'Americans saved my life': former refugees from Iraq perplexed by US fears

 ·  Sabrinia Saddiqui, Guardian   ·   Link to Article

As US lawmakers voted this week to block the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris, Abdulla Sindi struck a despondent tone.

As one of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds displaced by the Persian Gulf war, Sindi knows firsthand the plight of refugees fleeing conflict and recalls as though it were yesterday the sense of desperation looming over temporary resettlement camps.

Sindi remembers the daily uncertainty confronted by his family when placed at a refugee camp lacking the most basic of resources. The image of food and supplies airdropped by American planes under Operation Provide Comfort stays with him to this day – it was what motivated Sindi to accept two deployments training and advising US troops after the country’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“Americans saved my life,” Sindi told the Guardian. “And so I worked with them and returned the favor.”

After gaining US citizenship in 2006, he went on to spend four years in Iraq, from 2009 to 2012. There, Sindi served as an interpreter for the US military and in the security detail for vice-president Joe Biden and senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham during their trips to Erbil.

To Sindi, his story is about more than goodwill toward the country he has now called home for two decades. It’s about the trust placed in him, a native of Zakho, Iraq, by the US government.

“I was a refugee, I came from nowhere, and I reached the point where I could be in a convoy with the vice-president of America in Iraq,” Sindi said.

Last week, more than half of US governors – all Republicans save for one Democrat –came out against the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states. Some families who cleared a painstakingly long clearance process before being accepted into the United States already have been diverted to parts of the country more willing to take them in.

The House of Representatives approved a bill on Thursday that would halt the resettlement of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and Iraq. Forty-seven Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the measure, which includes a provision requiring the heads of the FBI, national intelligence and Department of Homeland Security to personally vouch that each admitted refugee does not pose a threat.

Democrats in the Senate plan to filibuster the measure, which faces a veto threat from Barack Obama. The president has sharply condemned anti-refugee rhetoric and stood by his administration’s plan to accept 10,000 more refugees over the next year.

Sindi is perplexed by the fears raised by American politicians over the vetting of Syrian refugees. If the goal is to defeat the Islamic State, he said, leaving refugees in a state of destitution with no options for their future will only exacerbate the cause.

“They live in miserable conditions, they’re in the middle of nowhere in a tent for four years,” Sindi said. “They just want to find a job and put their kids through school over here.”

“If we leave them, they will be targets for terrorist organizations.”

Ali Ibrahim, who like Sindi arrived in the US as an Iraqi Kurdish refugee, shared a similar story.

He worked with the US military as an interpreter in Iraq, embedded with American forces for eight years.

“The only people fighting Isis right now are the Kurdish people,” Ibrahim said. “And Isis is killing our families, they’re taking our women and kids. The Kurdish people are trying to escape, and they really need help from the United States and Europe.”

The refusal to take in refugees, he added, would feed the anti-American narrative Isis wishes to perpetuate as it seeks more recruits.
Ibrahim was an interpreter to Jon Soltz, the chairman of progressive advocacy group VoteVets who served two tours in Iraq. Having personally handled Ibrahim’s paperwork, Soltz confesses it was a grueling process that took two years before Ibrahim could settle in Nashville, Tennessee, with his family.
“These Iraqis who work with the US military, they risk their lives, and the lives of their families,” Soltz said. “We have troops on the ground right now in Iraq and they rely on those folks in a variety aways in our fight against ISIS.” 
By voting against allowing refugees in, he added, US lawmakers are sending “a clear message to those Iraqis currently helping the US military fighting ISIS that if they risk their lives for us, we will abandon them and their families.”

“The vote in the House was a victory for Isis, because they can paint the United States as anti-Muslim, and undermine our combat operations by scaring our civilian partners from assisting us further on the ground.”

It is of little dispute that Kurds such as Sindi and Ibrahim have proven to be America’s most reliable allies on the ground in the Middle East.

The US has stepped up its aid to Kurdish fighters in northern Syria over the past year and the main Kurdish force, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), fought off a major Isis offensive late last year in the town of Kobani near the Turkish border.

Since then, the US has continued to back the Kurds in Syria, who in recent months have advanced in the country’s north against Isis. Earlier this year they seized Ain Issa, just 30 miles from the capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

The US has also aided the Kurdish paramilitary, the peshmerga, in its battles against Isis in Iraq. Backed by American airstrikes, Kurdish forces seized the ancestral Yazidi city of Sinjar from Isis and severed a crucial supply link between ISIS redoubts in Mosul and Raqqa.

It was a Kurdish boy, three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose washed up body became a symbol of the refugee crisis just two months ago.

The US had already requested the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees give priority to women with children, among other groups of refugees such as the elderly and those in need of medical treatment that would otherwise be unattainable.

Even so, some Republican presidential candidates - such as New Jersey governor Chris Christie - have categorically ruled out accepting even orphans under the age of five.

“I think somebody should buy for him a plane ticket and take him to Iraq or Syria to visit the refugee camps,” Ibrahim said. “If he sees people suffering over there, I think it will change his mind.”

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