Kurdish refugees want visas for relatives, friends who helped US militaryby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Moorhead, Minn. — When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, several former Kurdish refugees living in Moorhead volunteered to serve as interpreters and guides for the military. Now they worry about relatives left behind when American troops withdrew.
"It's a very, very scary situation at this moment, and not only is it scary, it's confusing for most people," said Newzad Brifki, whose brother-in-law in Iraq has received death threats because he worked for the U.S. military.
Hundreds of Kurdish refugees resettled in Minnesota after they were forced out of Iraq in the 1980s by Saddam Hussein. When those former refugees returned to Iraq they also recruited family members living in Kurdish communities to work for the military. That's how Mohammed Salih was hired as a security guard for a small civil affairs team in the northern Iraqi Kurdistan town of Zahko.
Salih said his work for the military makes him a target for groups opposed to U.S. intervention in Iraq. He said he has received several death threats.
"They'll throw images of dead people in your yard, or find out your phone number and send you a threatening text message," he said through an interpreter. "Or somebody will call you out of nowhere saying, 'we will kill you.' "
Salih now moves his family around. He works day labor jobs and tries to go to a different job site every day. He tells his children to stay inside the house.
"They can go to school but I'm afraid to send them," he said. "Because I'm afraid if I send them the terrorists will capture them and call me and say, we've got your children, give us money or we're going to harm them."
Salih said he never planned to leave Iraq, because he expected the U.S. military to "be here forever." But when it became clear all U.S. troops would leave, Salih said he realized it would be too dangerous to stay.
Kurdish people feel a strong allegiance to the U.S. military for protecting them over the past 20 years, said Brifki, who runs a Kurdish community organization in Moorhead.
"I love this country and I can tell you my community loves this country because we will never forget what the United States has done for us," Brifki said. "They gave us a safe haven. You think we're just going to turn against them after that? That's not going to happen, ever."
Given the danger faced by Iraqis who worked for the military, many try to come to the United States. Last July, Salih applied for a special immigrant visa created in 2008 to expedite visas for workers who face retaliation for helping American troops.
Salih said he spent thousands of dollars traveling with his family to the U.S. embassy in Ankara, Turkey. Brifki flew from Moorhead to Turkey to help, but was not allowed to enter the U.S. embassy for the appointment.
Mohammed Salih said an embassy employee told him during a brief conversation that he did not qualify for a visa.
But Salih appears to meet the requirements for a special immigrant visa as he worked for the U.S. military for at least one year. His supervisor, Army Maj. Peter Colt, wrote a letter of commendation.
"There is no doubt in my mind that my men and I were able to safely accomplish our mission because of the brave and diligent service of Mohammed," Colt wrote. "I also know that because these men worked for us, they were in danger in Iraq after we were able to go home."
Colt confirmed that he had praised Salih's work, but said military officials did not authorize him to comment.
The danger for military employees has increased dramatically since U.S. troops left Iraq.
It's especially dangerous for Kurds because they are seen as U.S. allies, Brifki said. For the first time in 20 years, they are not protected by the U.S. military.
"What are we going to do?" Brifki asked. "Are we going to rely on the Iraqi government who the Baath party for so many years has terrorized us?"
Brifki fears Iraq will now dissolve into civil war as forces that opposed U.S. intervention reemerge.
"Those groups and terrorists or the bad men, they're not gone," he said. "They're just hiding behind the curtain. They're waiting for their day. The U.S. has withdrawn and they're going to open the curtains and create chaos again."
That chaos could be a death sentence for family members who worked for the U.S. military in Iraq.
Congress approved a special immigrant visa in 2008 to help military employees who were in danger. The program allocated 25,000 visa's over five years. But only about 7,000 have been approved, former State Department officials Eric Schwartz said.
Schwartz former assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said federal officials are fearful that terrorists might slip into the United States as refugees.
"Security screening procedures have created bottlenecks," he said. "There is no denying the fact that this has created significant challenges."
In 2010 18,000 Iraqi citizens came to the United States, but only about 9,000 were granted visas in 2011, said Schwartz, dean of the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
Schwartz said refugee visa programs are not designed to move people quickly. That can be a problem for someone like Mohammed Salih.
"The challenge of course is that we're in an unusual situation with respect to those Iraqis who want to come to the United States, who may be at risk, who remain in Iraq," Schwartz said. "The issue is how much should we do? My answer to that question is we need to do a lot. I think we need to do more than we're doing, with an understanding that we can't do everything."
So Mohammed Salih hides in Iraqi Kurdistan, and his relatives in Moorhead worry.
But they refuse to criticize the military or the U.S. government.
Is Salih sorry he worked for the U.S. army?
"No, I will never regret working for the United States military and if they return I will work for them again and lose my life for the United States."
Salih said he doesn't know how to appeal his denied visa. He's afraid to travel to the U.S. embassy in Bagdahd.
He's also applied for a refugee visa, but has heard nothing from the U.S. embassy. Refugee applications can take months to process.
He said his primary mission is trying to protect his family.