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An Iraqi translator's long journey to Los Angeles

Tariq Abu Khumra is a former Iraqi translator for the US military. He visited Southern California Public Radio after waiting in Iraq for a special immigrant visa for nearly two years.
Tariq Abu Khumra is a former Iraqi translator for the US military. He visited Southern California Public Radio after waiting in Iraq for a special immigrant visa for nearly two years.
Mary Plummer/KPCC

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Tariq Abu Khumra worked as a translator for U.S. forces in Baghdad for two years. But his life changed when troops began drawing down in October and he lost his job.

Tariq feared for his safety because working for American forces is a risky proposition for Iraqis. Working as a translator is even worse — they escort troops on missions, even wear the same uniform. Hundreds of translators in Iraq have been killed and Tariq feared for his life.

Tariq previously was interviewed by The Madeleine Brand Show in November. At the time, he was hiding out by himself in an undisclosed location, with a gun.

"This is my sixth day in my house without going even opening the front door ... You can't say that we're really living, but we're breathing," he told Madeleine Brand in November.

He was waiting for a special immigrant visa that would allow him to come to the United States. Securing the visa was a lengthy, agonizing process that spanned almost two years.

Tariq was finally granted a visa and arrived yesterday at LAX, but he left behind a few thousand Iraqi translators and his entire family.

He joined Madeleine Brand in-studio this morning to give us an update and a hint as to what he's planning for his new life in the U.S.

Interview Highlights:

On why it took so long to get his visa:
"It's a buerocratic process and it goes through lots of agencies. It takes the longest waiting period for the security clearance to get the visa, because there were some previous threats last year for people who came in such a program. They want to make sure the people who are coming aren't bad guys. [The process] started slowing down in March 2011, when after finding out those two guys were convicted for arming some terrorist groups in Iraq, so it started taking a long time. We hoped that, we didn't want it to go this way, but it is, and unfortunately there are a lot of people still waiting."

On what he's done since speaking to Madeleine in Nov. 2011:
"When we spoke that was right after the withdrawal and at that point I was just going off base, I haven't been in downtown for a while, so I didn't know what it looked like. I started going out in January and I connected with a few people who had that Microsoft Learning Center open … At least there's something to do, I didn't want to waste six or seven months of my life just staying home and I wanted to do something that would benefit me when I come here."

On two instances when his life was threatened in Iraq:
"The first attempt was when I worked in '07, we were heading back from work and two or three guys chased us in a car and thank god there was a U.S. patrol where we stopped, because Americans are the people who everybody's afraid of in Iraq. The second time was when I worked as a linguist for the contracting command in Iraq, it's like an army dept. or something. They were like, we used to vet the contractors who used fraudulent documents. I was the interface of the command with the Iraqi government. If those people who are giving us their credentials are true people who do exist. Many companies didn't like it because they were doing bad business. The local contractors, so we started to weed out those contractors. We did a couple of awareness meetings with the contractors and they knew I was the person in charge of coordinating the two sides. I woke up and found my rear car window broken and I found a red "X" taped on my front door. I bailed out a little bit, for two or three weeks, I told my bosses about it, then I moved on base."

On leaving his home to move to the U.S.:
"Me leaving and coming here was a bittersweet moment. It was sweet because the dream that I was hoping for finally came true, and the bitter was leaving the family behind. If anything happened to them, you might be the person who caused that, because I worked with the Americans and if somebody knew that they are my family and they allowed me to work, they might be in danger. Everyone in Iraq is in danger, but especially the people who work with the Americans have an extra danger. I hope I can get them here, but we don't have the luxury of special immigrants to bring our families. Only our wife and kids under 21."

On what life is like right now in Iraq:
"It's a troubled country, especially politically, it's not stable at all … There is no life, all you see are concrete walls and checkpoints and military everywhere, You don't feel like you're in a city, you feel like you're in a camp. In terms of bombings and things like that, it's less than before, but if somebody wants to kill you when you do something that might go against the will of the militias they can hunt you easily and they won't be held accountable. So whatever they do is like, if you got killed that's it. There's no trial, your family won't know who did this…I hope it gets better, but the people out there are in a bad situation."

On the situation in Iraq before Saddam Hussein's downfall:
"It was in a situation worse than it is now. In Saddam's time, it was secure, but at the same time millions of people got killed in mass graves that were found after 2003. American's brought freedom to Iraq, that's a truth nobody can deny. They opened us to the world. Iraqis weren't able to travel before, now every family goes to Turkey, goes to Lebanon, goes to neighboring countries as tourists, but before they couldn't. You couldn't even get a passport and if you do you had to go to the intelligence office to get some training. American's brought freedom to Iraq, in my opinion, I am so grateful to the U.S. forces, there have been some trouble before, but as someone who worked closely with officers who were in charge of making decisions, all they wanted to do was help build the country and make it better, but sometimes being so honest, they think that everybody is honest too. So they treated some contractors and some government officials as honest people when they were not."


Tariq Abu Khumra is a former Iraqi translator for the U.S. military. He'll now look for IT jobs in the LA area.