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Wounded Iraqi war refugee losing hope for health care aid

Published June 5, 2008 12:57 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In what Diyar Al-Bayati calls "the future of my past" he wanted to be a businessman. At his Baghdad high school, he took classes in economics, accounting and English, in hopes of getting a good job rebuilding his war-torn nation.

In the future of his present, all he wants to do is walk.

The 22-year-old, who joined U.S. soldiers on more than 200 combat missions in Baghdad, was certain that either the U.S. government or the contractor who employed him as an interpreter would help him out after he lost both legs in a fall 2006 roadside bomb attack.

But for more than a year, Al-Bayati languished in Jordan, waiting for permission to travel to the United States. And when he finally arrived in Utah two months ago, he found his service to this country counted for little when it came to accessing medical care.

His requests are not grand. Al-Bayati says that all he wants is a motorized wheelchair and a set of prosthetic legs.

Thousands of Iraqis have worked as interpreters for U.S. forces in Iraq - a job that often puts them and their families at risk of retribution by anti-American insurgent groups. Senior military leaders say the linguists with whom they work are essential to all past and potential successes in Iraq.

But when those Iraqis' circumstances make it unfeasible for them to remain in their native land, many have found it rather difficult to get a grateful nation to act grateful. Kenneth Bacon, president of Refugees International, which advocates on behalf of displaced persons worldwide, calls the situation "heartbreaking."

"These are people who put their lives at risk to support the U.S. effort in Iraq," Bacon said. "They fled the country to save their lives and when they get to Jordan or Syria or Egypt, they are finding it frequently is difficult for them to get to the United States."

In the year that Al-Bayati lost his legs, the U.S. government issued just 50 "special immigrant visas" to interpreters who, having worked with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, found their lives and families threatened. Pressured by scores of U.S. service members who sought to aid those they fought beside in combat, the Bush administration increased the number of visas to 500 per year in 2007 and 2008.

But even that has turned out to be far too low a number. The limit was reached early in 2007 - and even earlier this year. And officials at the National Visa Center in Portsmouth, N.H., say they won't even bother to interview anyone else until next year, when - barring further changes - the number of visas designated specifically for interpreters will revert to 50.

Some federal officials have argued that the U.S. needs to be careful in admitting refugees from a country that has been infiltrated by terrorists. Critics have countered that Iraqi interpreters have already been well vetted by one of the most discriminating groups of Americans - U.S. service members.

Indeed, letters written on Al-Bayati's behalf by soldiers ranging in rank from sergeants to generals indicate he consistently went well above the call of duty, providing U.S. troops with not only interpreting services but valuable cultural advice - at a time when a lack of cultural understanding was severely hurting the U.S. effort to win Iraqi "hearts and minds."

"I am not a very tolerant man," 1st Sgt. Michael Reed wrote in a letter on behalf of Al-Bayati, with whom he worked in Baghdad. But Reed said Al-Bayati was clearly committed to American ideals and concluded, "I would be proud to have Diyar as my neighbor."

When Al-Bayati finally made it to the United States, it was not through the special visa program but as a refugee. And like most refugees, he didn't get a choice about where he would go.

And so, for now, he moves about Salt Lake City in a borrowed manual wheelchair - a difficult task since a chunk of his right forearm was blown off in the same attack that took his legs. A motorized chair he had been given in Jordan was broken during the Lufthansa Airlines flight to the United States.

Caseworkers from the Utah Health & Human rights Project, which has advocated on Al-Bayati's behalf, say Medicare officials have tentatively agreed to provide a motorized wheelchair - although when the chair will actually arrive is a matter of some uncertainty.

The government health program won't be providing Al-Bayati the prosthetic legs he seeks, however, until they figure out what his former employer is going to do.

The company that employed Al-Bayati in Iraq - L-3 Communications subsidiary Titan Corp. - isn't returning his calls.

That's pretty much par for the course for L-3, says Kirk Johnson, who founded The List Project, which seeks to help Iraqis who have risked their lives alongside U.S. forces.

"The moral obligation - however you qualify or quantify it - Titan has definitely not lived up to it," Johnson said.

Paul Rieckhoff, who has helped bring two of the interpreters he worked with in Iraq to the U.S., believes the responsibility can't be limited to the contractors. "I kind of expect less from corporations than I expect from the government," said Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Indeed, Al-Bayati said the government officials he has dealt with so far have been extremely unhelpful.

"They say that I can only get limited help," he says of U.S. officials who have told him they can do no better than the basic financial assistance given to all refugees. "In Iraq, when they wanted my help, I didn't tell them that it was limited. I didn't tell them, 'No, I'm just an interpreter and my services are limited.' "

Having been fingered as an American collaborator shortly after losing his legs, Al-Bayati says he can't return home.

Alone in this strange new world, he is struggling to start a new life. But there's so much about America he still does not understand.

At a recent lunch in a downtown Chinese restaurant, Al-Bayati didn't know what to make of the tofu he received with his order of stir-fry - much less the fortune cookies that came at the end of the meal. Iraq has plenty of kebab, he laughed, but no Chinese.

After a friend explained the finer points of the ritual involving the little moon-shaped wafers, Al-Bayati plucked a cookie from the tray and cracked it open.

"Do not put things off," he read aloud, "put them over."

"But that doesn't even make sense," he complains.

For Al-Bayati, little does these days.

mlaplante@sltrib.com

How to help

Donations for Diyar Al-Bayati may be made at any Bank of the West branch. Checks should be made out to the High Road for Human Rights Advocacy Project, for the benefit of Diyar Al-Bayati.