The Hero Project

11.15.12

The War's Dirty Secret: Allies Abandoned

With the war in Iraq formally ended, too many of our translators there have been left behind. Abigail Pesta reports.

Kirk Johnson, founder of The List, a group that resettles Iraqi translators who helped American soldiers in war, blasted the White House on Thursday, saying the administration isn't doing enough to protect our allies. "I used to be very polite in Washington when I came to talk about the obstacles," he said. Not anymore. "The obstacle is the White House." 

Speaking at Newsweek and The Daily Beast's Hero Summit in Washington, D.C., Johnson described the dangers and death threats foreign translators face from their fellow countrymen for helping Americans. But the U.S. policy, he said, is essentially this: "If you survive long enough, if you survive all these militias, maybe we'll consider bringing you here."

Haider Khairallah is one of those translators. He joined Johnson at the summit to talk about his own experience in Iraq, describing how he got the job helping American soldiers: One day, he said, the troops showed up on his street. "I said, 'How can I help you, gentlemen?' They laughed. I said, 'Why are you laughing?' They said, 'You're the first person to speak English.'"

Khairallah was serious about helping. He went with the soldiers that day as they cleared the town of bombs, serving as their translator. Then he joined the troops permanently, making $5 a day. "I had this dream to rebuild Iraq. So this is where I can fit, rebuilding my country," he said. He described one night when the soldiers came under attack and he pulled one of them to safety, losing his leg in the process.

"People look at me and say, 'Why did you do it?'" he said. "It's just a human reaction. You work every day with these guys, they become like brothers, family. That's how I felt, you know—he'll stick up for me, I'll stick up for him."

Later, when the troops left, Iraqis turned on him. "They looked at me as a traitor to this country. They held the Koran towards me," he said. "My house was bombed several times … three times I was driving a car and they shot at my car. I had to leave the country."

That wasn't so easy. He wound up stuck in Jordan for four years trying to prove that he was a refugee who had worked with U.S. troops, he told moderator Howard Kurtz, Washington bureau chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. "I was losing hope ... I felt that my life is gonna end soon, there's no option for me," he said. "I had to prove my leg got blown up because of the war. I had to bring all the papers and do all the interviews … prove my case."

"My house was bombed several times … three times I was driving a car and they shot at my car. I had to leave the country."

Johnson, who had gone to Iraq with USAid, said he started his project half a decade ago because "I started getting pissed off … we were doing nothing to help these people." He said, "We went in there blind and deaf essentially, and there were tens of thousands of Iraqis who believed in our mission and believed we were gonna make the country better." Now, he said, the U.S. is leaving its allies to fend for themselves.

He said of his fellow panelist, "If Haider showed up tomorrow" to apply for refuge in the U.S., "he would have a wait time of two years before the first interview."

Khairallah eventually made it to the States, and said he is grateful. He also has a message for Americans: "Look, please don't fuss about bills, Facebook, Starbucks. I've been in hell. I've seen what hell looks like," he said. "Every morning I wake up, I thank God I live in this country … Every night I put my head on my pillow and sleep in peace. I love this country."