World

09.28.14 9:45 AM ET

Obama Went to War to Save Them, But They Can’t Get U.S. Visas

The U.S. started bombing ISIS to save the Yazidis, many of whom served the U.S. Army during the American occupation as interpreters. What happens to them now?

DOHUK, Iraq — The 28-yearold Yazidi from Sinjar, who used to be called Tommy by the American soldiers he worked with, was not in his hometown of Tel Kisib on August 3. That was the day the group that calls itself “Islamic State” attacked. His father, four brothers, eight uncles and dozens of nephews and cousins were there. They tried to escape, but ISIS caught up with them in the town of Qana, lined them up and shot them.

Tommy’s 24-year-old brother Mohsin, a university student studying English, survived the massacre, only grazed by bullets in the head and arm, and managed to get away. But ISIS abducted Moshin’s pregnant wife, along with Tommy’s five sisters, and dozens of aunts, cousins, nieces and male relatives under the age of 12.

Mohsin begged the militants to spare his 13-year-old brother, but was told all boys over 12 were to be killed because they were too old to be indoctrinated by their “Islamist” ideology. He remembers when his uncle, who could not stand, was “held up by two Da'esh members and shot by a third.” (Da'esh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS. The family names of the people in this story have been omitted because of their worries about security.)

Tommy , Mohsin and their few remaining family members are now living in a school in Dohuk, having taken refuge in the Kurdish north of Iraq like thousands of others displaced from the city of Sinjar and the villages around it.

Many, having lost everything, hope to begin their lives anew some place far from Iraq. But Tommy is not just seeking asylum anywhere. He’s looking to go to the United States, because the U.S. Congress said he could, if only the window open to him doesn’t close in the next few days.

Tommy worked with American troops for two years starting in 2005. Indeed, many Yazidis from Sinjar worked for the army as translators from 2005 through 2010. 

Tommy first started teaching himself English when the U.S. Army came to Sinjar in 2003 in order to get a job with them. The first time he took the test, he was rejected. But he continued to study English every day and eventually was accepted as an interpreter. During his two years of service with the U.S. military he worked in several dangerous parts of the war zone, including Diyala in what was known as the Sunni “triangle of death."

Another one of Tommy’s older brothers who also worked as an interpreter with the American forces was killed in a car bombing in June 2010, targeted precisely “because he worked for the U.S,” says Tommy. His brother’s son was one of those lined up and shot by ISIS on August 3 in Qana.

Between al Qaeda and ISIS, nearly all of Tommy’s family has been killed.

Now Tommy is hoping for a new home in the United States because American laws on the books should give him that chance. He is one of hundreds of Yazidis from Sinjar eligible for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) that was created in 2008 under the National Defense Authorization Act for translators and interpreters who were employed by the U.S. Government in Iraq, including those who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces for a year or more. The law was passed because many Iraqis and their families faced torture, rape and murder due to their affiliation with the U.S. government.

But Tommy, like many others, has been unable to obtain the documentation required by the State Department for the visa.

Even before the ISIS onslaught, only about 20 percent, or 5,812, of the available 25,000 visas the legislation allocated had been issued when the SIV program first ended in December 2013. Over 1,000 Iraqis were backlogged – waiting for months or even years, stuck in various stages of the process. Last year the program was extended with the new deadline looming at the end of this month. In the past eight months 282 more visas have been issued.

The List Project to Resettle Iraqis is a nonprofit organization that enlisted top U.S. law firms to provide pro bono representation to Iraqis who were eligible for the SIV program. It was founded by Kirk Johnson who worked for USAID in Iraq and found that many Iraqis faced death threats, but the U.S. did not have anything in place to protect them.

Despite the heroic efforts of the List Project, the SIV program has moved too slowly, plagued by bureaucratic delays, and hence has failed to help many of those who were at imminent risk of being targeted for their U.S. affiliation before – and now more than ever.

Hank, Frank and Tank, three brothers from Khanasor, a town north of Mount Sinjar, worked for the U.S. army for a combined six years, going on dangerous missions in Mosul, Anbar and Tel Afar.  “Ani Amir Amreeka fi Sinjar,” said their father proudly, laughing, which translates as, “I am the prince of America in Sinjar.”

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This was a dangerous title considering that locals called their town “Khanasor aain al Qaeda,” which means “Khanasor is the eye of al Qaeda,” because of the large number of locals who worked as interpreters for American forces.

In addition to the three brothers, eight extended members of the family worked for the U.S. forces.  In Khanasor alone, hundreds worked for the troops, and Hank estimates that over one thousand interpreters could be found in all of Sinjar.

Khanasor had a disproportionately high number of English speakers thanks to Jassim, an exceptional and revered local English teacher. Khanasor’s population is also more educated than other towns and villages in Sinjar, because it is larger at 35,000 and more urbanized. In smaller more rural towns children stay home from school to help tend the fields and raise animals. “We are the intellectual capital of Sinjar,” said Frank.

While Al Qaeda never threatened Khanasor, the town is now controlled by and is the main base of ISIS on the north side of the mountain.

Frank remembers many close calls from his service with the Americans, especially when he was in Tel Afar, where Al Qaeda’s presence made it one of the most dangerous cities in all of Iraq. One day when he and an American officer were interviewing a local man, a gunman shot at them from down the street. Hank was not hit but the U.S. soldier was shot multiple times in his legs. Hank pulled him out of the street to safety.

Hank and his brothers also stayed when many left. When the situation was very bad in 2005, many translators would go on leave and simply not come back, because working for the U.S. put them in grave danger. Hank recalls there were only about 12 translators for 3,000 troops, and they often worked for 80 days straight because they were not allowed to take breaks.

Hank’s cousin was by a suicide bomber while working with Special Forces in Hatimiya, on the south side of the mountain in 2008. A suicide bomber also killed Hassan, from Khanasor, at the Rabiaa border crossing with Syria.

Interpreters were in constant danger off the job as well. Ahmed, like many, had a fake ID that said he was Muslim. Another Yazidi from Sebaya was killed by al Qaeda for working with the U.S. when he went to Mosul to apply for a passport. 
 
Some Yezidis from Sinjar, including several members of the Hank’s family, have already immigrated to the United States under the SIV program.

But Hank and Tommy are among dozens with open SIV cases because they have been unable to obtain all of the documents required by the State Department. The one that is posing the greatest challenge is the “employment verification” or “HR” letter. The letter must come from the HR department of the contracting firms that hired the applicant, not an army supervisor. In the cases of Yazidis from Sinjar, the contracting firm is L-3, which later became GLS or Global Linguistic Solutions.

Working through local contacts, we have identified 11 open SIV cases from Sinjar. Of these eleven, four have been unable to obtain the HR letter from L-3 and GLS. From these statistics it can be assumed that there are many other Iraqis with a similar problem.

One problem is that these firms had little if any relationship with local Iraqi hires beyond recruiting them. Four of the people in question remember only the first names of L-3 employees who no longer have valid company email addresses. In addition, the contractors are no longer working in Iraq, and do not have old employment files of local hires.

Iraqis who send desperate emails asking military contractors for HR letters get this form-letter response:

SIV/IOM and Verification of Employment Requests – We regret to inform you that the process of generating SIV/ IOM  or Verification of Employment letters has stopped due to GLS’s contract end and departure from Iraq in June of 2013.  With the departure of all GLS staff from Iraq, there is no one remaining who can verify your time worked on the GLS contract.

All Local Nationals working on the GLS contract in Iraq were independent contractors and assigned to a variety of subcontractor companies.  Because independent contractors are non-employees, employment records do not exist regardless of the company assigned.  Therefore, the remaining GLS staff and its former subcontractor companies (L-3 /Titan, Shee Atika, etc.) are not able to provide verification letters of any kind.  We apologize for the inconvenience.

Global Linguist Solutions, LLC (GLS) and the U.S. Military thanks you for your service.

Mayer Brown has been one of the leading U.S. law firms working to train lawyers and represent SIV-eligible Iraqis and has agreed to represent pro bono the 11 new Yazidi clients who worked for the U.S. army and who are now displaced from Sinjar.

Marcia Maack, assistant director of pro bono activities at Mayer Brown, noted that these companies are not legally required to provide HR letters.

The State Department recently indicated that it would consider other evidence such as letters from other military supervisors that corroborate employment by the U.S. government. But the main requirement of the HR letter – and the SIV program – is a statement that the applicant worked for one year for the U.S. Most Iraqis rotated and only worked for certain supervisors for several months necessitating letters from multiple officers, near to impossible to obtain. This has left Iraqis and their representatives scrambling to locate army bosses who they have not been in contact with them in months or, in many cases, for years. Then, as ISIS rushed into their towns, many Yazidis fled Sinjar with only the clothes on their back, leaving behind all of their belongings including legal and other documents.

Some, like Sabah, received immigration approval almost two years ago, but decided to stay in Iraq. Now that he and his family are displaced and the risks have escalated he wants to leave.  But he does not have his SIV number, which is required to reopen his case. He emailed SIV with his name and date of birth, but the State Department informed him that it has no record of his earlier application. Mayer Brown is now attempting to locate his case.

There are dozens of Iraqis who do not have access to lawyer to track down their cases, and who gave up on the process, unaware that a letter from one of the military commanders they served can be used instead of a form filed by a contracting firm.

And time is of the essence.

The program was extended in January 2014 and will end on September 30 unless it is extended again. Applicants must have submitted all of their documents by this date.

Given the current situation in Iraq, with increased threats and deteriorating security, Congress should seriously consider extending the program to avoid leaving behind allies who provided invaluable support. The layers of tragedy the Yazidi community has suffered since 2003 and the contribution they made to the U.S. mission in Iraq surely warrant visas allowing them to come to America.

As a minority religious group that has suffered discrimination, persecution, numerous attacks and massacres by past regimes and rulers, Yazidis welcomed the American presence in the area. They hoped that the Americans would bring the stability, security and democracy they promised. Instead Ninewa and the area around Sinjar remained insecure, and in June ISIS attacked, took over Mosul, controlled Sinjar and made Khanasor a regional base.

The State Department should accept supplementary documents in lieu of the HR letter that contractors say they cannot provide. Congress should vote to extend the deadline considering this new stipulation, and recent events in Sinjar and around Iraq that have limited applicants’ access to documents and resources. 
 
In addition to addressing and expediting the SIV cases, the U.S. and other Western nations should open their doors and offer asylum to those in the Yazidi community like Hank and Tommy’s families who cannot return home. 
 
The world still does not know the extent of the atrocities committed in Sinjar. What is known is that hundreds of men and children were executed, buried in mass graves, while thousands of women and girls have been abducted, raped, tortured, and sold into jihadist marriages to ISIS commanders and fighters. It is too late to help those who were killed by ISIS, but those who escaped and survived are living in deplorable conditions. The U.S. government should expedite their cases while showing some modicum of flexibility in reviewing their documentation. 
 
Today, Yazidis say they will never return home, because they do not feel they can stay safe and protected. Thousands will remain displaced for years to come, but those who worked for the U.S. government deserve, at least, access to the program that was created to protect them.