Early in his deployment, in the summer of 2003, Maj. Dave Kleiber would sit with his fellow soldiers at night, smoking cigars from Saddam Hussein’s humidor on the roof of the Radwaniyah Palace and watching tracer fire over Baghdad. The former digs of the deposed Iraqi dictator served as the command center for all the Army Special Forces operations in Iraq. It was a strange transformation for a palace that was already bizarre: from the crystal chandeliers — which, upon closer inspection, were actually made of plastic — to the enormous date palms that sprung from the desert. Kleiber heard a rumor that the grounds once held a zoo, but all the animals were gone. In this surreal setting, Kleiber and Shwan Ghafur’s worlds collided.
A year earlier, when American forces invaded Iraq and ended Saddam’s 24-year reign, they seized control of the Radwaniyah Palace complex southwest of the Baghdad airport. Special Forces operations, by nature, rely on local support, and Ghafur, a Kurdish soldier (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), became one of the local Iraqis in the Legion Security Force (LSF) providing base security at the palace. As the force protection officer who commanded the LSF, Kleiber paid Ghafur and the other guards in cash from a discretionary fund. The fact that Ghafur was never on any official payroll would come back to haunt him more than a decade later.
Iraqis assisting U.S. operations faced extreme risks. LSF leader Abu Cesar was gunned down in the streets of Baghdad, his body mutilated by hundreds of AK-47 bullets. Kleiber retrieved the body from the morgue on a night mission so Abu Cesar’s men could give him a proper burial. When 11 LSF guards — who were given leave every third week — crowded into a minivan bound for their hometown, they were stopped on the side of the road by insurgents, lined up in a ditch, and shot. Their unit leader was beheaded, and a video was sent to Kleiber’s military email account.
“I have often wondered how many of the Iraqis that I lived with, ate with … fought with, and relied upon are alive today,” Kleiber wrote in a memo. “I suppose not too many.”
When he received an email out of the blue from Ghafur in 2014, a decade had passed since Kleiber’s deployment in Iraq. Ghafur was applying for resettlement to the United States through a program set up to provide a safe haven for Iraqis who were under threat as a result of their service.
“For all intents and purposes, they are veterans,” says Chris Purdy, who served eight years in the Army National Guard and was deployed to Iraq. “They deserve to be treated on par with our combat soldiers.… These people are just as brave and just as worthy of our respect as anybody who serves the United States overseas.”
Instead, they’re stuck in a complex immigration system that disqualifies applicants on the slightest technicalities, a bureaucratic limbo where Iraqis languish with the promise of safety in America fixed on an endlessly receding horizon.
And Ghafur is far from alone: The number of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis waiting for their resettlement applications to be processed has ballooned from 60,000 to more than 100,000 under the Trump administration, with only a lucky few making it to the United States each year.
But Kleiber didn’t know any of this when he got the email in 2014 that would later change his life. All he knew was that Ghafur needed his help, needed to get out of Iraq.
Ghafur comes from a lineage of fighters, a Kurdish family outspoken in opposition to Saddam’s regime. Iraq’s anti-Kurdish policies predate Saddam Hussein, but his Arabization campaign and staggering human-rights violations (including the use of chemical weapons on the Kurdish people in the 1980s) deepened the Kurds’ resolve to take a stand. Ghafur’s family has paid the price for their resistance: one sister imprisoned, one brother forced into hiding, another killed serving in the Peshmerga — the military forces of the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.
Ghafur, too, served in the Peshmerga. He had dreamed of a simple life, a quiet job, a peaceful family, but circumstances made that impossible. At age 30, he became a member of the Free Iraqi Fighters who fought alongside U.S. troops taking control of Baghdad in 2003. “They were the ones freeing our country,” Ghafur explains, “and for that, I was ready to follow the American forces wherever they went.”
After the initial invasion, approximately 215 Free Iraqi Fighters were transferred to the Radwaniyah Palace complex to form the LSF and man the guard towers and front gate.
When Kleiber’s unit in the 19th Special Forces Group of the National Guard first arrived in the summer of 2003, life on base was relatively stable, but by Easter Sunday in April 2004, as the transition to the new Iraqi interim government loomed, the LSF guards were forced to defend the base from a major insurgent attack.
The LSF’s role ultimately extended far beyond base security to providing interpretation services, route reconnaissance, local knowledge and intelligence that proved essential — and on many occasions lifesaving. That May, two LSF members on duty at the Radwaniyah Palace complex were routinely checking Iraqi contractor vehicles entering the compound. The guards noticed one of the cars waiting in line looked suspicious and went to question the driver. They prevented the vehicle from entering the compound, but the driver detonated his car bomb, killing both guards.
In the unrelenting summer that followed, memorial services for LSF members became increasingly frequent. Prayers for the dead were broadcast over the loudspeaker by the front gate. At each memorial service, they tried to replicate an American military funeral: LSF members assembled in formation near the battlefield cross, an upside down rifle with the soldier’s helmet on top and empty combat boots at the base. Kleiber would say a few words, followed by prayers from a local imam. Sometimes bereavement payments were granted.
When Kleiber’s unit returned stateside, some LSF members remained, some transferred to another base, the rest were disbanded. But the peril for Iraqis who had assisted Americans was only beginning.
As the situation in Iraqi deteriorated, Iraqis like Ghafur became increasingly vulnerable. “We basically patted them on the back, said, ‘Thanks for your help,’ and left. That’s about all we’ve done,” says Kleiber.
Soldiers from Saddam’s disbanded Iraqi military were recruited by local militias, and LSF members were hunted down. And not just LSF members: Across the country, Iraqis who worked for Western media outlets or served as informants were also in danger. A local vendor received death threats just for running a small shop for troops on Kleiber’s base. In 2004, Kleiber learned that at least three of the Iraqi women who had been hired to wash their uniforms had been murdered. From that point forward, Kleiber said, laundry was done via a contractor who hired non-Iraqi employees. “When ISIS was really taking control of the country,” says Kleiber in an interview, “these guys were being slaughtered wholesale. Anybody that had any connection with the U.S. and U.S. military, they had a tremendous target.”
After Ghafur was discharged from the LSF, he tried to distance himself, returning to Kurdistan and cutting off communication with any Iraqis or Americans he’d served with. But the threats followed him, and every time he left his house, he wasn’t sure he’d return home alive. He knew the United States had set up an expedited pathway to America for those who were facing extreme danger after their service, and he decided to apply. In 2008, Ghafur submitted his first application — receiving a case number, followed by a rejection letter — and he applied again in 2010. The second time, he made it further, but without a letter from Kleiber (his supervising officer), Ghafur’s case was discarded.
As the internet became more widely available throughout Kurdistan, Ghafur searched for Kleiber. He found a picture, and a little more sleuthing led to an email address. For the first time in several years, he allowed himself to hope.
When Kleiber first saw Ghafur’s email, he was wary. He had settled into his life in Colorado and a career in law-enforcement training, and those nights on the roof of Radwaniyah seemed like another lifetime. “After 10 years, to get an email, ‘Hey, are you the Major Kleiber that was the Force Protection Officer at RPC?’ from some guy in Iraq — my first response was: ‘Who is targeting me?’” recalls Kleiber. “I was extraordinarily suspicious, very defensive of my family and my home.” He showed Ghafur’s email to the other guys from his unit before finally deciding to respond. After exchanging several more emails, Kleiber became absolutely convinced Ghafur had served in the LSF under his command.
Providing the proof of employment Ghafur needed would be easy, Kleiber thought. He drafted a memo confirming Ghafur’s membership in the LSF, and explained that, due to the conditions of the war zone — where expenditures were accounted for on the back of a cocktail napkin — Ghafur was paid in cash.
He submitted the memo and waited.
The employment-verification stage is often a major hurdle, even for those who were officially employed by military contractors: HR departments overwhelmed with verification requests can take months to respond (assuming the company hasn’t gone defunct and its relevant departments are still operating). Companies often have lost or incomplete records, and English transliterations of Iraqi names don’t always match from document to document — another issue Ghafur had faced.
“The system was built with America in mind, not with the conditions of Iraq or Afghanistan in mind,” says veteran Ben Wormington.
Iraqi translator Bashar Karim’s application in 2011, for example, was delayed because, without a national mail system, submitting documents to the capital city to obtain a passport for his daughter required convincing a taxi driver or a relative to personally deliver the paperwork across the country. “Every single one of them has a story of overcoming unbelievable odds,” says Wormington. For those like Ghafur, who were paid in discretionary cash, the odds are even slimmer.
And proof of employment is just one of many technicalities that can disqualify an applicant like Ghafur, who would otherwise fit the bill for U.S. resettlement. “It’s very nuanced,” says Jennifer Patota, a supervising attorney at the International Refugee Assistance Project. “And, of course, militants don’t care about those nuances.” Iraqis are targeted for having U.S. ties of any kind, whether or not they can procure a pay stub.
After a long wait, Ghafur received notification that his proof of employment was declined; his Free Iraqi Fighters discharge certificate, LSF ID card, and verification from his commanding officer weren’t sufficient. The Resettlement Support Center told him to provide “a clear source of funding which proves that you were paid by U.S. affiliation.”
Kleiber worked hard in the months that followed to understand why Ghafur’s application was stuck. “He just keeps getting that statement,” says Kleiber, sounding exhausted. “I’ve written three memos … explaining how the funding went. He clearly has provided documentation that he worked for the U.S. government.… They’ve received all of that, and it just goes back into this endless loop.” Every follow-up was met with a request for “payment verification or payment contract” — neither of which Ghafur has because he was paid in cash and wasn’t hired by a military contractor.
To Kleiber, trying to map stringent paperwork requirements onto the reality of employment in a war zone is laughable. The Commander’s Emergency Response Program funds (allocated for local infrastructure projects and to maintain a guard force at Radwaniyah) that Kleiber periodically collected from the U.S. base at the Baghdad airport — up to $250,000 — were always cash. There was no direct deposit.
“It’s just mind-boggling,” says Jennifer Quigley, the director of Refugee Advocacy at Human Rights First. “Their lives are at risk as a result of working for us. This should not be so hard.”
Being stuck in the strange world of a Kafka-esque bureaucracy for 12 years has made Ghafur wonder if someone in the migration office doesn’t want his application approved, or if they’re waiting for a bribe to move his case forward. Those who are intimately familiar with the program understand that it’s not personal, but instead is systemic neglect and dysfunction.
Application requirements that don’t take into account the situation on the ground in Iraq have made it difficult for those in danger to qualify for resettlement. For those who do qualify, bureaucratic inefficiencies and isolationist immigration policies slow their application process, creating an extreme backlog with little movement. Since 2007, according to NBC, 47,000 U.S.-affiliated Iraqis have been resettled to America through the program Ghafur applied to, but in recent years the number of admittances has slowed to a trickle. As a result, Iraqis like Ghafur have put their lives on the line twice over: first in their service to U.S. military operations overseas, and again in waiting for promised help that may never come.
Of course, there are stories with happy endings. Mike Jabbar, a Kurdish translator, saw his application processed in just under 16 months after applying to the “1059” Special Immigrant Visa program, which allocates 50 visas each year for Iraqi translators — if they can procure a letter of recommendation from a high-ranking military officer. Jabbar had provided interpretation services for the Navy SEALs, who helped him secure a letter from a general, and in September 2019, Jabbar arrived in America. But he was one of only two Iraqis granted “1059” visas that year.
And even that letter of recommendation is no guarantee. Jabbar has been helping his friend, nicknamed Totti, who also applied for the 1059 SIV but has faced significant delays, still waiting for his interview to be scheduled. Since the evacuation of all non-essential personnel from the American embassy in Baghdad, immigration cases aren’t moving forward. Meanwhile, the wait is excruciating. “If they find me, they’re going to kill me,” says Totti, who is currently in hiding. “Iraq is not safe for me anymore.” Even simple activities like playing outside with his children are impossible due to local militias, and he’s losing hope of ever making it to America.
“This is literally a matter of life and death,” says Adam Bates, policy council at the International Refugee Assistance Project. “And far too many have lost their lives waiting for the U.S. government to process their application.”
Kleiber is the latest in a long line of veterans trying to do right by their war-time allies. After serving in Iraq, Chris Purdy joined Veterans for American Ideals to help advocate for those local nationals who fought underneath the stars and stripes.
In recognition of their service and the associated risks, the Special Immigrant Visa program was created in 2008 with two pathways: “1244” for those who’d generally provided faithful and valuable service to the U.S., and the more-selective “1059” for translators with letters of recommendations. Both were meant to be a fast track to safety for U.S. affiliated Iraqis, but nothing is fast about it. As of 2017, only 7,832 Iraqis had been granted SIVs, and the program has been heavily criticized for lack of bureaucratic transparency and interminable wait times. In Afghan and Iraqi Allies v. Pompeo, a class-action lawsuit brought by the International Refugee Assistance Project, a U.S. federal court upheld the 2013 congressional provision that resettlement cases must be processed in less than nine months. Yet, applicants can still remain stuck at the background-check stage alone for five or six years with no updates.
“It’s hard to explain how much red tape there is,” says Patota, the International Refugee Assistance Project attorney. “This was not Congress’ intent in establishing these programs.… The intent was to recognize the danger and bring people to safety as quickly as possible.”
Veterans for American Ideals harnesses the personal experience of veterans — who are more likely to get face-to-face meetings with congressional representatives — to create a powerful group of messengers advocating for war-time allies. “When you work alongside these folks, you really feel the need to pay them back,” explains Purdy. “There are stories all the time of people’s lives being saved by their interpreters or by local nationals. And then you take that desire to get things done and transpose it on top of this anti-immigration phase and isolationism that we’re going through as a country — veterans want to break through that barrier.”
Wormington was one such veteran, and was devastated to discover that the translator serving with him on his third tour in 2008 — who goes by the name Ted — was stuck in Iraq, years after applying for an SIV. With short deployment cycles, Wormington explains, the continuity of local nationals was invaluable: “You just turn your back on someone like that? That’s not an American ideal that I support.”
Exasperated by the delays in Ted’s case, Wormington involved local media, and congressional representatives from Nebraska submitted inquiries, but even they were unable to get a timeline or the status of Ted’s application. “It’s not like he just fell through the cracks,” says Wormington. “They all have fallen through a huge crack. All of them.” Finally, a pro-bono attorney from the International Refugee Assistance Project helped Ted’s case get traction. In March 2020, Ted and his family made it safely to America. But the process took 12 years.
Kleiber’s father, who lives in Nebraska, saw the article in the Omaha World Herald announcing Ted’s arrival and forwarded it to his son in Colorado. Heartened by Wormington’s success, Kleiber reached out for advice, but Wormington wasn’t sure what to tell him. The immigration bureaucracy he’d faced was demoralizing. Besides, the main Iraqi SIV program through which Ted received his visa stopped accepting applications in 2014. The limited SIV program that still allocates up to 50 visas each year — the one that brought Jabbar to America in 16 months — is not an option for Ghafur, who wasn’t technically hired as a translator, even though he provided interpretive services as an essential part of his job. Ted made it in the end, but it took more than a decade. And in this broken system, the success stories are the exception, not the rule.
Ghafur’s only option is to come through the Priority 2 (P-2) Direct Access Program.
Unlike the SIV program with its own visa quotas, the P-2 program is carved out of the larger U.S. refugee resettlement program, which continues to shrink each year. The annual presidential determination (how many refugees can be admitted into the U.S.) has fallen from 110,000 under former President Barack Obama to 18,000 under President Trump — the lowest ceiling in the 40 years since the Refugee Act was passed. That has left advocates scrambling for allocations of an ever-smaller pie. On October 1st, the quota was further slashed to 15,000.
According to Global Post, only 51 P-2 Iraqis were admitted into the U.S. in 2018. At that rate, Ghafur’s wait time — if his application were moving forward — would be 1,960 years.
“There are a lot of people in Iraq who essentially have no pathway,” says Bates. “Despite their service to the U.S. government.”
The enormous backlog is also partially due to Trump’s January 2017 executive order, commonly known as the “Muslim Ban.” Despite built-in exceptions for those with U.S. ties, Iraqis assisting the U.S. military were still shut out, and the domino effect caused massive delays even after the ban was overturned.
“All the different checks — like the security and medical checks that refugees go through before they’re resettled here — they have expiration dates,” explains Quigley. “If a validity period expires … they all have to be redone.” This can add months or years to their processing time before they’re cleared to travel again.
But many Iraqis don’t have years, or even months, to wait. “There’s only so much time you can be in hiding and protect your family,” says Quigley. “The individual threat to life — it’s something that we need to take very seriously. And we don’t believe this administration does.”
All these policies have been compounded by the pandemic: The State Department halted all refugee travel to the United States in March 2020. “Due to ongoing security conditions and limitations due to Covid-19, there have been very few Iraqi P-2 interviews in Iraq since mid-2018,” a State Department spokesperson explained in a written response. With the additional prospect of slower processing times due to financial strain on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the outlook for those on the P-2 waitlist is bleak. Only 3 percent of the 4,000 spots reserved for U.S. affiliated Iraqis were filled in the 2020 fiscal year.
Bringing war-time allies to safety in America tends to be a bipartisan issue in principle, but ignoring the plight of allies an ocean away has become all too easy. “It’s bureaucracy and political will,” says Wormington. “That’s what’s broken.”
“After 20 years of war, our country is kind of exhausted,” says Kleiber, “and it’s a lot easier for most people to go to Walmart and buy a little sticker that says ‘We Support the Troops’ and that’s about the amount of effort they put into it. If you really want to support the troops, it goes a hell of a lot further than that.”
Year after year, Kleiber and Ghafur stay in touch. Ghafur sends Christmas cards and asks after Kleiber’s family during the pandemic. Kleiber, in turn, is relieved to hear Ghafur’s family is safe after a bomb lands on a civilian family in the nearby town of Kuna Masia over the summer, rocking Ghafur’s community. As Turkey and Iran mount increasing attacks on Kurdistan, danger seems to be closing in from all sides, and each new bombing reignites Ghafur’s fear for his children. “I do not want them to live a life where they are constantly afraid,” he says.
Even as prospects dim, Ghafur, Totti, and thousands of others have big dreams for the peaceful lives they will build in America, like those who arrived before them. Karim, who became a U.S. citizen in 2019, has not only sponsored Totti’s application but helps refugees worldwide as a case manager for Lutheran Family Services in Nebraska; meanwhile, Jabbar volunteers as an Iraqi ambassador for No One Left Behind and has enlisted in the U.S. Army as a linguist. He’s eager to resume the translation work that bridges cultures and continents. “I’ll be doing my job again, but as a U.S. soldier,” he says, with somebody-pinch-me excitement in his voice. “Isn’t that awesome?”
Wormington has encountered this kind of unyielding optimism among many Iraqis he served with, but he finds it harrowing in the face of an immigration system that he can’t see as anything other than a betrayal. “These people have faith in America that I have a hard time coming to terms with,” he says.
Years after their service, veterans are still grappling with America’s unkept promises and feeling the weight of a system failing to provide safety for those who were instrumental in their own security overseas. “We have a sad, sad history of doing this,” says Kleiber. “I mean, we did it in Vietnam. The special forces went in, made these alliances … and then we walked away, and those folks were left to be slaughtered.”
The idea of the U.S. government’s shirking responsibility toward allies is unconscionable on both a personal and political level, says Bates. “This is not the last conflict the United States is going to be involved with, and in the future, the U.S. government will rely on local knowledge,” he says. “Why would anyone want to do this work if the U.S. government isn’t going to protect you when this work brings you into harm’s way?”
Ghafur’s status and the unknown fates of the other LSF members is a relentless source of anxiety for Kleiber. “I made a personal promise to these people,” he says. “I made a bond with them. These guys fought alongside me. They didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to put their lives at risk, they didn’t have to put their family at risk. But they did.” Kleiber doesn’t know if Ghafur will ever make it to the United States — but he’s not done fighting: “I’m still trying to figure out. What can I do to at least have a positive outcome for one person and his family?”
For now, Ghafur remains stuck. With his Free Iraqi Fighters discharge certificate, his LSF ID, and a letter from his supervisor, he has everything he needs in order to find safe haven in America — except a pay stub. And in this surreal world, that’s enough to keep him out.
Shoshana Akabas is a New York based writer and teacher. She has worked with refugees in the U.S. and Middle East for eight years and writes about immigration issues. This work was supported by the National Geographic Society.