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Soldiers and an Iraqi translator with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment speak with a local Iraqi while on a patrol on July 13, 2011 in Iskandariya, Iraq.
The U.S. troops are gone from Iraq. But there are still a few thousand Iraqis, especially interpreters, who worked with the U.S. military and are desperately waiting for American visas — a process that takes years.
Many of these Iraqis were branded as traitors by hard-line Iraqi groups. They have often been targeted by militias in recent years, and they fear that will continue even though the American forces have left.
"Johnnie" — a nickname — is one of those interpreters, or "terps." From 2007 to 2010, he served as a linguist with various U.S. Marine units. From 2010 to 2011, he worked with the U.S. Army in Ramadi and Fallujah.
Johnnie, who did not want his name used because he fears for his safety, signed up for the same reason many interpreters did.
"Because I want to do a good job for Iraq and the U.S. to facilitate the mission between the U.S. government and the Iraqi government," he says.
But it was a job that came with a great deal of risk.
"It is difficult because of the death we face every day. During the job, and even when you go on leave, you have to do something to cover yourself, you have to protect yourself. I been shot at multiple times," he says.
And he's not talking about being shot at on the job. "I used to work in Diyala province, which is located northeast of Baghdad. I went on leave with three, four other terps, and four of us we got shot at, one of the guys [was] wounded," he recalls.
Another time, Johnnie was driving with his brother and they were chased. His brother was shot — and is now disabled. Another brother was kidnapped in 2008 and hasn't been heard from since. Johnnie says that he didn't expect any of this when he signed on to be an interpreter.
"If they find your house, you live in that house, they will come to your house and kill you and kill your whole family. It's too dangerous for us. I don't feel safe. I don't feel safe, not me, not my family," he says.
Limited Visa Slots
In 2007, the U.S. government set up a special immigrant visa program for terps and others who worked at least a year with the U.S. in Iraq. The number of slots is limited, and the process long and complicated. But Johnnie decided it was the only safe option for him and his family.
"I gave all the information to the U.S. Embassy, and until right now, until this moment, nothing comes up. It's still in process," he says. "It's actually ... a frustration."
Johnnie has the support of the soldiers and Marines he served with. But the State Department has taken 2 1/2 years processing his application, and he has no idea when — or if — he will receive a visa. In the meantime, he hides in his house. He goes out maybe once a week. He can't work to support his family.
"My family, my mom keeps telling me, 'What you have done? What you have done?' I say, 'Mom, I've done a good job.' And she'll be like, 'What do you mean you have done a good job? You have been waiting for a visa for the last nine months.' And I just shake my head, I don't know what to tell my mom," he says.
In Limbo, Lives At Risk
Even though he believes in the work he did, he is now questioning whether he made the right choice to work with the U.S.
"And I don't know what's going to happen after 2011. I never thought that people are going to kidnap my brother and people are going to chase me to kill me. I never thought about it," he says.
Senior officials at the State Department say they're exploring all avenues to keep the U.S. safe from credible threats while meeting their commitment to the Iraqis who worked for the U.S.
But critics say there is no good explanation for why the visa process takes so long, and why so few visas have been issued. They say it's a lack of political will as much as it is a surplus of bureaucracy.
But no matter how fast the applications are processed, it will never be fast enough for the thousands of people like Johnnie who risked their lives and are now jobless and in danger.
"And I don't know what I'm going to face, not today, not tomorrow, maybe next month or next year. I hope I get my visa after Christmas so I can leave. I hope so. I'm praying every day," he says. "My mom is praying every day for me."