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The phone calls in the past week were tearful. I spoke to two Iraqis, former colleagues who had risked their lives for Americans, to tell them I doubted they would ever be welcomed in my country. As France mourned murders by Islamist terrorists, and US politicians thousands of miles away spewed anti-refugee rhetoric, I realised my friends probably had no friends in Washington.
For years after the 2003 invasion, Americans relied on Iraqis to navigate a country whose terrain we barely knew and whose sectarian loyalties it was vital to understand.
Journalists could not have survived without them. Neither could the troops, aid workers or diplomats. The goodwill of those caught in the middle of these war zones — whether in Iraq or now perhaps in Syria— allowed us to stay safe and do our jobs.
The men I knew had been translators and drivers for the Chicago Tribune, then my employer. They reported through mortar attacks, even a car bomb. Then Sinan Adhem and Nadeem Majeed decided they wanted to live in the US. They applied 10 years ago for visas. As they waited, they became fathers, perfected their English and found better jobs. Sinan is now a security analyst for the UN. Nadeem works for Nissan Motors. Both live in Baghdad.
Last year, both Sinan and Nadeem received emails from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services stating that they could not be trusted. No one disputed they had presented all the proper papers or that the visa applications were credible. Yet form letters dismissed Sinan, then Nadeem, with vague finality: “Denied as a matter of discretion for security-related reasons.”
“Are the Americans calling me a terrorist?” Sinan sputtered over the phone.
I calmed him down; it had to be a clerical error by USCIS and the Department of Homeland Security. I was sure I could sort it and I knew we had to work fast. Neighbouring Syria was falling apart; my friends could soon be vying with thousands of desperate refugees.
In the weeks that followed, though, I found few people in my government willing to help. No single bureaucrat wanted to accept responsibility.
I sought help in congressional offices; filed Freedom of Information Act requests for explanations. I have called USCIS officials who, in the face of repeated emails, now ignore me. I am trying, still, to make the case: these men are why America said it was liberating Iraq. If Sinan and Nadeem are deemed suspicious — men who served the US cause — what chance do others have who are now seeking asylum? Indeed, Nadeem sacrificed more than most. His sister was murdered in a random shooting in 2006, a death that sparked his search for a visa.
I found an aid group, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which filed legal appeals for both men. One retired general I knew warned against false hope. “The Department of Homeland Security is a ‘black hole’,” he said. “It has become a hall of mirrors where there are no answers.”
Sinan and Nadeem last week ended up trying to comfort me when I called to offer my apologies. As former journalists they track US and European news websites, and perceived growing hysteria in the debate over refugees. “To be honest, I lost hope,” Nadeem said. “After this week — and what I saw in Washington — I can’t have hope.”
Sinan, so often the peacemaker during turbulent times in Iraq, told me he does not feel especially alone in his despair; many people in Iraq feel abandoned. Before I called, he had been working on a security brief for the UN and he shared what he knew: 10 bodies, riddled with bullets, had been found dumped in various places around Baghdad.
Yes, he said, he wished for a better life. “But it is not your fault, my dear. Don’t be angry. I think the whole world has gone crazy.”
The writer is the FT’s investigations editor