Iraqis who helped U.S. troops fearful after immigration ban
After waiting five years for permission to come here and surviving death threats targeting him for working with U.S. armed forces in Iraq, Haitham Alkhfe was thrilled when he finally arrived in Houston last November.
He, his wife and golden-curled toddler set about rebuilding their lives in this neat, faded brick apartment complex in Piney Point Village where dozens of Iraqis, Syrians and refugees from Somalia to Iran begin their first chapter as Americans. They take English classes at the leasing office and find solace in the likelihood that a familiar language, no matter how obscure, can probably be found in its maze of arched courtyards.
Sensing a growing anti-Muslim sentiment outside the gates, Alkhfe's wife, Rasha, stopped wearing her hijab. But they comforted themselves that making America great would surely include them, legal residents who endangered their lives for U.S. efforts in Iraq, professionals who were looking to work hard and pay taxes.
Nothing could have prepared them for the anger and despair that has overwhelmed them ever since President Donald Trump announced a sweeping temporary immigration ban for refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries, including Iraq. "I don't know what our future is going to be," said Alkhfe, 42. "I wonder what have I done."
Outrage over Trump's executive order, which was issued Friday, has coalesced in particular around the tens of thousands of Iraqis who like Alkhfe have worked closely with American troops for more than a quarter-century since the first Persian Gulf war in 1991.
Some 17,600 Iraqis and their relatives have received a special immigrant visa for working with the U.S. military since 2007, about 4,000 coming to Texas, according to government statistics. Thousands more, like Alkhfe's brother, are still in the pipeline and could be left out under Trump's ban.
New level of tension
The far-reaching order, details of which continued to emerge Wednesday, sparked global chaos as hundreds of passengers were stopped from flights and dozens more detained when they got here. It's now embroiled in legal challenges, but seemed to signify a new level of tension in Washington as some Republicans and career diplomats protested the order.
Roughly half of Americans backed the ban on party lines, however, according to a Reuters poll. Military veterans, on the other hand, broadly condemned the order - arguing that their Iraqi translators provided invaluable help - and signed petitions to exempt them.
This week the Pentagon was compiling a list of Iraqis who supported coalition forces to see if they could obtain a waiver for them. "We made a promise to the men and women who served alongside us on the battlefield, and we must uphold that promise to leave no man behind," wrote two Republican lawmakers, U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, both military veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wednesday, former CIA Director David Petraeus said the order was blocking the commander general of Iraq's counterterrorism forces from meeting in person with officers from U.S. Central Command in Florida. The White House also clarified that immigrants from the seven nations who, like Alkhfe, have green cards would indeed be allowed back into the United States after all and no longer needed a waiver - one of the most confusing and troublesome aspects of the order.
But the fear and uncertainty it has sparked continued as Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly noted that the 90-day ban, covering travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, could be extended indefinitely and other countries added to the list if it is determined they "could tighten up their (security) procedures."
"Perhaps the next step is that President Trump says all Iraqis should be kicked out of the U.S.," said Alkhfe as he waited for a technician to install his Internet and his toddler played videos on his phone. "Then I would really be in trouble. I can't go home and I can't stay here." Home is Basra, Iraq's biggest city outside of Baghdad with the country's main port and largest oil fields.
When the Americans invaded in 2003, Alkhfe showed his support for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by interpreting for the British armed forces. But after more than a dozen of his fellow translators were killed in a coordinated attack, he quit. In 2008 he was employed by the U.S. National Guard's 34th Infantry Division.
It was dangerous work. Not only did he go out on missions with American soldiers but translated when they invited local councils to meetings at the base. "They see you have the same accent that they know from Basra and they wonder, 'What are you doing working with the Americans?'" he said.
'Asset' to the U.S.
Twice, threatening letters signed by Shia militias were placed on his windshield, warning him to stop working with the Americans or his family would be killed. Each time he temporarily moved them into another apartment or sent them to relatives' homes.
Sometimes he stayed at the base. Every moment was filled with foreboding, checking the car to see if someone placed a bomb underneath it, carefully inspecting any stranger coming his way. In 2010, his supervisor, Sgt. Keith Paulson, recommended Alkhfe for a special immigrant visa for Iraqis working with U.S. troops.
Paulson noted Alkhfe's trustworthiness and ability to recognize a potential problem before it arose. A subsequent manager at an American contractor, Specialist Transport Services, said Alkhfe's dedication to coalition forces was absolute and his work ethic indisputable, making him "an asset to the United States."
Then Rasha, who had a high-level position in public administration at Basra's International Exhibition Center, found an envelope addressed to Alkhfe filled with bullets in front of their apartment. They moved to another neighborhood. Alkhfe sought a more low-key job at British Petroleum. "But the reality is that nothing is peaceful in Iraq," he said.
He worked up from site manager to supervising more than a hundred engineers. Rasha fell pregnant with Hamzah, a replica of his father in both his exuberance and long curls. Meanwhile her sister fled Mosul, a northern city under siege by the Islamic State and in the midst of a government offensive to reclaim it. "I worry about her," she said quietly.
On Nov. 1, Alkhfe received the call. He had made it through the time-consuming screening process for the visa. "Just give me two weeks," he replied. He sold everything, settling on Houston, where he had energy contacts from his time at BP, as his preferred destination.
Alkhfe had followed the presidential elections and supported Trump's efforts to reduce illegal immigration and bolster security vetting to prevent terrorists. But he found himself stunned by the nations the administration banned. "These people, these countries, they don't create terror," he said. "They are victims from terrorism."
He questioned why, if Trump's intent was to prevent terrorists, he would leave off Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two countries responsible for about 90 percent of Americans killed in terrorism attacks on U.S. soil since 1975, mostly in 9/11, according to an analysis of government data by Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington D.C.
It was a question repeated this week by Iraqis across the apartment complex, indeed the world, as they considered what seemed a slap in the face from their long-standing ally in the war against terrorism.
More than 16,600 Iraqi military and police working with coalition forces have been killed since 2003 as have hundreds of interpreters. Trump has said he would put more resources into Iraq to eradicate the Islamic State but who, Iraqis wondered, would U.S. forces work with?
Worried about future
News of the ban flew over social media, alarming Iraqis both in the immigration process or those hoping to come here. One, pulling up into this apartment complex, said he was so upset about it he couldn't even talk. Another, Mohammad Alobaidi, worked with Australian forces before receiving a visa here and applied for his parents and siblings to come too.
He said people broke into his family home and threatened to kill them. "Your son is a traitor," they said. Now Alobaidi worries not just about their future but about his own. "I worry about that too," said Mustafaa Tuaimah, 25, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad before coming here last fall. He said he has dozens of relatives here, many with American citizen children.
"If I go back, they will kidnap me and say you were in America, you must have money," he said. A few apartments away, Alkhfe pointed at his son, a gift he said after years of trying. "I don't care about my own life," he said. "My main concern is about him."
By Lomi Kriel