CHELSEA – Must Ihsan Yaqoob risk being killed so his family can make a life here?
For four years, Yaqoob worked with the US military in Baghdad, translating for doctors treating captured Iraqis. It was a decent living, and for the first couple of years, he and his family were fine. But then people started calling in the middle of the night, threatening to kill them. A brick smashed through Yaqoob’s bedroom window as he slept. Strangers in a van trolled the streets, asking his son’s friends to point him out. The friends pretended not to know him. Men with guns knocked at Yaqoob’s door. When he lied about having a gun of his own, they walked away.
Such luck couldn’t last. The whole family fled to Syria in the spring of 2007. Last November, Yaqoob was granted a special visa for Iraqis who had worked with US forces. By then, he and his family had given up everything they owned, and drained their savings.
The fact that Yaqoob had put himself and his family in grave danger to help our country wage war in his country afforded him no special status. Like the 60,000 other refugees admitted to the United States last year, they got a check to cover their first month’s rent, cash payments that would last eight months, and food stamps for about a year. His family’s monthly income came to $950.
It was not the plush red carpet routinely rolled out in Scandinavia, where generous cash payments for refugees can last for years. But it’s the way things are done here, where up-from-the-bootstraps is an article of faith. The thing is, bootstraps are in short supply these days. Yaqoob, 52, landed here at the worst possible moment for making a new life. He can’t even get hired as a dishwasher. He hasn’t paid rent on the one-bedroom Chelsea apartment he shares with his wife and two grown children since April. His landlord is evicting him.
“After that, what shall I do?’’ he said, throwing up his hands as he sat outside a Broadway cafe Friday morning. “I’ve been knocking on all doors.’’
He is grateful to have been allowed to come here. He is glad that his family is safe. He is also lost.
We owe Yaqoob more, not just because of what he has done for us in the past, but because of what he may yet do. The federal government desperately needs Arabic speakers, particularly ones who know the Middle East. Hundreds of the Iraqis who worked with US forces are now here, and desperately need jobs. Yet nobody seems to have come up with a way to match our needs with theirs. Kirk Johnson, whose List Project brings Iraqis who helped American forces to the United States, said only a few have found work as government translators here. The rest are shut out because the security hurdles are too high, or because they’re not citizens.
Yaqoob has turned to the only part of this country’s economy that seems solid these days: the war that drove him here. He tried to join the Army, but was told he is too old. So he has encouraged his son, now 20, to enlist instead.
“That way, he can get an education and help us,’’ Yaqoob said. “His mother doesn’t want him to do it. We have only one son. But we have no options.’’
For himself, Yaqoob sees no option besides returning to Iraq. He has applied for a job with a private contractor there. Every day, he hopes for the call that will send him back to a job he knows could get him killed.
“I might as well go back and die once,’’ he said. “There’s no point being here and dying every day.’’
Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.