Inside the Iraqi Refugee Crisis

Katham had been in Jordan for six months, getting medical treatment for wounds he suffered in the double car bombing of a U.S. convoy, when he realized he would not be going home to Iraq—not then, not ever. Twenty-six at the time, Katham had spent much of the war working as a translator for American troops in Karbala. In late 2005 he started receiving threats from Shiite militants in his town, including his own cousins. Later he learned his name was on a Mahdi Army list of "collaborators" targeted for death. But it wasn't until he got word in Amman about a fellow translator having been murdered in Karbala that he grasped the depth of the danger. Katham, who fears his family will be harmed if his full name appears in print, phoned the American embassy in Amman to request refuge in the U.S. By then his Jordanian visa had expired and the money he had brought from Iraq was running out. But the senior consular official who came to the phone had nothing to offer. "She said we knew the risks when we signed up to work with the military and we should contact them if we have problems," he says.

Katham is one of the lucky ones. After pushing for more than a year he finally received refugee status and settled last month in Seattle, where he and an Iraqi roommate share a small apartment with a couch, a television set and a few action movies strewn on the floor. His success reflects a small shift in policy toward Iraqi refugees. After welcoming just a few hundred in the first few years of the war, the State Department has opened the door to 1,600 Iraqi refugees in the past year. Katham's story also raises questions about the debt we owe to as many as 100,000 Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government either directly or through private contractors and are now running scared. "We all feel a moral obligation, particularly to those very brave Iraqis who stood side by side with our troops, such as translators," says Ellen Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary of state in charge of refugees.

What seems to be lacking at the State Department and other branches of the government is a sense of urgency. While the danger posed to Iraqis who worked for the United States continues to rise, the process of seeking sanctuary in America remains difficult and drawn out. For one thing, Iraqis must still leave their country before they can even request shelter—a proviso now complicated by the fact that Jordan and Syria have closed their borders to refugees. Once abroad, applicants get screened first by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and then by a separate American panel to determine how desperate their situation really is—and whether sanctuary is essential. Those who qualify can languish for months until officials from the Department of Homeland Security fly out to conduct an additional screening (though not in Syria, since the authorities there won't grant entry visas to DHS officials). When the State Department was criticized earlier this year for the slow pace, Sauerbrey promised that 7,000 Iraqi refugees would be welcomed in by the end of the year. The number was later downgraded to 2,000, but even that goal seems likely to go unmet.

Sauerbrey told NEWSWEEK the Bush administration had done plenty to help the refugees get by in their host countries, including providing millions to Jordan to shore up its overburdened school system. But she also appeared to downplay the scope of the problem. She disputed that 2 million Iraqis had already fled the country—the figure cited by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations—and she said most of the refugees are hopeful about their prospects of returning home. "Iraqis have not given up on Iraq," Sauerbrey said. "Iraqis want to go home." It's that kind of talk that prompts some critics to ascribe a political motive to the Bush administration's sluggishness. "The administration could cut through the red tape and bring these people here in days or weeks," says Kirk Johnson, who worked in Fallujah for the United States government's Agency for International Development. "But that would be tantamount to admitting the situation isn't getting better in Iraq, and they're unwilling to admit that." (Sauerbrey denied that any of the decisions in the process are politically motivated.)

Johnson worked on reconstruction projects in Iraq for about a year, then sleep-walked out of a second-story window during a family vacation in the Dominican Republic. "The stress of Fallujah had built up," he says. He broke his jaw, nose and wrists, and cracked his skull, and the long recuperation prevented him from returning to Iraq, but not from maintaining contact with Iraqi employees, who told him about colleagues being abducted and tortured. Earlier this year Johnson began compiling a list of Iraqis who worked for the United States and needed rescuing. He periodically e-mails an updated version—now with more than 700 names—to the State Department, but Johnson says only a handful have managed to reach the United States.

One Iraqi who remains behind is 22-year-old Ali Desher. A native of Basra, Desher worked as a translator for a platoon of Marines in Anbar province and suffered burns to his face and body when their barracks were hit by a suicide bomber driving a fuel truck. Like Katham, Desher was sent for treatment in Amman, where he realized returning to Iraq was too dangerous. But his application for refuge in the United States has gotten mired in red tape. In a phone interview from Amman, Desher said he checks with the embassy every week. Last week officials told him they were still waiting for results from Washington of his fingerprint analysis. DHS officials took his prints seven months ago.

The hardships don't end when the refugees arrive in the United States. Most get a two-month housing subsidy, which the State Department provides through refugee assistance groups (the groups can sometimes extend the subsidy through private donations); health insurance for up to a year; and help finding a job. Katham was placed in an apartment in one of Seattle's roughest neighborhoods. Two hours after he arrived, police on a drug bust swarmed his block. "I thought I was back in Karbala," he says. Katham's English is good and he has a profession. Before working as a translator in Iraq, he studied to be an electrician. But his roommate Hussan will need months of classroom training to become conversant in English. And he still needs medical treatment for a Green Zone injury that cost him his leg below the knee. "Maybe I can work as an office manager," he says hopefully. Johnson tells the refugees he's helped that all immigrants to the United States pay their dues. "My family came from garbagemen," he says. Here, at least, they're out of harm's way.