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Sep 10, 2008

We went to war with the Army we had, not the one that spoke Arabic. Now Iraqis who stood up to help are paying the price.

By Luis Montalvan

CHAPTER 1: Jordan
On August 4, 2008, I saw Ali for the first time in more than four years in a hotel lobby in Amman, Jordan.
I had traveled to Jordan with two journalists and former Marine Capt. Tyler Boudreau, with two missions: to help Ali and his family get on a path to the U.S., and to assess the overall Iraqi refugee crisis. As former military officers who had led units in Iraq, Tyler and I not only hoped to report our findings to a wide U.S. audience, but to find some healing along the way.
We met Ali and his brother, Hamza, at our hotel the morning after our arrival. We talked for hours about the death threats that had forced them to flee Iraq, and about their struggle to survive in Jordan as exiles.
I was thrilled to see Ali again. Somehow, my physical and psychological combat wounds disappeared that morning. But I was also saddened to learn of other Iraqi friends who are either missing or dead, casualties of Iraq’s civil war. And I was disappointed to learn that a Palestinian refugee camp had sprung up in the no man’s land between the border of Syria and Iraq, negating much of the work we had done to build up Al Waleed, a strategically important border crossing. That was where I first met Ali.

Listen to Ali’s story, in his own words, in our audio interview with him from his home in Jordan.

Lost in Translation: Luis Montalvan speaks to FLYP in this video interview about how he met Ali, and the crucial role Ali played in his troop’s duties in Iraq.

CHAPTER 2: Al Waleed
The first year of the war in Iraq was chaotic. We lacked a cohesive plan to secure and develop the country.
As a cavalry platoon leader, I was in charge of area reconnaissance along a stretch of the border between Syria and Iraq, securing the Al Waleed port of entry, developing local infrastructure and establishing an Iraqi border police battalion. This was a lot to do for a 30-man platoon that also had to build and secure its own forward operating base and whose closest coalition support was 60 miles away.
In 2003, like most units, we did not have any interpreters and none of my troopers spoke Arabic. That meant I had to find someone willing to gamble his life by working for us at a time when many Iraqis were skeptical of America’s true objectives and leery of working with coalition forces due to tribal, ethnic and sectarian fighting that had already begun.
As fortune would have it, I found a brave man.
Ali was different. The son of a former Iraqi diplomat who had worked at Iraq’s embassy in Bulgaria, Ali was educated and worldly. He spoke fluent Russian, Bulgarian and English on top of his native Arabic.

Where is Al Waleed? Our interactive map shows you exactly what part of the border between Syria and Iraq forms the crossing point, Al Waleed. Luis Montalvan explains the importance of its position, and what it’s like at that part of the border.

He was working as a customs inspector at Al Waleed, commuting for ten-day shifts from his home in Baghdad. He had a distinguished look about him for a man of only 24 years. Tall and stocky, he introduced himself with uncommon humility. He also had kind eyes, a pleasant voice and a diplomatic demeanor.
It wasn’t long before I asked Ali to translate at meetings I had with local officials. He took to it well, and the Iraqis trusted Ali.
With his help and that of a few other brave Iraqis, our unit made a lot of progress during the intense seven months we spent at Al Waleed. We fought corruption and smuggling. We provided humanitarian aid to thousands of Iraqis. We apprehended organized criminals and fought terrorists. We survived firefights with the Syrian Army and large riots of hungry and angry people. And, I barely made it through an assassination attempt that severely wounded me.
And yet as odd as it may seem, I was reluctant to leave Ali and Iraq in 2004. I feared for him and my other Iraqi friends. I owed them my life. It did not seem fair that I should be allowed to return to a peaceful and prosperous place while they remained in uncertain conditions.
I made a promise to myself that, one way or another, I would not abandon them.

An Army at War: Watch our short documentary, culled from footage shot by Luis Montalvan, about how the coalition forces worked to develop and secure Al Waleed.

CHAPTER 3: The Mission
The mission to Amman was a first step in fulfilling that promise. Our goal was to pound on as many doors as possible in order to get Ali on a track to the U.S.
We also wanted a better understanding of the overall refugee problem. And Jordan is ground zero for that unintended consequence of our invasion of Iraq.
The 2 million refugees—of which 700,000 are living in Jordan—are caught between a rock and a hard place. For most, Iraq is still too dangerous and unlivable. At the same time, living conditions in Jordan—where most refugees are concentrated—are arduous. Work permits are difficult, if not impossible, to obtain; visas are nearly impossible to renew; and living costs are increasingly prohibitive. So the refugees wait in their tiny homes, knowing that any brush with the Jordanian police could lead to their expulsion—which could be a death sentence if they are forced to go back to Iraq.
The problem will not go away soon, regardless of whatever reduction in violence now seems to be occurring in Iraq.
Imran Riza, representative for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Amman, says that “the economic, security and infrastructure conditions in Iraq are still not sufficient to accommodate the millions of Iraqi refugees who have taken refuge in neighboring countries, and probably will not be any time in the near future.” Mohammed al-Shahankari of the Jordanian Foreign Ministry added, “Iraq will not be safe for at least five years…at least.”
What about Ali? He was caught in a bureaucratic no-man’s-land. His case should have originally fallen into the State Department’s Special Immigration Visa Program for Iraqis who worked for coalition forces. However, during the messy early days of the war, we did not give out badges or official documents to every Iraqi who worked for us. We just didn’t have time.
So first we had to convince the State Department that Ali had indeed served our country. Then we had to get him moved toward the head of the line. Both are still works in progress, despite countless meetings with State Department and UNHCR officials.
One indication that the bureaucratic logjam might be breaking in our favor is that Ali’s younger brother, Hamza, has just arrived in the United States. He had fled Iraq with Ali, along with their father, sister and their sister’s two children.
All had been threatened because of Ali’s work with us.
After almost two and a half years in Jordan, Hamza was arrested for a traffic offense and jailed when the authorities discovered his visa had expired. He appealed to UNHCR to avoid being sent back to Iraq and, much to everyone’s surprise and relief, was suddenly granted a visa to the U.S. even though it is Ali whose work in Al Waleed had endangered Hamza.
So just maybe Ali and the rest of the family will soon be U.S. bound as well.

Read all the details about Ali’s case, and his struggle with bureaucracy to find haven in the U.S.

CHAPTER 4: Closing the Deal
Since I left the army a year ago after 17 years of service, I have not met a current or former soldier who does not feel that we owe a lot to those Iraqis who stood by us.
They all share the view that our country needs to do more than we are doing now to repay our debt.
We don’t leave our comrades on the battlefield, nor should we leave the Iraqis who served with us.
I know other veterans are active on this issue. For my part, I am working to establish the Veterans’ Refugee Aid Association, which—among other goals—will aim to focus the public’s attention on Iraqi refugees. I believe a concerted effort could help push American policy in the right direction. And, of course, there is a great need to help individual Iraqis in their asylum requests and with their resettlement needs.
My hope is that ordinary Americans will demand that our government do more once they become aware of the sacrifices these people made for us and the conditions in which they are now living.
So far, the United States has resettled some refugees who have had to flee Iraq. That is a tiny number compared to both the problem and our potential.
After the Vietnam War, we welcomed nearly a million Vietnamese refugees into our country.
We owe the Iraqis at least as much.

Take the Test: do you think that we owe more Iraqi refugees a safe haven in the U.S.?

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