Decline In Refugee Admissions For Afghan, Iraqi Combat Interpreters Troubles Veterans
Tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans did critical, life-threatening work for the United States during wartime. In return, the U.S. offers citizenship to those workers who risked retaliation from insurgents or the Taliban. Yet the number of Afghans and Iraqis getting in the country has declined sharply since Donald Trump became president.
Maytham Alshadood, a combat interpreter from Iraq who is now a citizen in Colorado, worries for those still waiting.
He was born in Baghdad and grew up watching his country spiral into decline amid authoritarian government, several wars and economic sanctions.
The U.S.-led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein, but gave rise to insurgent violence across the land. That forced Alshadood to put his college medical studies on hold. Instead, he got by as an IT guy, installing wiring and cables, sometimes for Americans, which turned out to be an opportunity in itself. He improved his English and in 2005 one of his friends had an idea.
"We had a conversation about working for the United States military as combat interpreters and I said, 'Heck yes. Yeah. I'd like to do that,'" Alshadood said.
He saw interpreting as a way to help his country move towards democracy as well as to help Americans. He went with his friend to a gate at the walled international green zone in the heart of Baghdad. There, a representative from a contracting firm ushered them in. Eventually, Alshadood passed an English exam and a security check and soon he was getting paid to interpret for Americans.
"I lived with soldiers, had meals with soldiers, traveled with soldiers 24/7," he said.
He wore a combat uniform and faced the same threats.
"I remember the firefights," he said. "I remember the mortar attacks. I remember the IEDs, but those are not things I can comfortably talk about in detail."
He saw loss of life. He kept his head down and his work a secret.
If word gets out that an Iraqi or Afghan is helping the U.S. government, the consequences can be fatal. Their families are also at risk, according to Adam Bates, policy counsel for the New York-based nonprofit International Refugee Assistance Project, which provides legal aid to interpreters and others.
"In places like Afghanistan, the Taliban do not look kindly on people who serve with U.S. forces or who are found out to be assisting the U.S. in their country," Bates said. "The same is true of Iraq."
The numbers of interpreters and others who get into the U.S. after helping the U.S. military and government has fallen in recent years.
Under one State Department program for Iraqi refugees called Direct Access, 3,045 were admitted in the 2017 fiscal year, which Trump shared with his predecessor, Barack Obama. By 2018, 51 Iraqis were admitted under the program, and 197 the year after that. As of mid-February, 52 more came in. That's according to numbers the State Department provided to KUNC.
In a separate program that issues Special Immigrant Visas, admissions have dropped about 60% under the Trump administration.
This has led to massive backlogs, said Bates, blaming delays — in some cases for years — on the government's process for vetting applications. The International Refugee Assistance Project has brought some of those cases to federal court in Washington, D.C., where a judge ordered faster processing of applications. Statute stipulates special visa applications be processed within nine months.
KUNC requested an interview with the State Department's bureau chief for refugees, Carol Thompson O'Connell. She declined through a spokesperson, who instead issued a statement: "We are committed to ensuring those who sacrificed their own safety to help U.S. national security interests have an opportunity to seek refuge in the United States. This includes Iraqis who have served alongside U.S. service members."
Some veterans, like former Army Sgt. Travis Weiner of Greeley, said the delays are unacceptable. He said interpreters and others have already proven their allegiance to the U.S. through their work and relationships with Americans overseas.
Weiner isn't alone in his concern. Retired Army general and former CIA director David Petraeus said in 2017 that the U.S. has an obligation to protect Iraqi and Afghan interpreters. James Mattis, the former commander of troops in Iraq, said the U.S. must honor its commitments to those who supported combat troops before he resigned as defense secretary in 2018.
Most Americans, Weiner said, don't realize how much troops rely on interpreters.
"Without them, you can't fight a counterinsurgency because you can't talk to anybody," he said.
In 2006 and 2007, Weiner's platoon was mired in combat, especially southwest of Baghdad.
"The whole time we were raiding houses," he said. "We were running roadblocks. We were sweeping through villages and we were hunting for insurgents and we were trying to create some security and stability."
He recalled an interpreter named "K.J." from two deployments.
"He was fantastic," Weiner said. "He was fearless. He was one of us."
Once back home in the U.S., word came to Weiner on Facebook, in 2010, that K.J. died in Iraq.
"We had so many close calls the first deployment and here you got K.J. who'd been on one before us and was on after us and then another and another one and there's no question that he's using up his nine lives if that makes sense," Weiner said.
Weiner said the interpreter had wanted to come to America to start his life over.
Stories like that motivated Maytham Alshadood to share his own. Alshadood was among an early generation of U.S. allies to get into the U.S.
"The application process is very long and arduous," Alshadood said. "It took almost two years to get through the paperwork and get the right letters of recommendation and send the right forms."
He spent nearly three years as an interpreter. Finally, in 2008 he boarded a jet with other refugees. His first glimpse of America was New York at night, from a bus leaving John F. Kennedy International Airport.
"We were all just looking outside the little bus windows, to see this new land," he said.
The next day he took another flight, this time to Dallas for a refugee resettlement program. After that, he was free to start his life from scratch.
"Most people want to go either to New York or California but both of those places were pretty difficult places to move into," Alshadood said.
So he picked Colorado for its relatively lower cost of living and the mountains. Things were tough at first. Alshadood hoped to return his life to where he left off in Iraq: medical studies in college. Yet he didn't fit the definition to receive in-state tuition for what amounted to nearly two years. Finally, in 2016 he received a bachelor of science in nursing from the University of Colorado's Anschutz campus, graduating with honors.
Afterwards, he went to the state legislature in 2018 — with immigration supporters and friends, including Travis Weiner — to ask that refugees get in-state tuition as soon as they set foot in Colorado. They won. Alshadood said refugees who shared their stories made a difference.
"Imagine when anyone hears the word 'refugee.' They don't think of refugees and immigrants as people who might have served and sacrificed already."
"Imagine when anyone hears the word 'refugee,'" Alshadood said. "They picture someone who is fleeing from something, has no resources, helpless, has nothing to offer, and needs all the help. But they don't think of refugees and immigrants as people who might have served and sacrificed already. They don't think of refugees as people that come to the United States and create their own job opportunities."
Alshadood's efforts caught the eye of a fellow American, a former Army Ranger-turned-congressman. Jason Crow, the freshman Democrat who took the oath of office in 2019, hired Alshadood as his district director for the ethnically and economically diverse 6th District, which includes Aurora and Centennial. Alshadood also got married to the daughter of a refugee and an immigrant.
At the HiRa Cafe in Aurora, sipping Ethiopian spiced tea, Alshadood reflects on his good fortune. Yet the decision to leave Iraq, he said, was difficult.
"Uprooting and going to a whole new country that you know almost nothing about," Alshadood said. "You don't know the culture. Your degree doesn't work there. Your job experience might not matter. The language is different. Think about all these losses that we incur as we embark on this journey. All of that was easier than staying behind."
Iraq's parliament passed a resolution to demand that U.S. forces withdraw from the country in the aftermath of the airstrike in Baghdad that took the life of top Iranian military leaders, including Qassem Soleimani. U.S. troops may soon withdraw from Afghanistan, Trump has indicated, in the wake of a peace agreement.
With U.S. presence in both countries less certain, Alshadood's thoughts turn to combat interpreters. He said those who risked their lives for America should not be left behind.