No Refuge Here: Iraqis Flee, but Where?

No Refuge Here: Iraqis Flee, but Where?

New Yorker Lisa Ramaci-Vincent and Basra native Nour al Khal have never met face to face. The two correspond daily via phone or e-mail, and Ramaci-Vincent regularly sends al Khal much-needed funds to help her survive. Yet Ramaci-Vincent has made a crusade out of trying to get al Khal into the United States and has even testified in Congress on her behalf. Ramaci-Vincent is the widow of Steven Vincent, one of the first American journalists to die in Iraq; al Khal was Steven’s translator.

In August of 2005, Vincent, a freelance journalist, was kidnapped, tortured, and shot to death in the southern Iraqi city of Basra by militants dressed in police uniform. His abduction and murder came two days after a story about the infiltration of the local security forces by Iranian-backed Shia militias ran with his byline in the New York Times. Al Khal was also kidnapped and shot during the attack, but survived and was transported to a hospital in Baghdad. Fearing for her life, al Khal fled to a neighboring country upon her release, where she remains to this day (the exact location of which is kept private, for reasons of security).

“Before she worked with Steven, Nour had worked with the Guardian, the Dallas Morning News. She has impeccable credentials,” Ramaci-Vincent tells me a few weeks after testifying before a Senate hearing convened by Ted Kennedy and Arlen Specter.

Lisa has lined up a job for al Khal in New York at the UN Bureau Office of the Al-Arabiya news channel, and if her plan succeeds, al Khal will stay in the same East Village apartment that she shared with Steven. Yet, despite all this planning, when Ramaci-Vincent first approached the State Department, she was told that al Khal does not qualify for refugee or asylum status because Iraq is now a democracy, hence there should be no reason she would need to flee.

“If she goes back to Basra, where she’s from, she’ll be killed. Thanks to the Patriot Act she’s viewed by our government as a potential terrorist, and the screening process takes at least six months—assuming she’s even granted an interview.”

Al Khal may in fact be one of the “lucky” ones, as many Iraqis who have worked as translators, interpreters, and contractors for the U.S. Army, nongovernmental organizations, or Western media (all of whom have become favored targets of insurgent groups inside Iraq) lack an American sponsor working actively on their behalf. Many fine journalists have by now covered the story of those Iraqis who trusted the United States, and whose simple requests for security within Iraq or sanctuary without have been answered with silence.

It is an important story, but one that needs to be viewed within a larger context—as one small part of what Refugee International calls the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world and the largest movement of people in the Middle East since the war of 1948 that led to the scattering o...