Iraqi Kurdish refugees want American visas
for relatives, friends who helped US military
By Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
January 19, 2012
Newzad Brifki is trying to help his brother-in-law
escape Iraq where he's been threatened with death
for helping the U.S. Army. Brifki, the executive
director of Kurdish Youth of America, a
community-based organization in Moorhead, says he's
been stymied by bureaucracy. (Photo for MPR by Ann
Newzad Brifki (left) and Mohammed Salih (right)
spent several weeks in Ankara, Turkey, last summer
attempting to get Salih a visa through the U.S.
embassy. Salih says the visa was denied. Salih
worked as a security guard for the military in Iraqi
Kurdistan and as a result, now faces death threats.
Salih asked that his face be obscured to help
protect him. (Photo for MPR courtesy of Newzad
This is the an identification badge used by Mohammed
Salih when he worked as a security guard for the
U.S. military.Salih says he's been denied a visa to
come to the United States despite facing death
threats because of his work with the U.S. military.
Salih asked that his face be obscured for his
protection. (Photo for MPR courtesy of Newzad Brifki)
MOORHEAD, Minnesota, — When the United States
invaded Iraq in 2003, several former Kurdish
refugees living in Moorhead volunteered to serve as
interpreters and guides for the military. Now they
worry about relatives left behind when American
"It's a very, very scary situation at this moment,
and not only is it scary, it's confusing for most
people," said Newzad Brifki, whose brother-in-law in
Iraq has received death threats because he worked
for the U.S. military.
Hundreds of Kurdish refugees resettled in Minnesota
after they were forced out of Iraq in the 1980s by
Saddam Hussein. When those former refugees returned
to Iraq they also recruited family members living in
Kurdish communities to work for the military. That's
how Mohammed Salih was hired as a security guard for
a small civil affairs team in the northern Iraqi
Kurdistan town of Zahko.
Salih said his work for the military makes him a
target for groups opposed to U.S. intervention in
Iraq. He said he has received several death threats.
"They'll throw images of dead people in your yard,
or find out your phone number and send you a
threatening text message," he said through an
interpreter. "Or somebody will call you out of
nowhere saying, 'we will kill you.' "
Salih now moves his family around. He works day
labor jobs and tries to go to a different job site
every day. He tells his children to stay inside the
"They can go to school but I'm afraid to send them,"
he said. "Because I'm afraid if I send them the
terrorists will capture them and call me and say,
we've got your children, give us money or we're
going to harm them."
Salih said he never planned to leave Iraq, because
he expected the U.S. military to "be here forever."
But when it became clear all U.S. troops would
leave, Salih said he realized it would be too
dangerous to stay.
Kurdish people feel a strong allegiance to the U.S.
military for protecting them over the past 20 years,
said Brifki, who runs a Kurdish community
organization in Moorhead.
"I love this country and I can tell you my community
loves this country because we will never forget what
the United States has done for us," Brifki said.
"They gave us a safe haven. You think we're just
going to turn against them after that? That's not
going to happen, ever."
Given the danger faced by Iraqis who worked for the
military, many try to come to the United States.
Salih applied for a special immigrant visa created
in 2008 to expedite visas for workers who face
retaliation for helping American troops.
Salih said he spent thousands of dollars traveling
with his family to the U.S. embassy in Ankara,
Turkey. Brifki flew from Moorhead to Turkey to help,
but was not allowed to enter the U.S. embassy for
Mohammed Salih said an embassy employee told him
during a brief conversation that he did not qualify
for a visa.
But Salih appears to meet the requirements for a
special immigrant visa as he worked for the U.S.
military for at least one year. His supervisor, Army
Maj. Peter Colt, wrote a letter of commendation.
"There is no doubt in my mind that my men and I were
able to safely accomplish our mission because of the
brave and diligent service of Mohammed," Colt wrote.
"I also know that because these men worked for us,
they were in danger in Iraq after we were able to go
Colt confirmed that he had praised Salih's work, but
said military officials did not authorize him to
The danger for military employees has increased
dramatically since U.S. troops left Iraq.
It's especially dangerous for Kurds because they are
seen as U.S. allies, Brifki said. For the first time
in 20 years, they are not protected by the U.S.
"What are we going to do?" Brifki asked. "Are we
going to rely on the Iraqi government who the Baath
party for so many years has terrorized us?"
Brifki fears Iraq will now dissolve into civil war
as forces that opposed U.S. intervention reemerge.
"Those groups and terrorists or the bad men, they're
not gone," he said. "They're just hiding behind the
curtain. They're waiting for their day. The U.S. has
withdrawn and they're going to open the curtains and
create chaos again."
That chaos could be a death sentence for family
members who worked for the U.S. military in Iraq.
Congress approved a special immigrant visa in 2008
to help military employees who were in danger. The
program allocated 25,000 visa's over five years. But
only about 7,000 have been approved, former State
Department officials Eric Schwartz said.
Schwartz former assistant secretary of state for
population, refugees and migration, said federal
officials are fearful that terrorists might slip
into the United States as refugees.
"Security screening procedures have created
bottlenecks," he said. "There is no denying the fact
that this has created significant challenges."
In 2010 18,000 Iraqi citizens came to the United
States, but only about 9,000 were granted visas in
2011, said Schwartz, dean of the Hubert Humphrey
School of Public Affairs at the University of
Schwartz said refugee visa programs are not designed
to move people quickly. That can be a problem for
someone like Mohammed Salih.
"The challenge of course is that we're in an unusual
situation with respect to those Iraqis who want to
come to the United States, who may be at risk, who
remain in Iraq," Schwartz said. "The issue is how
much should we do? My answer to that question is we
need to do a lot. I think we need to do more than
we're doing, with an understanding that we can't do
So Mohammed Salih hides in Iraqi Kurdistan, and his
relatives in Moorhead worry.
But they refuse to criticize the military or the
Is Salih sorry he worked for the U.S. army?
"No, I will never regret working for the United
States military and if they return I will work for
them again and lose my life for the United States."
Salih said he doesn't know how to appeal his denied
visa. He's afraid to travel to the U.S. embassy in
He's also applied for a refugee visa, but has heard
nothing from the U.S. embassy. Refugee applications
can take months to process.
He said his primary mission is trying to protect his
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