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Iraq War 10 years later: Former Iraqi translator makes a new life in Glendale

by Mary Plummer | Take Two

Tariq Abu Khumra, a former translator for U.S. forces in Iraq, holds an American flag, which was given to him by American troops, in his Glendale apartment. Mae Ryan/KPCC

When Tariq Abu Khumra gets lonely, which happens a lot, sometimes he turns to soft Arabic music to try and feel more at home. 

His apartment in Glendale is about 7,600 miles away from his home town of Baghdad.

He's here because, after working with two units of the U.S. military as a translator, it's too dangerous for him to stay in Iraq.

Iraqis angry at his work with the U.S. military marked his car window with a red "X." He survived a car chase.

He was lucky. Among the victims of the war are hundreds of Iraqi translators who died as a result of their work with the U.S. military.

Fearing for his life, Abu Khumra applied for a Special Immigrant Visa to come to the U.S. The process took nearly two years.

RELATED: The Iraq War: Southern California looks back after a decade

"Without doing all of this, I would have been somewhere in the basement of some house in Iraq or just might be killed somewhere," he said, flipping through a massive stack of visa paperwork he keeps in a drawer in his apartment.   

Congress originally authorized 25,000 Special Immigrant Visas for Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military. But so far only 22 percent of the visas have been distributed, according to the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.

A long line of Iraqi translators continue to wait for their paperwork to be processed. The project estimates the average wait time for eligible Iraqis and Afghanis is about two years. 

“People underestimate just how much these interpreters are on the line of battle,” said Katherine Reisner, National Policy Director for the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. "They’re doing this all for a country they’ve never seen."

For Abu Khumra, life in Southern California means no longer having to fear for his safety. Unlike his life in Iraq, there are no military check points, and his apartment has one lock to bolt instead of three. But when he hears a noise in the middle of the night, Abu Khumra still he has to remind himself where he is — Glendale, not Baghdad.

Harder than they imagined

He's safe. But he's also alone. And, like many immigrants, he's found life in America harder than he imagined.

His one bedroom apartment is modest. In it, he keeps photos from home, his guitar, his Xbox and his most prized possession: An American flag covered with signatures from the troops he accompanied into the streets of Baghdad. He hung it over his bed.

One signature reads, "Tariq, thank you so much for all your dedication and hard work, good luck, Major Smiley." Another:  "Tariq best wishes and thanks, Col. Janice King." 

Abu Khumra landed a job within a month of arriving in Southern California last summer. But it didn’t pay much and, after a disagreement with his boss, he had to quit.

Now he spends several nights a week taking computer programming classes at New Horizons in Burbank. 

His counselor, Jose Gonzalez, said one complication is his college education. Abu Khumra has two bachelors' degrees —  from schools in Iraq.

"Because [employers] don't recognize other countries' degrees, they won't know how to validate," Gonzalez said. "How can they get transcripts? How can they break down and give details of exactly what they learned? So I think that’s the obstacle."

Abu Khumra wants to work at Google or find a similar high-paying job. In Iraq, he worked for Microsoft after his job with the U.S. military ended. 

"I try to work as hard as I can, but it really gets me exhausted sometimes. I’m getting a lot of white hair," he said with a laugh. 

So far, none of his other family members have been able to secure visas to move to the U.S.  He  worries that his family is still in danger because of his work for the U.S. military. He doesn't know when he'll be able to see them again. 

He speaks with his relatives over Skype at least three times a week. They discuss car bombings and other firefights in their Baghdad neighborhood. All of this leaves Abu Khumra with a lot of guilt.

"It’s very difficult to have somebody behind," he said. "I wish nothing was going to happen to them but ... you never know."

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