Written by Jessica R. Towhey
NOTE: A few weeks after messaging with No One Left Behind for this initial story, Smith moved his family to a village closer to the border with Turkey. He had to leave his family to find work, returning to his first career as a Pharmacy Assistant in a hospital. They continued reapplying for the Special Immigrant Visa, traveling 11 hours to Baghdad to meet with various officials from the Iraqi government and U.S. Embassy staff. “My kids feel so tired of this crazy road, but we have to do it,” Smith wrote in a Facebook message in October.
Due to the length of the visa process, the family’s paperwork expired, and they again had to get medical tests, sign off from Iraqi police, and others to resubmit their application. In late November, Smith and his wife were interviewed at the U.S. Embassy.
On Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, Smith messaged a picture of his flight itinerary from Erbil International Airport in Kurdistan to Lincoln, Nebraska. They arrived safely on Wednesday, Feb. 20.
Sitting in a tent in a refugee camp in northern Iraq about seven hours from the Turkish border, a former U.S. Army interpreter who goes by Smith sits up in the early morning hours keeping an eye on his two young sons while his wife sleeps.
Conditions inside the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Duhok Province are “miserable,” he said during a Facebook messenger chat. But for now, Smith and his young family have nowhere else to go. They’ve been there since 2014 when ISIS attacked Sinjar, where they were living. The U.S. military said that militants “indiscriminately attacked” the Yazidis living there, prompting airstrikes a few days after the slaughter began. About 200,000 Yazidis and Shia managed to escape.
“I lost everything,” he wrote at 3 am local time. “All I have [is] this small, beloved family.”
For more than two years, Smith served as a U.S. Army interpreter – known as Terps – alongside infantry units from Forward Operating Base Normandy in Diyala Province and in Mosul, where he worked with an explosive ordnance disposal unit. At Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, he partnered with another Terp known as David.
David was killed by ISIS in 2014. Smith, 30, recently learned that he and his family are now a similar threat.
For more than a year, Smith has been waiting for his wife to be approved for travel to the United States. Smith and their two sons, ages 6 and 4, have already been approved. In May, he asked for an update on her status and was told by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that his wife’s visa “still needs more administrative processing.” He was given two options:
- Get his visa and travel without his family;
- Stay and continuing waiting for her visa to come through.
Neither are good choices.
Smith said that his wife is uneducated and cannot take of herself. Leaving her alone would be tantamount to a death sentence. But so is staying with ISIS after them because of his work as a Terp.
“Of course I couldn’t leave them behind,” Smith said. “Of course they will remain in danger if I left.”
Smith’s travel was approved under the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program created for Iraqi and Afghan Translators/Interpreters. Those eligible must, among other criteria, have served at least one year as an interpreter to the U.S. Armed Forces or under Chief of Mission in either country. Although the program expanded in recent years, it has reverted to its original cap of offering visas to up to 50 persons per year.
Even if he were to choose the first option to leave with his sons, some of their paperwork has expired so they would need to go again for medical exams, photos, and a certificate from the Directorate of Criminal Information. Smith said he understands the bureaucratic hurdles his family faces.
“We know that the law is law, and our cases are about U.S. immigration law,” he said. “But we also hope that you remember we are good people because we served with great people (U.S. troops).”
Before Operation Freedom began in Iraq, Smith was studying to be a pharmacist’s assistant. He learned English through his studies; he speaks and writes well enough to be considered proficient by any measure. A neighbor who was working as a Terp suggested that Smith consider the job.
He knew it would be dangerous but felt it was important to be among the Iraqis serving as a connection between U.S. troops and his people. He underestimated just how dangerous it would become.
“We did help, but unfortunately, it doesn’t help us. We never thought that they will hate us like this,” he said.
His wife, whose given name means “deer,” was proud of her husband’s work. Married in February 2011, Smith said she kept pictures of him and the troops with whom he worked on her phone. She spoke with him often about what he was doing. Now, though, she believes she is the reason they are stuck in Iraq. Smith said he tells her not to think like that. Asked how he feels about their situation, Smith said it’s “so hard to describe my feelings regarding this subject.”
“It’s just like I am the reason they live this scary situation,” he said.
Smith said he keeps in touch with many of the U.S. soldiers with whom he worked. They’ve helped with the paperwork he needs for the SIV. They’ve also sent money, which the family needs since Smith has no opportunities for regular work.
“I will never be able to thank them enough,” he said.
Since there is no way knowing how much longer it will take to process his wife’s visa, Smith has asked for the family’s passports back from the U.S. Embassy so they can try to reach Turkey where he believes they will be safer than staying in Iraq.
It’s a desperate move, but he feels they have no other option.
“Do not worry about me,” he said. “I am [a] U.S. Army Terp so I know how to take care of myself and how to take care of [my] family.”
Still, he knows how dangerous their situation is. Signing off from the chat because his wife awoke for her shift watching over the boys, Smith sent two pictures of his family. The selfies show a young man wearing a light blue polo shirt who could pass for any office worker in any U.S. city; his wife sits behind him, her brown hair pulled back from her delicate face, offering a shy smile. In the second, two young boys sit behind their dad, grinning lightly at the camera, looking for all the would like a first-day-of-school photo.
“Keep these images as a memory,” Smith typed. “Who knows what gonna happen.”