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'I would be killed by today': Some local immigrants risked lives to aid U.S. forces in Iraq

Amar Hussein worked on engineering projects for the U.S. government in Iraq. He ended up being targeted by insurgents with a roadside bomb. His injuries required a long recovery in Jordan before he immigrated to the U.S. Dave Wallis / The Forum1 / 4
Ezzat Alhaidar is a Yazidi who worked as a translator for the U.S. military in Iraq. Dave Wallis / The Forum2 / 4
Husni Hassan, originally from the region of northern Iraq known as Kurdistan, was a translator who helped the U.S. military in Iraq. Dave Wallis / The Forum3 / 4
Mohamed Haris, originally from the region of northern Iraq known as Kurdistan, was a translator who helped the U.S. military in Iraq. Dave Wallis / The Forum4 / 4

MOORHEAD — They worked for the U.S. government or the U.S. military in Iraq.

One of the four men who shared his story was nearly killed by a roadside bomb while he worked for a U.S. contractor, helping to rebuild his war-torn nation's power grid.

The others were translators, serving beside U.S. troops, translating Arabic, Kurdish and Turkish into English and back, hoping to save American and Iraqi lives, even as their own lives and those of their families lay under threat of reprisals.

They now call Fargo-Moorhead home, and all are profoundly grateful to the U.S. for allowing them to emigrate to America with their families using special immigrant visas or SIVs.

They are among the 1,027 Iraqis settled by Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota (LSS) in the Fargo-Moorhead area, Bismarck and Grand Forks between fiscal years 1997 and 2017.

In fiscal year 2017, LSS placed 421 immigrants and refugees, who came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Bhutan, Somalia and the rest from a mix of African nations. Of the 421 arrivals, 21 had received SIVs.

But immigrant arrivals will likely slow dramatically, said Shirley Dykshoorn, program director and a vice president for LSS. The Trump administration has lowered the immigration ceiling to 45,000 people, down from 110,000, and funding is being trimmed, she said.

The SIV program for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters was started in fiscal year 2006, allowing up to 50 visas to be issued. It was dramatically expanded to 500 visas a year in fiscal years 2007 and 2008, before reverting to its current 50 a year.

A common thread of the stories shared by the four men is the hope that the U.S. doesn't forget others overseas who aided Americans — and that the door to this sanctuary is not closed.

'I always wish'

Moorhead residents Husni Hassan and Mohamed Haris both spent years helping the U.S. military.

The 46-year-old Haris hails from Duhok in northern Iraq, in the area Kurds have declared Kurdistan.

From 2007 to 2010, he was a translator for the U.S. Army, especially National Guard units.

He bonded with many of the soldiers he worked and bled with, he said.

His best friend was a soldier from Washington, and they still talk on the phone. Haris calls him "Rambo No. 2. He got hit three times with explosions."

Haris joined his fate with the Americans because the U.S. helped his people, starting in 1991, protecting them from attack by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

It was an American lieutenant who told Haris about the SIV program. The officer said the U.S. made the mistake of leaving interpreters behind after the Vietnam War, and many were killed. They didn't want to repeat that mistake.

Haris took the offer, and his wife and six children arrived in 2011.

He now worries about the immigration restrictions championed by President Donald Trump.

"I always wish, if someone had power in the government" not to use it against poor people, Haris said. "If anyone works with the U.S., treat them like they are Americans."

Roadblocks for siblings

From 2006 to 2012, Hassan, originally from Zakho, Iraq, translated for a unit that coordinated convoys from supply depots on the Turkish and Kurdish border that supplied military units throughout Iraq.

Hassan, 36, did it because it was a job, and like Haris, to help the Americans.

Hassan, his wife and his first two children received SIVs and moved to Texas in 2012.

Nine months later, they moved to Moorhead to join the larger Kurdish community here.

But getting other family members here has hit a roadblock.

Two years ago he began the process to bring two brothers and a sister to the U.S. They are still in a bureaucratic limbo, he said.

Hassan worries about the danger of delays for interpreters and their families if the Trump administration continues to tighten immigration.

Those who helped the U.S. military deserve the chance to immigrate, he said, "especially the Kurdish people."

'The safest side'

In 2003, Amar Hussein was a young mechanical engineer from Tikrit working on power plants in Baghdad.

Then, the U.S. airstrikes opening the Iraq War destroyed that nation's power grid, leaving him unemployed.

With no wife and kids, he risked helping the Americans rebuild his country. "The safest side was the American side," Hussein said.

From 2004 to 2007, he worked for Washington Group International, an American corporation hired by the U.S. government to help rebuild Iraq.

The Sunni man oversaw the rebuilding of power plants in what's known as the "Sunni Triangle," which was a hotspot of the violent insurgency. Without military protection, his security depended on his wits and luck.

"You will be considered a spy or a traitor, you know. This is the difficult part. People are not going to understand, or distinguish between the USG (U.S. government) or the military," he said. "They will consider you an agent for the CIA."

He changed homes and cars to make himself harder to target.

In 2006, his luck ran out. One night, a roadside bomb blew up his car.

"The explosion, half of my body was really hurt bad. I was lucky to get military people" to give him first aid and get him to a hospital.

His body had been riddled with shrapnel. His hand was crushed. His calf was shredded and had to be rebuilt. His left elbow is now an artificial joint.

He spent 18 months in a hospital in Jordan. The last of the shrapnel in his back was removed at a Fargo hospital in 2016.

The U.S. Embassy offered to get him to the U.S., and he took the offer.

"I couldn't see the light at the end of this dark tunnel," he said.

He arrived with his wife in July 2007. They now have four kids and a house in Fargo. He attended North Dakota State University and got a master's degree in architecture.

The 43-year-old coordinates the interpreter program for Lutheran Social Services and works for an architectural firm.

He helped his brother and his family immigrate in 2016. But getting people out of the region has become more difficult due to terror attacks, Hussein said.

"We used to (wait) for about two years to approve. Right now, I'm expecting about five years to get to the point of an interview," Hussein said. "Even five years is not guaranteed. Maybe more."

'Too much danger'

Ezzat Alhaidar, 40, has physical and mental reminders of his nearly eight years as an interpreter for the U.S. Army and U.S. security firms in Iraq.

Alhaidar is a Yazidi, a member of the religious and ethnic minority from northern Iraq.

From 2005 to the end of 2012, he went on missions where "there was too much danger," he said.

He said he worked with U.S. special operations troops. Roadside bombs and suicide bombings were common. He'd interview detainees.

"I remember when one time when a car, a suicide (bomber)" blew up at a stadium south of Mosul, Alhaidar said. Bodies in an ambulance "were pieces of flesh between a blanket."

Another time, insurgents fired AK-47s at their bulletproof Humvees.

"I was behind the window. ... But seeing those people shooting at us," had him flinching, he said.

He married in 2008. At first, he had no thoughts of moving to America, but the handover of fighting the insurgency to Iraqi troops meant renewed worries about oppression. He applied for an SIV.

By June 2014, he was in the U.S. with his wife and first four children. Another child was born here.

The Moorhead man has since graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead with a degree in communications and international studies. He and his wife both work, he said.

"I am pretty sure that if I stayed over there, I could give you a high percentage that I would be killed by today," he said.

Because of old wounds, his right arm can't be fully extended. He also has post-traumatic stress disorder, with bouts of anxiety and breathing problems.

He worries other translators may not be able to get to safety.

"Many interpreters did their best, and they still are not getting the opportunity or chance" to immigrate, he said.

"There's still people on the other side of the pond who deserve to be here. Their lives are in danger," Alhaidar said. "The interpreters, they put everything they had into the situation. They gambled with their lives."

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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