Iraqi and Afghan refugees who assisted U.S. forces pursue a fresh start
By Stephen Magagnini
The Sacramento Bee, October 1, 2009
Farhad Kareem Faraj and his wife eat mahshi, stuffed vegetables Iraqi-style, in their sparse one-bedroom apartment on Watt Avenue, and try to map a future in the country of their dreams.
Jwana Mohammed Shalih Hussein, Faraj's wife, was a physical therapist in Iraq. To help her find work here, she's taking English classes at Sacramento's Winterstein Adult Center with about 50 other Iraqi refugees.
Faraj, 35, doesn't need English classes — he spent four years as a translator for U.S. troops in Iraq, going door-to-door in search of Iraqi resisters trying to expel the Americans.
He's getting restless applying for low-end jobs and itching for new action. 'It's dangerous, but I miss the fun of going after terrorists,' he said. 'Maybe I'll go to Afghanistan.'
The couple's experience reflects the challenges facing a new wave of elite Iraqi and Afghan refugees who have fled to Sacramento from their war-ravaged nations. Many had received death threats or watched friends kidnapped for ransom or killed.
Some say they were walking targets for Iraqi insurgents and terrorists, while others have long dreamed of starting a new life in America. But making their dreams come true in tough economic times has proved far more difficult than they imagined.
In recent years, more than 150 Iraqi and Afghan refugees have been resettled in Sacramento. They include doctors and engineers, security experts and scientists. They've been joined by Faraj and several dozen others who earned Special Immigrant Visas based on their service as interpreters, advisers and military instructors on the front lines — jobs that put a price on their heads.
Even in Sacramento's tight job market, their resumes stand out.
'They speak amazing English, they're highly educated, and they don't want to take a job at Taco Bell or Holiday Inn,' said Michelle O'Camb, director of Sacramento County's refugee services unit.
The newcomers get eight months of refugee cash assistance, MediCal and food stamps. But they're worried about how they'll pay their dental and vision care bills — no longer covered by MediCal — and how they'll support their families when the benefits run out.
Mohammad Anwar, an internist from Afghanistan with a wife and four children, says he's getting $1,104 in cash assistance and $913 in food stamps. But his rent is $950 a month and he spent most of his cash — $2,100 — on a Mazda van that was leaking oil three days later.
'Only four months remain, and I don't know what I can do,' said Anwar.
As they struggle to build new lives here, their academic degrees, experience in democracy-building and references from two-star generals seem to mean little.
'There I was a hero,' said Anwar, who spent seven years serving U.S. Special Forces as a translator, medic and cultural adviser.
'Here, I don't know what I am. I am alone.'
In recent years, thousands of Afghans and Iraqis have aided U.S. forces as translators. Nearly 300 have been killed serving with coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the State Department.
Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa program in 2006 to reward translators with permanent U.S. residency if they'd worked with U.S. forces for at least a year. In the three years since, about 2,250 SIV holders and their dependents have arrived in the United States.
All carry commendations from their commanding officers praising their loyal service. And all say they believe in what the United States is trying to do to bring democracy to their countries.
Faraj, a Kurd, said his blood boils when he thinks of the 5,000 Kurds that Saddam Hussein gassed 'in less than (an) hour.'
Faraj dropped out of school in ninth grade to support his family by working in construction. Coming to the United States, he said, 'was my life's dream. My first hobby was Hollywood movies.' He learned English by watching 'The Good, The Bad & The Ugly' and other action flicks, aided by his Webster's and Oxford dictionaries and 'Google translate.'
In July 2005, he converted from Islam to Christianity. His older brother, also a translator for U.S. forces, had an ear blown off in Fallujah in 2005, but that didn't keep Faraj — who speaks Kurdish, Farsi, Arabic and English — from serving with coalition forces in Mosul, 250 miles northwest of Baghdad.
'I believed I was doing the right thing and serving God by fighting terrorism,' he said.
Faraj said he spent 'a year of chaos' getting shot at, interrogating prisoners and training Iraqi security forces. He said he thinks the Iraqi army has improved dramatically since 2005 and that, as pay increases, al-Qaida no longer will be able to siphon off poor, unemployed villagers.
His references include a letter from a lieutenant colonel calling him 'a consummate professional' whose 'unwavering courage in the face of danger' helped the new Iraqi army 'to begin assuming a greater security role for the people of Iraq.'
So far, all that's gotten him is a job at a Pakistani restaurant. He says he would be better paid and feel more productive serving U.S. forces in Afghanistan, 'but my wife wants to have a baby before I go.'
War has isolated Faraj and others with SIVs from fellow Iraqi refugees, many of whom view the war in Iraq as a war of imperialism, not liberation.
Faraj said one Iraqi in his apartment complex called him a traitor.
But he also has kindred spirits. In a nearby apartment, Saif 'Tiger' Al Mosuli and Saad 'George' Kassim also have Special Immigrant Visas for their service in Iraq. They sat eating sunflower seeds and debating whether getting a GED diploma in Sacramento would be better than going back to the war zone.
Like Faraj, Mosuli, 22, learned his English through pop culture: 'Movies like 'Titanic,' and Green Day, Metallica, Nirvana, Celine Dion,' he said. 'Avril Lavigne's 'So Much For My Happy Ending' is my favorite song.'
At age 17, after his dad lost his Baghdad fruit market in the war, Mosuli talked his way into a job as a translator with the Titan Corp., a U.S. government contractor. Soon he was making $1,050 a month.
He helped pull three U.S. soldiers out of a Bradley fighting vehicle that had run into a roadside bomb. He said he still has shrapnel in his right ankle and left wrist.
When Mosuli served with a cavalry squadron, a surge unit trying to take back a rural area of southern Baghdad, 'Improvised explosive devices were blowing up Humvees, causing traumatic brain injuries all over the place, and he never backed down at all,' said his commander, Capt. Chris O'Brien, in a phone interview from Washington.
'He was my lead interpreter when we were moving and attacking. We were engaged every day by snipers, and we ended up taking back ground from al-Qaida.'
Mosuli also helped set up local militias and a provincial government, O'Brien said.
'Saif was my right-hand man. He was able to not just interpret for me, he could use his skills to figure out when people were lying.'
Mosuli and other key interpreters 'have more than earned their citizenship here,' O'Brien said. 'What they went through for their country and our soldiers is incredible.'
The U.S. government has been letting in several hundred SIV holders a year. Hani Kargoly, another Iraqi newcomer, said by the time he'd qualified, he was already in the United States as a refugee. The benefits are almost the same, but those with SIVs can become citizens faster.
Kargoly said he worked as a bodyguard, translator and driver of armored vehicles for DynCorp and the Sandy Group, two U.S. contractors.
'Now I'm sitting here for three months without a job; they won't even hire me as a security guard,' said a frustrated Kargoly, 33.
Anwar, the Afghan doctor, wanted a peaceful new start for his family after years helping reconstruction teams build roads, clinics and schools.
'I've been through two ambushes,' he said. 'One of my close friends, a doctor, was killed. Because I worked for the Americans, I was the first target they say, 'You are their eyes.' '
But Anwar, 44, feels like a non-person in Sacramento, where he, his wife and five children live in a spare apartment with a table, a few chairs and a couple of plastic trucks for his kids to play with.
Anwar, too, comes highly recommended. 'A true Afghan patriot, Anwar will assuredly be a critical bridge between Western society and the emerging nation of Afghanistan,' wrote his commander, Major Andrew Mazerk.
He could get a medical license in California in nine months if he completes his application and passes a test, said California Medical Board spokeswoman Candice Cohen.
Anwar said he is ready to work his way up in the medical field, 'even if it's at a lower level.'
'Here, we're free from threats,' he said. 'But I don't know where I can start.'