the program.
REISNER: Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: How is your family settling in San Diego?
IBRAHIM: They're kind of excited. It's their second day today. They have no fears anymore. They don't have any anxiety, any kind of fears from the insurgency to be followed. They're really happy. Really happy for Blake and everything he had done for the family. Without him and his contact, it would be impossible. It's been about two years. And we've been working on the paper, we've done everything. But in the end, it worked out.
CAVANAUGH: You're talking about the army captain Blake Hall.
CAVANAUGH: Who helped your family get over here? What sort of danger did they face in Iraq?
IBRAHIM: Well, they faced all kind of danger. Roy, he was in combat, and he was in constantly missions with Blake, recon, and they went to the most hostile area in Baghdad. We call it the wild west. It was full of insurgency, and he was detaining and getting really, really bad people from the street, picking up those people. Those people were still mad at Roy, even after his death. The family is still in danger, they want still revenge from what he did and from the target he picked up from the street.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Katie, let me go to you for a moment. When did you receive Roy's case? And when you did get it, was it a kind of a textbook case that was clear-cut or were there snags?
REISNER: Sure. The Iraqi refugee assistance project first received Roy's family's case in September, 2010. The legal team was able to submit the application for them in April2011. The case was common in some ways and uncommon in others. It's incredible uncommon for a family like Roy's to have a legal team preparing their applications and accounting for every detail, collecting new evidence. And it's incredibly uncommon for a family like Roy's to have an advocate of the caliber of army captain Blake hall. They waited a relatively short period of time between the time that their application was submit said and the time they had their screening interview.
CAVANAUGH: Two years is a short time?
REISNER: Astonishingly, yes. That falls on the lower end of the spectrum of time that an application is in wait. The time that the family waited between the time that the application was submitted and the time of the interview was six months. Usually that period is 16-18 months. So the wait time is usually considerably longer.
CAVANAUGH: How long, Ibrahim, did it take you to get your visa?
IBRAHIM: It didn't make me that long. I applied for the SIV, the special immigrant visa, where I was working at the time with the military, so they had my background, all the stuff ready. So it took me -- I would say 3-6 months. It wasn't that long at all.
CAVANAUGH: So is it fair to say that the U.S. interpreters themselves don't have to wait that long to get into the country? But if they want to take their families or have family members accompany them, that's what takes the time?
REISNER: I don't think so. Every case is different. There's a really wide variety of cases. But it typically, in the type of admissions program that Roy's family benefited from, there's a tremendous backlog. And the typical wait time is 2-3 years, for the special immigrant visa program that Ibrahim came over on, in Iraq again, the wait times are many years. And Afghanistan also many years. We have had individuals who submitted applications in 2009 and are still waiting for any sign of progress on their applications.
CAVANAUGH: What do you hear from friends and relatives now in Iraq? How secure is it for people who are just trying to live their everyday lives?
IBRAHIM: It's actually getting me sad. After all the sacrifices from the Iraqi army and the interpreters and the U.S. military, I have friends I have lost overseas. And after all -- we secured Iraq, the plan was the general Petraeus when he did it, it worked perfectly. But in the end, it get me sad, after we started pulling out of Iraq, all of a sudden, the militia started coming up, showing up, assassinations against young kid, they detain without any evidence, without anything, they just -- it's sad. After all those people, what we have done, and all the blood we put in, the situation has gotten really bad right now.
CAVANAUGH: Your family is overjoyed to finally be here, be in the United States. But it must be something of a bittersweet joy as well. They had to leave their home, they had to leave their nation. Tell us a little bit about that.
IBRAHIM: Yes. They left everything behind. They left friends, family, their homes, their houses. They just gathered their stuff together, they pack it up, and they just flew. I got Roy's brother, he even left his graduation. He was about to brought within a month or two months, I believe. He left it, and he just got on the plane and left. I mean, I told him I don't want to take no more chances. If anything happened to you guys, I wouldn't forgive myself.
CAVANAUGH: Katie, there is a similar situation now in Afghanistan as the U.S. begins to pull out of that country, and the people who have been known to give assistance to the United States want to come to the United States. What kind of backlog did you say there was again?
REISNER: That's right. There's a similar program in Afghanistan that enables folks who have worked for the U.S. government and their families to come over to the United States if they have been persecuted. Current estimates of the backlog there are on the order of 5,000 document early complete applications that are just waiting. Unfortunately of the 8,500 applications that were created by legislation -- I'm sorry, 8,500 visas that were created by legislation, something on the order of 500 have been granted. So the program is basically at a stalemate. What's unfortunate is that what happened in Iraq was that the program there was initially also at a stalemate. But after it became clear the scale of the threats faced by the U.S./Iraqi allies and their families, then the special immigrant visa program, and the related refugee programs, additional resources were dedicated to them and the programs sped up. However, many deaths could have been prevented had the program been better functioning prior to the troop drawdown. In Afghanistan, the troops are drawing down, and we have the opportunity to prevent the same thing in Afghanistan.