Saving Iraqi Interpreters
JANUARY 10, 2009
- Jason Faler
- (Anna King)
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The US military has relied on Iraqi workers to help with everything from interpreting to rebuilding since the invasion in 2003. And many have been targeted for their loyalty to the Americans. Over 300 of these Iraqi workers have been killed by insurgents, and many thousands more have fled to neighboring countries with their families. It's estimated that as many as 60 thousand Iraqis are in danger because they aided the US. Reporter Anna King brings us the story of one soldier who is trying to help his Iraqi colleagues.
Soldier Jason Faler and his friend Mustafa had the same mission when they met in Iraq in 2005. They worked long hours gathering intelligence for high level U.S. and Iraqi officials fighting the insurgency. But there was one crucial difference: Faler was an American living in the Green Zone, while Mustafa was an Iraqi living without protection. Mustafa still doesn't want his last name used. And in Iraq he took different routes to the green zone to avoid being recognized.
"I used to sometimes do shopping," Mustafa says. "Stop by a market and do shopping and then go take a bus to a different neighborhood and then from that neighborhood take another bus to work."
Once Mustafa got to the Green Zone he'd interpret meetings between Iraqi and American officials. As far as Jason Faler was concerned, Mustafa was part of his band of brothers. He trusted Mustafa with his life. And in the midst of the bloody conflict, they bonded over the fact that both of their wives were pregnant. Mustafa's son was born first, on March 12th of 2005. Just six months later, it was Faler's turn to have a son. But things didn't go smoothly.
"The night that I learned of his birth was very lonely," Faler says.
Faler heard from his sister that the baby was in distress. He was in a large holding tent near the Bagdad, Iraq airport waiting for a flight to the United States. It was dark and the air smelled heavy of dust. He couldn't call out on his cell phone, so he just had to wait.
"It was three in the morning," Faler says, "so the only thing that there was to keep me company was the sound of two guys snoring in the tent, the hum of a generator and the sound of a firefight going on." When he got the word that his son was healthy, the first person he called was Mustafa. "We were so happy to hear that," Mustafa says. "We celebrated actually, we celebrated in the office."
Four months later, Faler was safely back in his home, enjoying life with his infant son. But Mustafa was still in Iraq working for the Americans. The insurgents knew who he was and where he lived. He was getting death threats. Once, masked men climbed onto the top of his house with guns. Mustafa's wife was home alone with his children. The neighbors shot guns to scare the men away. "I would never forgive myself if something happened to my family because of me," Mustafa says. "So I was decisive to leave Iraq."
Faler was determined to help bring Mustafa to safety, but it wasn't easy. At that time there were as many as 15,000 Iraqi interpreters working for the United States and just 50 visa slots. Not only that, but Mustafa had to travel to another country to get an interview with a U.S. consulate. Faler says it as a "tedious process, with multiple layers of red tape."
It took six months for Faler to bring Mustafa to the United States. Then Faler helped Mustafa and his family get settled in a home nearby in Oregon. Faler calls Mustafa ahowa, which is the Iraqi word for "my brother."
"The things that I do for you are because you are like my brother," Faler says. "You are more than my brother," Mustafa responds to Faler. "As long as I am alive I will never stop praying for you guys. All I can pray for you is health and success and a secure life for you and your son and for all the people you love and for all the good Americans."
Now Mustafa works for the Oregon National Guard, helping soldiers perfect their Arabic. On the weekends he works in a supermarket deli. "I'm happy here because I can see my kids right now growing up in a normal environment," Mustafa says. "They are ready to adjust. They are already melted in the pot."
After helping Mustafa, Faler founded the Checkpoint One Foundation, named after a gate outside the Green Zone where several interpreters have been killed. He's since helped about 30 other Iraqi and Afghani interpreters into the United States.
New legislation has opened an additional 5000 visa slots for Iraqi interpreters each year for the next five years. There are also 50 additional visas for Iraqi and Afghani interpreters. Faler is working to get more visas for Afghani interpreters. But Faler says he's not sure what will happen to his foundation this summer, since his Army brigade might deploy again.