CBS – 2008-05-20 09:09:37
(May 18, 2008) — The refugee crisis in Iraq is among the biggest humanitarian emergencies in the world. Millions of Iraqis have fled the war, many marked for death because they worked for the United States. They were translators, office workers, many other things, but now the enemy has branded them as collaborators.
When that happened in Vietnam, the US brought more than 100,000 refugees to the states. But today, the US government, which was so desperate for Iraqi workers, is not so eager to help them now.
As correspondent Scott Pelley reports, one young American named Kirk Johnson has jumped into this breach. All he wanted to do was rescue one of his Iraqi co-workers. When he did, a thousand more pleaded for help and Johnson began “the list.”
“The people on my list have been tortured, they’ve been raped, they’ve lost body limbs. There’s one guy on my list who’s been thrown out of a moving vehicle. And all of this because they helped us. They came every single day to try to pitch in, in our efforts there,” Johnson tells Pelley.
Johnson says we owe these Iraqis “speedy resettlement” in the United States.
The US failed to grant that speedy resettlement. So Johnson has taken it upon himself to plead the cases of some of an estimated 100,000 Iraqis who worked for America.
“These are the names, the supporting documents, the recommendation letters, the cell phones, every bit of information that we could compile to help the government live up to their obligation to these people and help resettle them,” he says.
A binder holds the list of nearly 1,000 Iraqis Johnson is trying to get into the US He gets Iraqis free lawyers, helps them navigate the system, and pleads their cases to the State Department, with praise from their former American employers.
And the binder is filled with the threats written by the enemy that make life in Iraq impossible.
“In the name of Allah, who kills the tyrants. This is your last warning,” Pelley reads from one warning.
“Yeah, ‘And to all those who work or cooperate with the pagan occupation forces we are running out of patience and our hearts are full of hatred,'” Johnson adds.
Threats like that have pushed four million Iraqis from their homes. About a million of them are hiding in neighboring Jordan, where 60 Minutes traveled to meet some of the people sending Johnson desperate e-mails by the thousands.
“The most common subject line that I get is simply ‘Help,'” Johnson says.
“You know, I wonder how you feel when someone sends you an e-mail that says ‘My life is in your hands,'” Pelley asks.
“What can you do? All I can do is…,” he replies as his phone rings.
His cell phone number was new. But, within hours, word spread that the keeper of the list was in town and the phone kept ringing. Johnson is something like what Oskar Schindler was to Jews in Nazi Germany.
“All these people who are calling you, they seem so desperate, almost as if just seeing you would better their chance somehow,” Pelley remarks.
“Yeah and I wish that were the case. I’m already doing everything I can,” Johnson says.
“But you’re all they’ve got,” Pelley says.
“It’s pretty sad,” Johnson says. “I still hope that that’s not the case. I have to believe that they have the power of the US government living up to its word.”
So how did this become Kirk Johnson’s problem? It started in 2006, when he worked in Iraq for the US Agency for International Development. One of his friends, an Iraqi co-worker, was eventually marked by the enemy as a “collaborator.”
“And within 24 hours he found a severed dog’s head on his front steps with a note pinned to it saying that his head would be next. He took that note to our employer to USAID, the United States government, and he said ‘I need your help. I’m gonna get killed if I don’t find some sort of safe house or some kind of protection. Because they know now that I work for you all.’ And USAID, they basically told him, ‘That’s really unfortunate, good luck with things, if you’re not back here in one month we’re going to give your job away to somebody else,'” Johnson says.
The man became a refugee. Johnson got him a lawyer, lobbied the State Department, and managed to get him into the US He’s settled near Chicago and is living with Johnson’s parents. After Johnson figured out how to get one refugee in, hundreds began pleading for his help.
60 Minutes met another refugee in Jordan named Hayder, who served as a translator for the 82nd Airborne Division.
He lost a leg in a firefight while trying to pull an American to safety. After years in Jordan, Pelley found Hayder preparing his paperwork for his ninth interview with the officials who decide whether he can come to the US
“What’s the most important thing you’re going to say today to the people who are going to be decided whether you can come to America?” Pelley asks.
“I’m going to tell them, ‘Hello, I’ve been waiting for you for more than three years and two months.’ It’s like am I gonna be reborn? Or am I gonna die today? If they’re gonna tell me or give me approval to go to America, that means my life is gonna be reborn again. But if they say no, that means I have to go back to Iraq because I can’t even stay in Jordan no more,” he says.
Hayder insists he can’t go back to Iraq now. “Because I’ll get killed. I’ll be 100 percent killed,” he says.
Like many refugees, Hayder is burning through his savings, since he’s not allowed to get a job in Jordan. He could be forced back any time.
“The Iraqis that work for us live secret lives. They do everything they can to keep their work with us a secret. But it only takes one mistake for that affiliation to become lethal. And we had one colleague, an Iraqi that worked with me at USAID, he was reaching into his pocket to pay for a haircut and dropped his badge and that’s what got him killed,” Johnson says.
US allies understand the danger. When the British pulled out of Basra they offered to take all their Iraqi workers to Britain; the Danish took their Iraqi workers home as well. So far the United States has taken 5,700. But Sweden, which has no role in the war, has taken 40,000 refugees.
On Pelley’s trip to Jordan, Johnson was getting so many calls that he decided to start meeting refugees in groups. “Everyone of you will be assigned a lawyer. Some of you have already been assigned one and because there are so many new names there is a delay, but I promise you all will have an American lawyer that will work for you for free,” he told one such group.
Those American lawyers are coming from three big firms which Johnson recruited. Holland & Knight, Proskauer Rose and Mayer Brown have donated the time of more than 150 attorneys. Private donors fund Johnson’s work.
Pelley met one of the refugee families getting that legal help. They’ve been in Jordan 18 months. For the safety of their relatives in Iraq 60 Minutes won’t use their name. But all of them worked for the US
One man printed the new Iraqi constitution on an American contract and handed them out to the public; his wife worked with Americans training teachers.
“You are sure you can’t go back to Baghdad?” Pelley asked.
“No. Of course not,” the woman said. “I’m going to be killed there. I’m certain about that. Either me or one of my kids.”
Another family member fled to Jordan after the woman’s sister was shot and killed. “We left everything. Friends, family, houses, jobs, everything, our country. They took my sister from me,” she told Pelley. “I just want to live safe. That’s it. I don’t want that to happen again with my children, with my family. I don’t want that. I just want to live safe.”
“One of the things that the US government says about why this takes so long is that people have to be interviewed again and again because they’re concerned about letting a terrorist into the United States,” Pelley told one of the refugees.
“I can understand them,” the refugee replied.
“But I also sense from you that you’re frustrated by that,” Pelley remarked.
“Because I’m not a terrorist. That’s why I’m frustrated,” the refugee said.
“If we can’t get to the point where we can’t even save the people who are themselves fleeing terrorists, if we can’t somehow regain our senses and say ‘You’ve been riding in Humvees with our Marines, you’ve been translating for our diplomats. We understand that you’re not the terrorists,’ if we don’t have the capacity to do this, I don’t even know how finish that sentence. I know that we do. We just lack political will,” Johnson argues.
Refugees, like Kirk Johnson’s friend in Chicago, were hopeful in 2007 when the United Nations referred more than 11,000 Iraqis to the US government for admission. But the US allowed in only 1,600.
One reason the admissions are slow is poor relations with Syria where most refugees live. The State Department declined an interview. But a senior official told 60 Minutes that the process is time consuming because of the background checks. Johnson thinks there’s another reason.
“The only answer I can posit for why this takes so long is because it looks bad for the United States,” he says.
Asked what looks bad for the US, Johnson says, “I think that there are people in the White House that think that if they only place left for the Iraqis who have stood up for democracy and who have helped America is America itself, then it looks as though the war isn’t going as well as they would like Americans to believe.”
The pace of admissions into the US is accelerating. In February, the young mother 60 Minutes met in Jordan, whose sister was killed in Iraq, arrived in Detroit with her husband and children. They were met by their extended family who came to the US years before. And in an instant, the fear was over and a new life began.
The State Department tells 60 Minutes that soon it expects to admit Iraqi refugees at a rate of 1,000 a month.
Back in Jordan, Hayder, the man who lost his leg, returned from his ninth immigration meeting in three years.
“What would you like out of a life in America?” Pelley asks.
“Sir, I just wanna live with my son and wife safe in peace with everybody,” he replies. “I just wanna live my normal life as a human being this is why. This is my only dream.”
Hayder waited another three months. Three weeks ago, he and his family resettled in Virginia. So far, Kirk Johnson has helped 86 Iraqi refugees find their dream of life in the US-86 out of an estimated 100,000 or more who raised their hands when America asked for help.
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