The Hero Project

04.24.12

The List: Accounting for the Iraqi Allies America Left Behind

For the Iraqis who bravely helped Americans, the war continues. One American is trying to help them find safety.

Most Americans greeted the end of the Iraq War the same way they responded to the beginning of it—with a shrug and a yawn. The List, a documentary screening this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a timely reminder of what’s still at stake, and that the war there isn’t over for our allies just because we’ve mostly departed. In many ways, actually, it’s just begun for them, as they flee or hide from their past—from us.

For me, the film resonated because of a man named Suge Knight.

For many months in the throes of the Iraq surge, my scout platoon and I patrolled the dusty towns of northern Baghdad province, trying our hand at counterinsurgency and winning over locals’ hearts, minds, and pocketbooks. Sometimes it worked. With us throughout, for every midnight counter-IED mission and every tedious patrol tallying hours of working electricity, was a middle-aged interpreter we called Suge, because of his striking resemblance to the hip-hop entrepreneur.

Suge was more than our translator—he was our only conduit to the foreign land we found ourselves stewarding. He became a friend, confidant, and mentor to my men and me on matters ranging from the nuances of Arabic culture to the nuances of an even more mysterious tribe—women. His English was sometimes choppy, but his loyalty was as relentless as the desert sun. He wasn’t just with us, he was one of us, a subtle but critical distinction.

At the end of our 15-month tour, we went home. Another unit replaced us, and Suge stayed with them.

I think of Suge and his family often, especially as news of car bombs and sectarian strife continues to come out of Iraq. Every time he stepped out of the wire with us, he was risking not only his life but the lives of his family—insurgents’ reprisals against locals working with coalition forces were swift and merciless. He wore a mask in some neighborhoods, but he never once asked to stay on base or inside a vehicle. Suge told us sometimes about his desire to immigrate to the United States, about his fears that some of his family wouldn’t want to move, and about his frustrations with the slow immigration process.

I wrote a character statement for Suge, proclaiming his bravery and dedication to duty. I haven’t heard from him for a couple years, and wish now that I had done more then.

Every time he stepped out of the wire with us, he was risking not only his life, but those of his family.

The List tells the story of a man who did do more: Kirk Johnson, a former USAID worker who served as regional coordinator on reconstruction in Fallujah throughout 2005. Disturbed and disillusioned by his experience there, Johnson returned home hoping to shed his wartime memories. That plan changed after he received a message from an Iraqi with whom he had worked—who had found a severed dog’s head thrown on his front steps with a note: “Your head will be next.” A neighbor had spotted him at a checkpoint leaving the Baghdad Green Zone he had stealthily gone to and from for years to work for America, and now a local militia was out for blood.

The interpreter and his wife needed to leave Iraq, but the U.S. immigration bureaucracy wasn’t sensitive to the immediacy of the appeal, to put it mildly. Rather than wait for the years-long process to play out, they fled their homeland. Shortly thereafter, Johnson wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times detailing his friend’s plight and arguing that the U.S. government had a moral obligation to resettle to safety Iraqis endangered due to their affiliation with our military or government.

Johnson was subsequently inundated with messages from Iraqis, usually former or current interpreters working for the military who were experiencing similar threats. He began documenting the names and whereabouts of these individuals, and enlisted the pro bono legal service of various prominent law firms in his fight to resettle these men and women as quickly as possible. The List was born.

Now a full-fledged nonprofit, The List Project has helped nearly 1,500 Iraqis find safety in the United States. (Full disclosure: my boss at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Paul Rieckhoff, sits on The List Project’s advisory board.) The List’s marketing team is likening Johnson to Oskar Schindler, something that seems a bit melodramatic until one actually sees the film. The joy, fear, and despair for Johnson and former interpreters like Yaghdan and Ibrahim are anything but melodramatic. They are the hard-earned emotions of men and women who have stared at the worst aspects of the human condition and refused to either blink or quit.

Still, the film makes clear that America has yet to live up to its obligations to the great majority of the Iraqis—36,000 working for the Department of Defense alone in 2009—who assisted in innumerable ways in the eight-plus years America occupied the country. Between 2006 and 2009, fewer than 3,500 U.S.-affiliated Iraqi refugees were admitted to America, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Meanwhile, I wonder how Suge and his family are.