Escape from Fallujah: Survival and Technology

Who are the most targeted Iraqis? Who among the millions of displaced Iraqis are actively sought out for assassination? They are none other than those who served as interpreters for the US armed forces, as civil society experts for the State Department and USAID, or those employed with the many US companies and NGOs contracted to rebuild the country. They are the most hunted class of Iraqis in the war-torn country. So what is the US government doing to thank them for their services? Nothing.

In December 2006, Kirk Johnson received an email from a former Iraqi colleague he had worked with on a USAID project in Fallujah the previous year. His colleague had just received this death threat:

He had found the note on his front steps pinned to the severed head of a dog. The note reads: “Your head will be next.” When the Iraqi employee reported this to USAID, the Agency simply gave him one month of paid leave and then hired someone else, effectively firing him. Thanks Uncle Sam. So he and his wife packed what they could and fled Iraq, and this after years of service to the US.

I Just had dinner with Kirk Johnson who was recounting the story. He gravely feared for his colleague’s life and was at a loss about how to help. In desperation, he submitted an Op-Ed to the LA Times in the hopes of raising awareness about his colleague’s fate. Soon thereafter, Kirk began hearing from many other Iraqis enduring similar ordeals. His Op-Ed had been widely circulated by these Iraqis and they began to seek his help. His phone started ringing several times a day, and soon several times an hour. He also received numerous text messages from Iraqis fearing for their lives. Indeed, his phone rang several times during our dinner.

Again, he was at a loss about what to do. So he just started a spreadsheet and kept updating the list of Iraqis who made contact with him. Having been one of the only Arabic speaking employees on the USAID project, Kirk had made many Iraqi friends. So he searched for them, using email, phone and SMS. Several weeks later, the list had grown significantly and he had accounted for all his former colleagues. He then took the list to the State Department. His efforts were not well received by State but they nevertheless committed to referring the list to UNHCR for priority processing. When other Iraqis learned of Kirk’s list, he received even more emails and text messages. His efforts were recently featured on Anderson Cooper 360

What I find stunning is that this Youtube video has only been viewed 155 times (!)

Kirk Johnson‘s list grew by the hundreds and he now has some 1,000 individuals on his list. Each person on this list continues to fear for their life on a daily basis. Kirk wanted to find a way to expedite the refugee asylum process, which often takes up to a year for any given individual. So he set up the The List Project.

This initiative partners with law firms in an unprecedented effort to provide pro bono legal services for hundreds of Iraqis who worked with allies now seeking refuge in the US. The law firms involved, Holland & Knight LLP and Proskauer Rose LLP, are also using ICTs to their advantage. They set up an Intranet between the two firms so that the 100 attorneys working on The List Project can share information on effective strategies and communicate their lessons learned. A DVD has also been made to train attorneys who seek to volunteer their time to saving Iraqi lives.

Together, the firms have committed thousands of hours of pro bono work to help US-affiliated Iraqis navigate the labyrinthine resettlement process. To date, they have successfully represented the cases of more than 80 Iraqis and their families who now live in peace in America. This number includes Kirk’s colleague who had first contacted him. He and his wife are now safe.

Kirk has received funding from several anonymous donors which has enabled him to hire three of the Iraqis he helped resettle to the US. The team continues to use email, phone, SMS and also instant messaging to communicate with hundreds of Iraqis who remain the main target for insurgents. The List Project is now seeking funds to support Iraqis who do make it to the US. Until recently, all the US government provided was a measly $200 for the first two month. Even more upsetting is the fact that each refugee is required to pay back the full fare of their flight ticket to the US. So much for the symbolism represented by the Statue of Liberty.

The Iraqi refugees are given low-wage jobs in factories and warehouses. At least they’re alive, right? Sure, but these refugees are well educated, they are doctors, interpreters etc., which is why Kirk and his colleagues are looking for funds specifically geared towards resettlement once they do arrive in the land of the free. It may come as a surprise that two of the Iraqis who made it to the US, subsequently returned to the region some two weeks later given the lack of support they received from the US government when they arrived.

Kirk is as humble as his story is extraordinary. While more than 80 Iraqis have been successfully resettled to the US, he is hesitant to call this success: “There are still one thousand names on that list, and the list keeps growing.” Kirk’s story will be featured on 60 Minutes in two weeks. He hopes this will raise more awareness about the plight of US-affiliated Iraqis. The feature will only be aired once since it includes interviews with Iraqis still waiting to be resettled. I highly recommend watching the piece.

In the meantime, please think about joining The List Project’s Facebook group. It is worth emphasizing that all Kirk had back in December 2006 was a mobile phone and a laptop. Technology can make the difference when used by extraordinary individuals.

Patrick Philippe Meier

4 responses to “Escape from Fallujah: Survival and Technology

  1. Thanks for the success story – and I would call it success, definitely. Since last August, in my “civilian” capacity, I’ve been involved in a similar effort in the UK (http://www.currion.net/category/iraq“) which has met with much less success. On the one hand, it has managed to persuade the government to accept the applications from Iraqi ex-employees (where previously they would not), but on the other hand the government has managed to avoid actually processing more than about 10 applications from the list.

    It’s interesting to contrast the US campaign with the UK campaign, not because the technology use is different but because the social context is different. I would say that it actually illustrates jey differences between the US and the UK, as well as the importance of the social aspects of online campaigning. The UK campaign has been largely behind the scenes and is still based in the parliamentary process; the US campaign has been high visibility and seems to have involved more private sector inputs.

    On the other hand, it’s clear that the List Project still has a long way to go, just like the UK version. We keep on trucking… I will share this with Dan Hardie, who is co-ordinating the UK bloggers’ end of the campaign.

  2. p.s. Dan’s complete set of postings on this can be found at http://danhardie.wordpress.com/category/iraqi-employees-campaign/“.

  3. From a colleague at The Fletcher School:

    Thanks for posting about this. Hopefully,the List Project can spread information about this situation and pressure the U.S. to process more
    quickly the applications.

    Also in February 2008, Bush signed Law H.R.4986, the Department of Defense Authorization Act, which increased Iraqis refugee benefits to 8 months of financial assistance of $200-$600 per person and access to Medicaid, Schools/loans (same as all refugees in the U.S, and immediate removal from Iraq for those that are in danger. And while they have allocated 5,000 visas each year for Iraqis that have worked with the U.S., knowing our system it is going to take time to have the visas processed.

    http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/media/asy/2008/alert/414/

  4. From a relative in Kenya:

    Many thanks for sharing this article with me. Highly interesting and disturbing but unfortunately not that surprising. The fate of these poor Iraqis is very similar to the fate of the Algerians and Senegalese Gunners fighting in the French army during WW2 and then badly let down. It appears that history is repeating itself. I know it is highly revolting and simply should not happen. A very sad matter.

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