U.S. turns away Iraqi allies

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CAIRO

When Lafta Mansur Adda fled Iraq, he had hoped to find refuge in the United States. After all, he nearly lost his life because of his work for the U.S. Army near Baghdad.

First had come the warnings to stop working at Camp Taji. When he ignored the threats, he was attacked on his way home from work, shot multiple times and left for dead.

Fearful for his life and his family’s safety, Mr. Adda escaped in 2006 with his wife and eight children to Egypt, where he applied to the U.S. refugee program for Iraqis threatened because of their work for the U.S.

But after months of waiting, Mr. Adda, 43, was informed that the State Department could not verify his eligibility. He was denied access to the program.

Now he is desperate. Because of his refugee status, he is prohibited from working and his children cannot attend public schools. Private tuition is too expensive, and he has exhausted his savings. He cannot support his family in Egypt, but he is determined not to risk their lives by returning to Iraq.

“Can you imagine a father who can’t send his kids to school?” he asked. “What can I do? I helped the Americans. I gave them everything, and I even left my country.”

Legal-aid specialists for Iraqi refugees say Mr. Adda is one of a growing number in Cairo who meet the requirements to apply to the program but have been turned away because the State Department cannot verify that they are eligible.

Policies that were designed to protect against fraud, said refugee advocates, are excluding some of the most vulnerable victims.

“The purpose of the program, which was to honor American commitments to people who fought for them and risked their lives, doesn’t seem to be working,” said Barbara Harrell-Bond, professor of forced migration and refugee studies at the American University in Cairo.

“We’re seeing this happening more and more.”

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is open to Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military or government, companies funded by the U.S. government, or American media or nongovernmental organizations.

If the refugees are found eligible for the program, Department of Homeland Security officials decide whether to admit them to the U.S.

There is no cap on the number of refugees admitted, and the State Department recently announced that more than 12,000 Iraqis were accepted in fiscal 2008. More than 17,000 are expected in the next year.

But Mr. Adda’s case illustrates the challenges faced by many of those applying for the program in proving their eligibility.

To prevent fraud, the State Department’s policy is that “paper is not enough,” said a State Department official. The documents presented by refugees must be verified through personal contact with the authors.

“Whenever you try to screen for fraud, there is a possibility of a mistake,” said the official.

In a time of war, said Jeffrey Hancuff, director of the Iraqi Information Office at St. Andrew’s Refugee Services in Cairo, finding and contacting Iraqi employers, or U.S. military members whose deployments to Iraq have ended or who have left the military altogether, can be extremely difficult.

“Of the people who have come to us with official documents, there are many, many where the contact information is not still relevant,” Mr. Hancuff said.

“It’s setting up bureaucratic requirements that make sense theoretically, but in the practical reality of the level of instability in Iraq and in the American bases and forces and the instability of the refugees’ lives themselves, requiring that the refugee still have access to the person who had originally written the letter of recommendation or who had originally signed their contract is beyond what can reasonably be expected of them.”

Mr. Adda has a letter from a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel recommending his company, a letter from an Army captain recommending Mr. Adda by name, and a letter from the Iraqi company confirming his employment there.

He said he was rejected because the lieutenant colonel, with whom Mr. Adda did not have a personal relationship, does not remember Mr. Adda by name. The Army captain only listed an Iraqi phone number for contact information and cannot be reached.

Mr. Adda’s is a common problem. One man who worked for the U.S. Marine Corps has a letter from a Marine Corps major describing him as “a hero for Iraq and the Marines with whom you served.” He, too, was rejected.

Other refugees are denied access to the program because their Iraqi employers do not own their own domain name and instead use a Web mail e-mail address such as Yahoo.

Basad Abbas, 41, fled Iraq with her 4-year-old son, Amir, after her home was attacked with a concussion bomb, she said. Her husband worked for an Iraqi company contracting for the U.S., which makes her eligible for the refugee program. He is hospitalized with heart problems in Iraq but urged her to apply to the refugee program.

The small construction company that her husband worked for uses a Yahoo address as its official e-mail account.

Such generic e-mail accounts cannot be used for correspondence to verify a refugee’s work, said the State Department official, because the e-mails could come from anyone.

The letter Mrs. Abbas has from the company confirming her husband’s employment also lists multiple phone numbers for the company in Baghdad.

“They said the owner of the company e-mailed them from a Yahoo account,” she said. “They don’t want a Yahoo account. They want an official, private account. But the company doesn’t have one. They said if we don’t have the official e-mail, ‘We can’t do anything for you.’”

For some Iraqis, there is no choice but to return and face the danger at home. Ramzi Mohammed brought his family to Egypt in 2006 after he was kidnapped while leaving his work at Camp Warrior in Baghdad. He escaped, but then insurgents threatened to kidnap his son. Several of his colleagues were killed.

Mr. Mohammed, an electrical engineer, has depleted his entire life savings keeping his wife and three children afloat in Egypt and now survives on loans from friends.

When he was denied access to the refugee program in April, he began making plans to return to Iraq, where he knows he can find work.

“I’m forced to go back,” he said. “I don’t have another way.” Wife Suhaila’s eyes filled with tears as he described his plans to return.

“We will be killed,” she said. “I have no hope.”

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