Rejected in the Green Zone, Accepted in Sweden The Tragically High Price of Helping Americans

Ameer spent years working for the Americans in Baghdad, but now he finds himself living in a tiny town in Sweden. His security was not high on the US priority list. And neither, it seems, are Iraqi refugees.

By in Alvesta, Sweden


When the United States marched into Iraq in the spring of 2003 with dreams of empowering progressive Iraqis to create a new democracy in the Middle East, they most certainly had people like Ameer in mind.

"I knew right away that I wanted to work with the Americans," the 28-year-old English studies major says. "It was part of getting rid of the restrictions we used to live in and looking ahead to opening the country up internationally. We didn't like the past regime and the Americans represented something new. We knew we had to be a part of it."

Even now, with a burgeoning civil war making the future of Iraq more uncertain than ever, Ameer hasn't let go of the dream of a better Iraq -- an Iraq he wants to be part of. But he'll have to wait. For now, the Shiite Kurd -- who was one of the leading interpreters for the Americans in Baghdad -- is a refugee living in government housing in the tiny town of Alvesta, Sweden. Working for the Americans proved to be a life-threatening proposition. And the Americans, Ameer will tell you, didn't seem to care.

'Nobody Asked'

"They owe us," he now says of the Americans, just a few months after having left his country because of mounting death threats. "They owe us a policy of helping us after we sacrificed our lives for them. In the end, we shouldn't be left behind like this. During my last days in Iraq, there was nobody who picked up the phone to ask about my well-being."

Had things turned out differently in Iraq, it is not difficult to imagine the handsome Ameer as a young professional cruising through town wearing dark sunglasses, mobile phone pressed to his ear. But he has trouble staying bitter for too long. He is quick to reminisce about some of his American colleagues in Baghdad, whom he praises as being both competent and caring. Indeed, one of them, Oliver Moss, helped Ameer get the visa he needed to escape Iraq. Another, Jeffrey Beals, who is now a Ph.D. candidate in New York, has even offered him a place to crash in his apartment there.

But the US has been heavily criticized when it comes to the county's willingness to accept Iraqi refugees. In 2006, according to an early May article in the International Herald Tribune, the US only admitted 202 Iraqis, bumping the total for the entire war to a paltry 466. The Bush Administration has upped the quota to 7,000 for this year and is weighing whether to more than triple that to 25,000. But in the first six months of the fiscal year, which began in September, only 68 Iraqis have managed to obtain asylum in the United States, mostly because of stringent screening procedures in place since 2003.

The Dangers of Working for the Americans

Still, the complaints about Washington's seeming unwillingness to take in Iraqi refugees have not fallen on deaf ears. The US has provided more than $800 million to the World Food Program, the UNHCR and the Red Cross among other organizations to help Iraqi refugees both within Iraq and outside its borders. And even as experts doubt that asylum screening procedures could ever cope with bringing in 25,000 Iraqis this year, the Senate passed a law in April which would allow up to 500 Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters into the country each year -- a reaction to the dangers of working for the Americans in those countries.

"America has a strong obligation to keep faith with the Iraqis and Afghans who have worked so bravely with us and have often paid a terrible price for it," Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy said when the Senate passed the bill.

The ruling came too late for Ameer and his colleagues. His story -- one that, like that of his colleague Firas, was told originally in an exposé by George Packer which appeared in a late March issue of the New Yorker -- is one of almost complete indifference by his American employers to the growing threats to his life. Identification badges to speed up their entry into the Green Zone on their way to work in the morning were refused. Requests for housing in the Green Zone were turned down. And in the case of Ameer, one over-eager Regional Security Officer (RSO) began harassing him for trying to find out the fate of an acquaintance who had been arrested by US forces.

Hooked to a Polygraph

Tracking down prisoners was frequently part of his job. He was attached to the Shiite portfolio, which meant he interpreted and translated for the American officer in charge of relations with Shiite political parties and religious groups, including Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which has been accused of carrying out executions of and violence against Sunnis. "There was often a price for these meetings," with Shiite leaders, Ameer explains. "Either a badge, a gun permit or you were asked to check on a detainee to see what had become of him. It was perfectly normal."

The exasperation is still palpable in Ameer's voice as he relates his growing frustration as the RSO continued to check into his motives for asking about his acquaintance, even to the point where they wanted him, after years of service with the US administration, to answer questions about the incident while hooked up to a polygraph machine.

But the growing feeling that his employers saw him merely as a potential terrorist wasn't Ameer's only concern last autumn. The dangers were mounting as was his own sense that he wasn't as safe as he used to be. He began spending less and less time at home, instead staying with a friend of his who had an apartment in the Green Zone. He told fewer and fewer people about his job and, even when his American colleagues called him, he refused to speak English in public.

'Very Dangerous for Me'

But the dangers mounted. Some of his Iraqi co-workers began getting death threats. And then, an office cleaner Ameer drove home one evening told him to watch his back. "There is nothing right now, but you need to be careful," Ameer remembers him saying. "There are people who know where you live." Ameer left his job and Iraq soon afterwards.

"I realized I had to leave," he says. "I think I had 300 names in my phone and many of them were Americans. I also had badges. It was very dangerous for me."

Now, walking through the quiet streets of Alvesta, past the tidy gardens skirting well-kept wooden houses, it is clear that Ameer feels that he is still not completely out of Iraq. Even in the refugee camp nestled into the forest on the outskirts of small-town Sweden, he prefers not to talk about his job back home. He keeps largely to himself.

But he is going to stay, he says. His dream of heading to the States evaporated along with his security in Iraq.

"After the elections in 2005, the Americans told us that we were the ears, eyes, hands and heart of the Embassy in Iraq. But now, here we are," Ameer says. "They got rid of us."

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