October 14, 2007 / 2:07 PM / 11 years ago

Left in limbo, Iraqis wait for refuge in United States

By Christine Kearney

NEW YORK, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Ahmed Abassi once worked for the U.S. government in Iraq but fled with his family in fear, hoping to seek refuge in the United States.

Two years later with his life savings gone and his family stuck in the United Arab Emirates, he is still afraid to return to Iraq where he could be targeted by militias.

And like many Iraqis in the same situation, he now doubts he will ever gain refugee status in the United States.

Kirk Johnson, a former U.S. advisor in Iraq, hopes to change that. He has launched an effort to bring Iraqis who once worked for the U.S. government, the military or U.S. contractors to the United States.

"It gnaws away at all of us that so many of the Iraqis that helped us function are now running for their lives," said Johnson, describing them as "the "most hunted class in Iraq".

Johnson once worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, rebuilding Baghdad and Fallujah. In February he began creating a list of Iraqis who fled to neighboring Arab states and inside Iraq. Of 700 people on his list, fewer than 10 have been admitted to the United States.

More than 2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries, while another 2.2 million are displaced inside Iraq, according to U.N. data. Iraqis seeking U.S. refuge must reach a neighboring country in order to apply for U.S. asylum — a journey that is both expensive and risky.

State Department figures show 1,608 Iraq refugees were resettled in the United States in 2007, but they do not compile numbers of those once worked for U.S. employers.

Washington promised last month to accept more applications and process them faster. It is considering increasing the 500 special visas now available annually to Iraqis who worked as U.S. interpreters.

But refugee advocates say the process is far too slow and the special visas exclude many other jobs Iraqis performed.


Many former U.S. employees, Johnson said, were caught "in the cross hairs of every militia of every different sect, and have been living secret lives for years."

He has secured two large U.S. law firms to help with cases and believes that abandoning Iraqi refugees will irreparably harm the U.S. reputation in the Middle East.

"Nobody in this region will ever trust us again if we turn our backs on them," he said.

Abassi, 36, was paid between $600 and $1,400 a month as a computer technician but said he was treated with suspicion by both U.S. officials and Iraqis.

"We were not trusted outside and inside, this made life too difficult," he said by telephone from Dubai.

Finally, after learning his cousin and some neighbors were killed and after U.S. officials refused medical help to his son, injured by a bomb, he left.

"The way they (the Americans) treated us, it was like dog, they did not support us," he said. "Now they forget us and they have no one to take care of us."

Refugee advocates say that the White House intervened to accept large numbers of refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s and the Soviet Union in the 1980s and could do the same now for Iraqis.

U.S. officials say that helping Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government is a "top priority." They are trying to establish new procedures to deal with the high numbers within the framework of tough security procedures for processing visas following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

State Department declined to comment on why admissions for Iraqis who once worked for America could not be faster. The refugees themselves are bitter. Americans trusted them enough to work with them in the deadly environment of Iraq but not enough to enter the United States, they say.

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