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Iraqi border jumpers

The story of 3 Iraqi refugees whose long journey ultimately delivered them over the Rio Grande and into a federal lockup.

Majeed, a 29-year-old unmarried owner of a small pet shop, said he left his hometown of Kirkuk after the murder of his father and the kidnapping of a still-missing brother for, he suspects, his father’s past work in Saddam Hussein’s security apparatus.

Awat, a 26-year-old electronics salesman and newlywed, said he took flight from Irbil when threatened with death for rejecting a local cleric’s exhortations to attack U.S. and British troops.

Each also noted that local police and security forces were not capable or willing to protect them. Two of the Iraqis didn’t bother asking. Wshyar said he did ask for police protection from the extremist cleric in Irbil, “but they wouldn’t do anything.”

In choosing the U.S. over other destinations, Wshyar said conventional street wisdom held that America offered amazing promises. He hoped America would welcome him with open arms and then he would bring his family over.

“I was obsessed with the idea of coming to America,” he said. We weren’t thinking of just a job and money. We’re just looking for peace for our families. Life isn’t just about money. It’s about feeling safe.”

Their stories are not unfathomable, given recent developments in the Kurdish region of Iraq. For much of the war, the Kurdish north had remained comparatively tranquil. Security had been left mostly to friendly Kurdish paramilitary forces who managed a relative peace. But that situation has changed in the last year. Retired Army Lieutenant General Ricardo S. Sanchez of San Antonio, who commanded American forces in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, said pre-existing religious and political tensions in these mixed Arab and Kurdish areas got worse as coalition troops planned to transfer security duties to the Iraqi government. Complicating matters, he said, was the migration into northern Iraq of Islamic extremists chased from southern parts of the country.

“Pick a divide and it’s there,” Sanchez said of northern Iraq. “We’ve just tried to keep the problems from boiling over. But now the solutions have to be Iraqi solutions and they’re pretty darn complex.”

None of the three detainees ever seriously considered applying for legal entrance to the U.S. because they said they knew the wait would be interminable and only the lucky are chosen.

“It’s extremely difficult,” Awat said of securing a visa to the U.S. or any other country.

Although the number of granted refugee visas is up, hundreds of thousands are backlogged. An estimated 1.6 million Iraqis still live in neighboring countries. An estimated 2 million more Iraqis have been internally displaced.

Other quick options to find safe haven have disappeared. For instance, in recent months, neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan, which provided temporary sanctuary to nearly 2 million fleeing Iraqis, shut their borders to more.

With extremists threatening to kill him, Wshyar said, “There wasn’t time to wait. Fear of death was our motivation.”

‘If America sees me…’

None of the men knew one another until a smuggler based in Ankara who would only identify himself as “Murat” brought them together in Turkey for their journey. Each of the three travelers said they heard through Murat’s recruiters on the streets of Irbil and Kirkuk about his ability to move Iraqis to the U.S.