Despite post-traumatic stress and opposition from two presidential administrations, a former USAID employee has helped resettle hundreds of Iraqis whose work for coalition forces brought threats on their lives.
Photo courtesy James Gordon
Yaghdan’s message was addressed to a part of me that I had choked off: the part that had piloted me from my hotel window, that still cared about what was happening in Iraq. Nearly a year had passed since my fall.
I read it in ten seconds and then clicked through my other emails. Poor bastard. There was certainly nothing I could do. He was halfway around the world, and I didn’t know a thing about helping refugees. His email soon slipped from the home page of my inbox; I had law school applications to finish. It was early November 2006, and I was fast approaching the submission deadlines. I had run out of money and had moved into a small room in my aunt’s house in Brighton, a hardscrabble town at the western edge of Boston.
Late one night two weeks later, I received a note from an Australian friend named Ann Vitale, who had worked in the education office alongside Yaghdan.
Sent: Tuesday, November 28, 2006 12:00 AM
To: Kirk W. Johnson
Subject: re: Happy Thanksgiving!
Shame pounded against the levee and flooded in. Here was an Australian trying to make something happen in a situation for which her country wasn’t even responsible. I stared at the law school-related correspondence in my inbox, embarrassed. I hadn’t even bothered to respond to his email. Her modest proposal to raise funds for him suggested something astonishingly basic: of course I could do something more than summoning a few seconds of pity.
I crawled into bed but knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. My mind was surging. I flipped the light back on, cleared stacks of admissions essay drafts from the desk, and pulled out a fresh legal pad. At the top, I wrote “Yaghdan.”
I didn’t have any money left to send him, but I had a few connections to people who might be able to help him. I began scrawling names. “Hastert.” Surely the Speaker of the House would be able to do something. Although I hadn’t been in touch with him since the Amtrak call earlier that summer, I thought he might be receptive.
Below “Hastert,” I listed names of journalists I’d met through my public affairs job at USAID. I wrote “Op-ed.”
A plan began to take shape. My excitement bubbled from a forgotten place, hidden beneath a year of self-loathing, self-pity, self-recrimination, self-everything. Here was something I could do for someone else. If I could help Yaghdan make it to safety in America, I might finally have accomplished something concretely good.
I filled several pages that night, working until four in the morning. In a few hours, I had generated so much work for myself that I could hardly wait for sunlight to come to get started. When I finally crawled back into bed and closed my eyes, I felt, for the first time in a year, eager.
On December 15, 2006, under the headline “Safeguarding Our Allies,” my piece appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the first major newspaper to run an op-ed about the plight of US-affiliated Iraqis. Though ten months had passed since the destruction at Samarra and the subsequent eruption of civil war, the discussion in the media centered on bombs and not the aftermath of human displacement. More than three million Iraqis had been uprooted by violence, the region’s largest refugee crisis in sixty years, but pundits in the United States were more interested in debating the fate of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or whether the suggestion of withdrawal was an act of cowardice.
I returned to Boston to find a dozen voice mails from journalists and Capitol Hill staffers whose names I had never heard before. I had no idea how everyone was getting my number.
I flew down to Chattanooga, Tennessee, that morning for a long-planned weekend with some old friends from college. When I got off the plane, there was a voicemail from the Hastert staffer, notifying me that he’d sent an inquiry to the State Department on Yaghdan’s behalf. Bobby Worth from the New York Times had also called to interview me for an article on the subject. I’d met him at an embassy function in Baghdad a year earlier but was surprised to get his voicemail. I returned his call, vented about the situation, and turned off my phone for the rest of the weekend.
I returned to Boston to find a dozen voicemails from journalists and Capitol Hill staffers whose names I had never heard before. I had no idea how everyone was getting my number. When I logged into my email account, I thought at first that my address had been sucked into some Middle Eastern spammer’s list: three out of every four emails were in Arabic.
I saw a familiar name and opened the message. Ziad had always stood out in the USAID mission as someone with great ambition and an acidic sense of humor. His ambition had bested him, though: he was fired for trying to organize an informal union of the Iraqi employees to fight for better treatment and more protection. One day we noticed he was gone, and that was the end of Ziad, as far as we knew. He wrote to inform me that he was scheduled to flee within a couple days by way of a smuggler’s network and might need my help.
In 2007, a former Iraqi colleague of mine was murdered. One day, when he reached into his pocket to pay for a haircut, he inadvertently dropped his USAID badge on the floor. He was assassinated within two days.
I scanned for other familiar names. One by one, I read desperate messages from former colleagues who were either hiding inside Iraq or had fled to Syria and Jordan and points beyond. My op-ed had nicked a vein, which now gushed into my inbox. By the time I got to the scores of emails from Iraqis I didn’t know—those who had worked for the State Department, the military, and U.S. contractors—I was in a cold sweat. Many of the emails had been sent the morning of my op-ed, which I noticed at the bottom of most of the messages: it had been forwarded heavily throughout the diaspora. The subject lines all begged me for help.
Sent: Saturday, June 30, 2007 10:18 AM
To: The List Project
Sent: Monday, October 15, 2007 9:56 PM
To: The List Project
Subject: seeking help
In 2007, soon after the founding of the List Project, I flew to Geneva to attend the first UN summit on the Iraqi refugee crisis. After checking into a small hotel in the village of Chambesy, on the outskirts of the city, I logged into my email to find an urgent message from a state.gov address. Its sender was a foreign service officer who said that he needed to meet with me that night. I brushed him off, giving him my phone number but declining a meeting.
My phone rang immediately. He was insistent that we meet, saying that he couldn’t communicate what he needed to over the phone. “I served in Iraq,” he said, as if to give me a clue. He asked where I was staying.
“Okay, listen, if you walk toward the train station which heads into Geneva, there’s a footbridge. Do you know which one I’m talking about?”
“Uh, yeah,” I mumbled.
“Okay, I’m gonna head out now. Go over to that bridge and wait beneath it. I’ll be driving a dark sedan.”
“How will I know you?” I asked flatly.
“Oh, look for the sedan with a license plate ending in a nine.”
I waited by the bridge in the quiet still of early evening, studying license plates, wondering what could possibly require such cloak-and-dagger measures. I wondered why I had agreed to meet. The sedan finally approached. As I walked toward it, the passenger-side window slid down and club music pumped out into the sleepy lanes of Chambesy. “Kirk! Hop in!”
He drove us away from Geneva, making small talk but not yet explaining why he needed to meet me so urgently. After about a half hour, the sedan eased into the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant. I got out of the car warily and followed him inside.
We were ushered to a table, but as soon as I sat down, he wandered off. I watched as he worked his way around the restaurant, looking at the faces of the other diners. When he returned, I snapped at him.
“C’mon, what’s the point of all this?”
He sat across the table from me, leaned in, and said, “I was just checking to make sure there wasn’t anyone I recognized.”
“You kidding? My bosses aren’t very happy with you right now.” He removed a folded slip of paper from his pocket and, adding to my exasperation over the faux-spy antics, placed it on the Lazy Susan in the middle of our table and rotated it toward me. I unfolded the paper and read the names of two Iraqis working for the embassy, both of whom had already been referred to me by another worried foreign service officer.
“They’re already on the list,” I said impatiently. “Can we go back now?” I didn’t have much of an appetite.
“Oh, thank God,” he sighed. “Are they going to be okay?”
A couple hours after my meeting at State, I headed over to my old employer. I stared at the smiling pictures of Bush, Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and USAID Administrator Randall Tobias hanging in the lobby of the Ronald Reagan Building, and wondered how they were affixed to the marble wall. Velcro would make them easier to peel off after an election, I figured.
“What I thought would make sense is that you submit your future publications to us, just so we can have a look at it and maybe even help, before you actually publish them.”
The Bush appointee called out my name from the other side of the security screeners and metal detectors. I traded my driver’s license for a “Visitor—Escort Required” name tag and gave him a half smile as I shook his hand.
“Welcome back to the agency, Kirk.”
He poked at my silence as we rode up the elevator. “Good trip so far?”
“Going okay. Interesting feeling being back here at AID.”
The doors opened, and he escorted me into the Legislative and Public Affairs Bureau. As we walked past the government-blue cubicles that I had last seen in the compound in Baghdad, I noticed my magazine piece resting on nearly every desk. On one desk, I spotted a heavily highlighted printout of my op-ed about Yaghdan. I felt the aggressive unease of an encircled animal as I followed him into his office.
He sat down opposite me and asked if I wanted any coffee. When I declined, he started off in an irritated tone: “So, Kirk, I saw in your bio in your magazine piece that you were working on a collection of stories about your time in Iraq, is that right?”
“Well, yeah, that’s one of the things I’m working on.”
“And do you plan on publishing any more of these?”
“Yeah, I’m hoping to.”
He furrowed his brow as though deep in reflection.
“See, here’s the thing, Kirk: I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to be publishing anything about your time there with USAID. I’m saying this as a friend, because I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble for violating any terms of your contract.”
His words dissolved like a pill into my bloodstream, the impact immediate.
“I worked for USAID, not the CIA. I never signed any gag order.”
He leaned over to a nearby chair, upon which sat a green binder. On its binding, I read “Kirk Johnson.” He flipped through what I recognized as my articles, past other pages that I couldn’t make out, and pulled out a few stapled pages of paper. He slid them across his desk to me.
“See, take a look at this contract language. It says right there, the section that talks about not speaking to the media or publishing anything without clearance from the agency.”
I looked at the contract and knew immediately that it was not mine. I pushed it back and forced a smile.
“This isn’t my contract. I never signed a gag order. Besides, I’m not even working for the agency anymore. I was never fired and never resigned; you guys just forgot about me after I walked out the window . . .”
He showed me his palms defensively and leaned back, away from the alpha stirring in me. I continued.
“I’m a little confused here. I told you I was coming in as a courtesy call to explain what I was doing with my list. And the first thing you do is bring up this contract?”
He recomposed and locked eyes with me.
“I’m telling you this as a friend. We’d hate to see your objectives torpedoed. What I thought would make sense is that you submit your future publications to us, just so we can have a look at it and maybe even help, before you actually publish them.”
I put my hands on my knees. “That’s not going to happen.”
He tried to change the tone of the conversation and asked, “Hey, can I see the list? Fill me in on what’s going on.”
I stared over his shoulder at a framed picture of the entire USAID Iraq staff in 2005, in the piazza of the compound. I had taken the picture during my first week in Baghdad. I pointed to it and said, perhaps melodramatically, “The list is right there, in that picture. I’m not showing it to anyone other than the principal actors in the resettlement bureaucracy.”
He looked over his shoulder at the picture. Half Iraqis, half Americans. There was Yaghdan, his modest smile concealed partly by a bushy mustache. Tona and Amina were off to his right. Of the Iraqis pictured, only a few remained with USAID.
“I’m not going to submit anything to you guys. If that’s a problem, then let’s see how it plays out. Subtract my medical bills, and I have about a thousand bucks left, and every other person in my family is a lawyer.”
He stared back at me, masking any reaction. I was getting too upset. I thought back to a trick I’d used during insufferable meetings at the palace in the Green Zone and imagined that I was arguing with a parrot perched atop a chair. I grinned and stood up. “I’m sorry we had this meeting. I’ve got somewhere else to be now.”
I shook his hand and motored out of the bureau, past my magazine pieces, past stacks of briefing books containing archives of my Iraq Daily Updates, past row after row of bureaucrats struggling to spit-shine USAID’s projects for an uninterested media and a yawning public.
The awareness of just how little I had to lose had fully dawned on me only when I had mentioned my bank account balance. It was strangely empowering. After all, what was the worst that could happen? That I fail again? That I move out of the basement and back home to West Chicago? It wouldn’t be great, but it still seemed trivial compared to what was filling my inbox each day.
I was waiting at the bank of elevators outside the Legislative and Public Affairs Bureau when the Bush appointee caught up with me.
“Let’s be in touch, okay?” he said in a hushed tone as he handed me his USAID business card. I didn’t understand why, since I already had his contact information.
“And look, if she gets in touch with you, make sure she gets on your list, okay?”
I glanced down at the card and saw the handwritten name of an Iraqi woman.
On Valentine’s Day 2007, a former Iraqi colleague of mine was murdered. His name was Nouri, and he had helped to maintain the vehicles in the motor pool that shuttled Americans to and from meetings in the Green Zone. One day, when he reached into his pocket to pay for a haircut, he inadvertently dropped his USAID badge on the floor. He was assassinated within two days. USAID management issued a condolence note and took up a small collection for Nouri’s wife; Iraqi staffers were demoralized to find out that the Valentine’s Day bash scheduled for that night would go on. I received the news immediately from grieving Iraqi friends.
As angry as I was about USAID, it had no role in the refugee resettlement process. If I spent all of my energy fighting the agency, the Iraqis on my list would get nowhere. Besides, USAID carried little political weight in Washington anymore: even if it had been a vociferous supporter of protecting US-affiliated Iraqis, it was hard to imagine much benefit.
A week after Nouri’s assassination, I received a frantic phone call from Tona and Amina, my two former colleagues from USAID who had been photographed by a man in an Iraqi police uniform as they walked out of the Green Zone. Since then, Tona had claimed asylum while on a skills-training course in Washington administered by USAID in late 2006. Amina, who had just arrived on a similar course, was desperate to do the same.
By this point, several Iraqis working for the State Department and USAID had “defected” during these training missions. The agency was embarrassed by the defections, since the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would now need to adjudicate whether its Iraqi employees had knowingly intended to claim asylum on a short-term visitor’s visa, thus committing visa fraud. The U.S. government spends a lot of money each year bringing in Fulbright scholars, officers in foreign militaries, professors, and many others through exchange programs intended to strengthen bonds with other countries. If everyone abused these programs as a way to emigrate to America, there would be no exchange, and the programs would be rendered pointless.
I had no idea that Amina was coming to the United States. In a quivering voice, she told me about the man with the gun at the Qadisiyya checkpoint who had been imprisoned after Amina had alerted a nearby American soldier. Her family had called her during her training in Washington to tell her that the gunman had just been released from detention. They told her not to come home.
“I don’t know what to do. I promised USAID that I wouldn’t stay here, but I’m scared. They will be so angry with me if I stay. And I don’t know if—”
When I realized this young woman was still putting the wishes of a bureaucracy before her own safety, I cut her off mid-sentence and told her to forget about USAID. I walked her through the basic process of claiming asylum, and connected her with Chris Nugent that same night. She went to the law firm of Holland & Knight the following morning, where Chris began to draft her application for asylum.
On November 4, 2011, I participated alongside other refugee organizations in my last National Security Council meeting with Samantha Power, although I didn’t know then that it would be my last. The tenor was quite different from earlier in the administration, when everyone had been so excited to meet her. The numbers were disastrously low, and refugee organizations were no longer impressed by her personal stature. At one point, a veteran refugee advocate asked Power why the United States even had a refugee program if the process was so tortuous and inefficient.
“We’ve undertaken a number of reforms,” she said, “the first phase of which was completed this spring, but we’re still at it.” I thought back to the number of times over the past five years I had been told that the government was “ramping up” its efforts.
A State Department representative revealed that the backlog for in-country cases—those who had applied at the embassy in Baghdad—was 35,000 names long. Given the current pace of processing, it would take years to clear.
A director of another refugee organization confronted Power with a case that he had just worked on in which a man with a mentally handicapped son and wheelchair-bound mother was denied a visa on security grounds. “How could this make sense?” he asked.
“We’re operating with very highly classified material, and having been in your shoes for most of my career, I know how frustrating that is to hear.” She replied that although she could not go into precise details of what causes a red flag to be raised, “the trend lines are the product of a stark fact: the system we had in place before wasn’t recognizing the threat.”
In a somewhat impolitic tone, I suggested that just because something has the word Intelligence on it doesn’t make it smart. I said that these were the same excuses that the Bush administration used to rationalize its failure to do more to help our Iraqi allies.
She wasn’t pleased. “I take issue with the suggestion that we’re invoking security as a way to explain away the numbers. A huge amount has been achieved. I meet on this issue more than any other. I don’t know what the Bush administration’s explanations were, but we are not single-issue here, and we’re not going to do anything that puts in danger the security of the United States.”
I was being unreasonable, I suppose, for focusing on a single issue. Never mind that we had been invited in to discuss that issue. She addressed my call for the Guam option, saying that the refugees bureau at the State Department had developed the capacity to “get someone moved from Baghdad to Amman very quickly,” but those of us working the issue had heard this unfounded claim for years.
I thought about the binder of five hundred names we’d given to Secretary Schwartz at the beginning of the year. In the nine months since we had flagged the fifty most urgent cases for his bureau, not one had been moved to Jordan. Only about ten had been granted visas.
Five years to the day after I first wrote about Yaghdan, the New York Times ran an op-ed in which I excoriated the Obama administration for its failure to protect US-affiliated Iraqis as we withdrew from Iraq.
The disregard for the Guam option was made more bitter by the fact that only a week earlier, the administration announced that the U.S. Air Force had ordered scores of wounded Libyan rebels airlifted directly to Boston for medical treatment. Little was known about the rebels, but a C-17 medical evacuation aircraft staffed with doctors and nurses whisked them in. A few days before my last NSC meeting, a Rolling Stone magazine article about the war in Libya quoted a White House official close to Power as saying that she had grown frustrated with “doing rinky-dink do-gooder stuff” like advocating on behalf of Christians in Iraq.
But I perked up as a junior NSC staffer chimed in to announce two major “solutions” that the White House had placed on the table. The first was a “web tool” to help Iraqi interpreters locate former supervisors. The second was a waiver of the “original signature” for the Special Immigrant Visa: Iraqis could now email the application rather than bring it to an Iraqi post office. I stared down at the notes I had just taken and suppressed a laugh. Of the thousands of Iraqis on the list, not a single one had ever complained about having to mail in the application that might save his or her life. And the overwhelming majority had little difficulty finding their U.S. supervisors—in fact, many had been referred by their American bosses.
The problem wasn’t in the application phase, it was the fraught period of waiting after the application was submitted. All they got were form replies from the U.S. government saying, “Your application is pending.”
On December 14, 2011, the president flew to Fort Bragg, home of Hayder’s former unit in the Eighty-Second Airborne, to announce the end of the war in Iraq. He promised to provide adequate benefits to the many wounded warriors: “Part of ending a war responsibly is standing by those who fought it. It’s not enough to honor you with words. Words are cheap. We must do it with deeds. You stood up for America; America needs to stand up for you.”
The next day, five years to the day after I first wrote about Yaghdan, the New York Times ran an op-ed in which I excoriated the Obama administration for its failure to protect US-affiliated Iraqis as we withdrew from Iraq: “The sorry truth is that we don’t need them anymore now that we’re leaving, and resettling refugees is not a winning campaign issue. For over a year, I have been calling on members of the Obama administration to make sure the final act of this war is not marred by betrayal. They have not listened, instead adopting a policy of wishful thinking, hoping that everything turns out for the best.”
A few weeks later, a journalist called to ask about the most recent NSC meeting on Iraqi refugees, and I realized that I was no longer on the White House’s invite list.
Kirk W. Johnson is the founder of The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, and was USAID’s first reconstruction coordinator in Fallujah, Iraq. His memoir, To Be a Friend is Fatal, from which this essay has been adapted, will be published in September.
Excerpted from TO BE A FRIEND IS FATAL by Kirk W. Johnson. Copyright © 2013 by Kirk W. Johnson. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.