This American Life just produced a fascinating, frustrating and heartbreaking episode that shows how the effects of war reverberate for years beyond when the troops come home.
The episode features the incredible story of Kirk Johnson, a former USAID employee in Iraq, who stumbled into a project of trying to help Iraqis who aided the US during the war come to the United States for their protection. At the time he was 26 years old and living in his aunt’s basement, and he suddenly became the point person for trying to help thousands of refugees escape threats of violence and death for their roles in helping Americans.
And I remember thinking, OK. Good job, buddy. What a good thing you’ve done by raising awareness of this situation. And I was getting back to work on the law school stuff, except that I started getting all of these emails from other former colleagues at USAID, former Iraqi colleagues. It was within an hour or so that it was put online. And then by the afternoon, I was getting hundreds of emails from Iraqis that had read the article but who had worked at the State Department or as interpreters for the military.
So in other words, people you had not worked with directly, but they knew people who knew you or who had read it and it just got forwarded around.
Exactly. And they were all telling me their stories and sending me pictures of family members who had been killed, pictures of their bodies where they had been tortured or shot, pictures of the stumps of limbs that had been blown off while they were interpreting for the Marines.
And all of a sudden, I was staring into the guts of the refugee crisis. They were grown men and women and heads of families that were telling me that I was their only hope and that they were putting all of their faith in me to help them with their cases. And I was just this unemployed, scar-faced scrub at that point. I was not like, all right–
You’ve come to right place.
–everybody rally behind me kind of thing. There was none of that. It was just like, holy cow, I have just bumbled into something way bigger than I know what to do with. I need to find the real people who I’ll just give this stuff to, and they’ll just solve it.
It turned out to be a very frustrating and often tragic process. As an additional resource, the TAL website features a chain of emails between a man in Iraq and US government officials. The man, called Omar in the story, tried relentlessly to get out of Iraq and was killed before he could escape.
I highly recommend checking out the whole episode. You can listen here.
The Education for Peace in Iraq Center has a petition to put Iraq back on the agenda that you can sign here.