April 14, 2008 – Auburn, Maine — The Iraqi translator called Shark knew his life was at risk every day that he worked for American troops in Iraq. Insurgents viewed translators as traitors and had wounded or killed scores of his colleagues. But he believed the Americans would improve life in his country, and despite receiving dozens of death threats, he translated for Americans while they trained Iraqi soldiers and went on patrols.
After a bomb ripped through his car just as he, his wife, and baby son were about to get in, he asked the United States for asylum.
“I held the visa in my hands and thought, ‘We’ll live the American dream,’ ” he said.
But since arriving in September, the translator has discovered a harsh reality: He can barely survive. With little notion of where to go, he landed in Auburn, the hometown of a military officer he had befriended in Iraq, where he cannot find steady work. He, his wife, and son share a cramped two-bedroom apartment, a 1995 Buick, and a cellphone with another Iraqi translator and his wife. They live on food stamps and the meager pay they collect from a nearby college, where both men work as part-time janitors. Sometimes they can afford to eat only once a day.
“We both have college educations,” said the translator, who asked to be identified by the moniker American troops gave him, Shark, out of fear that insurgents will hurt his relatives in Iraq if they find out that he is now living in the United States. “We both risked our lives for the American government. Now we wash dishes and mop floors. There’s something wrong with that.”
Across the country, hundreds of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who aided the US war effort and then fled their homelands fearing for their lives are struggling with little help from the government, according to private groups assisting translators from the war zones. After granting them refuge, the United States has done little to assist in the transition to a foreign culture where the translators have few connections, few prospects for employment, and little access to healthcare.
“It’s as if we think that our obligation to honor their service is simply to bring them here,” said Kirk Johnson, whose nonprofit organization in New York, the List Project, helps Iraqis who work for US forces apply for special immigrant visas. One Iraqi family the List Project had helped move to the United States became so frustrated that the family returned to the Middle East, though not to Iraq, Johnson said.
“They can only clean toilets for so long before they give up and decide that maybe it’s not worth the struggle here,” he said.
The program that enabled Shark and his family to move to the United States is open to Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who worked with US forces in those war zones for at least 12 months. Under a recent law, Iraqis and Afghans who have arrived in the United States under the program on or after Dec. 27, 2007, are entitled to a multitude of benefits that include one month of free rent, temporary cash assistance, free medical insurance, and the support of a caseworker who helps the immigrants settle. The law also raises the quota of special immigrant visas from 500 a year to 5,000 a year starting October 2008.
But the benefits do not extend to the hundreds of translators who arrived before Dec. 27, like Shark. A Department of State spokesman, who spoke on background because he was not authorized to talk in detail about the topic, said the government is reviewing whether and how to make the benefits available to immigrants who arrived earlier.
The special immigrant visa “was a way to act quickly to be able to give people refuge here in the United States” in recognition of the threat the interpreters face in their home countries, said Jane Leu, executive director of Upwardly Global, a San Francisco-based agency that helps refugees and immigrants find jobs.
But the program “could have done a better job in linking [the translators] to services that exist,” Leu said. “We are in a gap right now as far as plugging them into the system is concerned.”
For the translators, finding employment is the biggest challenge, said Anne Kirwan, who works in the San Francisco office of Upwardly Global. They often base decisions about where to live in the United States on the residence of American service members who worked with them, she said, compounding the difficulties of finding work.
For Shark and his roommate, that service member was Maine Army National Guard Lieutenant Paul Bosse, whom they met during his deployment in 2006.
Bosse, who regularly checks on Shark, is aware of their financial difficulties.
“They went from a country where literally their lives were in danger and now they have opportunities,” he said. “Not all of them have to be very successful, but they’ll be safe and their kids will grow up safe.”
But safety is not enough, said Shark’s roommate, who also asked to be identified by his American moniker, Steve.
“Being safe is a good thing for us. All the Americans I have met are very nice,” he said. “But we wish we had something to do. Look at our refrigerator: it’s rice, chicken, and beans. We haven’t eaten meat for the last four months.”
Shark and Steve, who are both 27, work part time at Bates College in Lewiston, across the Androscoggin River from Auburn. They make $8 an hour and work only when the college calls, typically 10 hours a week or less, the translators said.
They had briefly held other jobs. They lost work packing bottles at a sauce factory when they couldn’t make it to work on time without a car. Another job packing and sorting clothes at LL Bean was seasonal and ended after the Christmas rush.
One afternoon last week, Shark and Steve sat on donated furniture in their Spartan living room with their wives, hoping for Bates College to call for another late-night cleaning shift. Shark’s son crawled from one adult to another, then disappeared in the tiny bedroom he shares with his parents, who have decorated the room with their wedding pictures. A deflated Mylar balloon from a recent birthday was tacked to the wall.
Steve’s wife said life in Iraq was “much better.”
There, she said, “I worry all the time. But here, we haven’t seen anything that makes us feel good. All we think about here is how we are going to pay the bills.”
Ten other interpreters came with Shark and Steve to Auburn in September, and most of them have moved away. Several found jobs at a Wal-Mart in Utah. One found a job translating at the US Army Academy at West Point. One joined the Army. Shark and Steve don’t know if they can afford to move their families someplace where they are more likely to find better jobs.
“I was risking my life for this country,” said Shark. “I don’t know why the government doesn’t help us.”