In an effort to highlight contributions of Iraqis who have worked for the United States, the List Project is compiling both their stories and the stories of the American men and women who they served beside. It is our hope that these stories will serve as a testament to their courage and sacrifice, and demonstrate the fact that these Iraqis are more than just numbers or statistics. We also hope that they find their way to those in power who hold the fate of these Iraqis in their hands.
On Friday we gave you the first installment of Wisam’s story. In the final part of the story, we see how Wisam makes his way to the United States. We would like to thank Peter Farley for his contribution in writing this piece and for all he has done to help his friend.
For Wisam, this close call was the last straw among a series of violent events that he and his family had experienced since the beginning of the war. Tragic events such as IED explosions, car bombs, and suicide bombers had been the norm in Wisam’s life since 2003. The reality of death and injury was an up close and personal occurrence in Baghdad on a daily basis. His older brother, Ali, had been a victim of a drive-by shooting a few years earlier. Ali was also an interpreter for the United States military and a terrorist militia shot him in the face when they saw him leaving a Coalition Forces base. Ali healed after six months and was miraculously back on mission working for troops six months later, another example of the resilience of Wisam’s family, a family that also had received multiple death threats sent to their home, indicating that the militia somehow knew their ties to Coalition Forces. Despite all of this violence, the family continued on over the years, making the best of a situation that they had no alternative to.
It was the Ministry of Justice bombing that finally convinced Wisam that his family needed to leave their lives in his homeland and escape. The death of his ill mother a few months later also factored into this realization, as it was her dying wish for his family to start a new life outside of their dangerous situation in Iraq. Wisam and his older brother soon submitted for their family refugee applications to the United States because of the immediate danger their lives were in.
The application process for Wisam, which began in 2009, was an emotional rollercoaster. Time was clearly not on Wisam’s side, yet the entire process was an agonizing waiting game. In the meantime, he feared for his life and restricted himself to the family’s house in hiding. He would go months without hearing anything about the status of his case and when he sporadically did receive updates, they were only to inform him that his case was delayed or that necessary steps in the process were denied because of paperwork issues on the government’s end, problems that were no reflection on him and beyond his control. It seemed as though when Wisam and his family needed help from the governments that they sacrificed so much for, they were being abandoned.
Thankfully for Ali, his case developed in a much smoother process. After a very long wait, he was granted an individual Special Immigration Visa for his work with Coalition Forces and safely arrived to the United States in January of this past year. He settled in an apartment in Maryland in close proximity to Washington, DC. While Wisam was very excited for his brother, the fact that his case had gone a completely different direction had him very discouraged. The most frustrating aspect of it all was the fact that Wisam had done everything right and the fate of his family was in the hands of others. As the days went on, additional logistical issues compounded, all of these problems related to the bureaucracy of government. It was one dead end after another and all the while, the lives of him and his family remained in great danger. Naturally, it was very difficult for Wisam to remain positive. In an effort to keep him hopeful, I often spoke to him about the spare bedroom that we had reserved for him in our household for when he finally made it. I joked about the chores, like dog-walking duty, that I would set aside for him when he was finally able to arrive. Over time, I could hear a change in his voice when we spoke. It had almost defeated tone in it. And while I might have played the “remain positive” and “upbeat” part when we conversed, I was mentally at the point where I would be lying if I said I thought the chances of him leaving Iraq were in our favor.
As Wisam encountered more and more difficulties in the refugee seeking process, his story was shared with more and more people stateside. From the beginning, there were many who decided that they wanted to do more than just listen. They wanted to become involved by joining the effort, lending their support, and taking action. Some made monetary contributions to a fund setup for Wisam’s family to help them in the struggle they faced. Others donated clothing and household items to Ali down in Maryland to help him get on his feet. Many became emotionally invested in the story themselves and took the very important step of sharing it with others. The hope was that the more people that became connected to Wisam’s story, the more likely he would get the break he was waiting for.
By the spring of 2011, Wisam had an “army” of advocates working on his behalf. His character was captured in letters that soldiers wrote in his support and these letters were sent to the governmental agencies involved. Organizations such as The List Project, The Checkpoint One Foundation, and UC Berkeley Law School’s Iraq Refugee Assistance Project came on board and worked tirelessly on his case. Wisam also had a Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman from the Department of Homeland Security, whom I had met at a conference, working on his behalf. And when I shared Wisam’s story with both United States Senators from Massachusetts, it was the Honorable Scott Brown who acted by writing a letter to the International Organization of Migration to inquire about his case and request action. As wonderful as it was to have all of this amazing support, it was just as discouraging to know that there was only so much that could be done on our end to help. We were very discouraged until, I received a phone call on a particular morning in July.
When I answered the call, all I could hear on the other end was Wisam repeatedly shouting, “I’m coming to America! I’m coming to America! I’m coming to America!” He must have screamed the phrase a dozen times at the top of his lungs before I could even get a word in. At this point, all I could get out of my mouth were a dozen, “No ways!” After almost two years of waiting, Wisam was eventually able to explain to me he had finally received news from the International Organization of Migration that his case had been accepted and processed, and that he was scheduled to arrive in Massachusetts in just two, short weeks. The Farley family was soon to have a brand new, welcome addition.
Wisam has been living with his American family for almost two months now, and for all of us, this is still as surreal as it was the day he walked off the plane at Boston’s Logan Airport. Every morning he wakes up, it takes him a few seconds to come to the reality that he is in the United States. For the both of us, it still feels like a dream, so much so that I sometimes jokingly (well, half-jokingly) poke him with my finger just to make sure that all of this is real.
It has been amazing to watch Wisam experience new things for the first time in a land where he is able to experience freedom for the first time in his life. His story puts things into perspective, especially for we Americans who take so much of our way of living for granted. I often hear Wisam say, “I cannot believe I am actually here doing this. I could never do this in Iraq.” For example, while Wisam has been a lifelong lover of music, he literally had never danced before coming to the States. Well the other night, Wisam danced. A good friend of mine was kind enough to invite him to his wedding and Wisam had the time of his life, grooving the night away. Watching him dance was a reflection of what renewal, rebirth, and freedom is all about. When I am lucky enough to witness moments like this, I often think about his situation just a short time ago. There is one moment that tops them all, and this is when we brought Wisam to a Cape Cod beach.
The look on Wisam’s face was priceless when he first saw the ocean and the horizon of the beach, a scene forever embedded in my mind. “This must be heaven,” he said. He then continued with probably one of the most powerful things I have ever heard anyone say. He began to cry, turned to me, and said, “Farley, I am finally alive. I had been dead for so long.” At that point, he wasn’t the only one tearing up.
Another scene I will never forget is Wisam reuniting with his brother two weeks ago. Thanks to the generous donations of many, we were able to fly Ali up from his apartment in Maryland to spend the weekend with his brother. The two had not been together since their days in Baghdad. The two brothers explored Boston together and of course, the beach.
Wisam has integrated well over the past couple of months. He is forever grateful for escaping the danger of his homeland. To say he is excited to begin a new life in the United States would be an understatement. He is amazed by the support of those who have helped and also those who have become invested in his story. He loves meeting new people, and connecting faces to the names of those who have assisted him is his favorite thing to do. He has kept busy by enrolling in language and vocational skills classes that take up most of his week and is in the search for his first full-time job.
This is not to say everything about Wisam’s resettlement is a bed of roses. He has to cope with the considerable amount of trauma and loss that he has faced. He has had to leave everything he had ever known behind, and the task of relearning a different way in a completely different culture is oftentimes overwhelming, confusing, and daunting. He is in touch daily with his father and the rest of his immediate family in Iraq, all of whom still face the incredible danger associated with their affiliation with Coalition Forces. It is important to note that Wisam did not leave his family and homeland by choice. The persecution his family faced left him with no other option but to escape and try to start a new life for them here. The List Project and a legal team from UC Berkeley Law School’s Iraq Refugee Assistance Project are currently working on the cases of these family members and we hope to witness more reunions in the soon future.
There are thousands of stories like Wisam’s to be told, meaning thousands of US-affiliated Iraqis still left behind in a dangerous situation. As our troops continue to withdraw, these Iraqis and their families are becoming more exposed and at-risk. In fact, some terrorist groups that have already killed thousands of these Iraqis have recently announced that their efforts will increase as America leaves Iraq. These Iraqis have saved American lives and we have a moral obligation to save theirs. The safety of these individuals should be a top priority in America’s effort in Iraq. We have a moral obligation to help these people feel “Alive” again.
Peter Farley is currently a graduate student at Smith College, pursuing his Master of Social Work degree. He previously worked for six years as an elementary school teacher in Brockton, MA. He holds a Master of Education degree from Bridgewater State College and a B.A. in education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Peter lives in Taunton, Massachusetts with his modern family consisting of his wife, Kim, two pugs named Jasmine and Layla, and his Iraqi interpreter, Wisam.