“If you need help with it, just ask Abu Layla,” Amir told me.
Later, responding to a different question, he added, “Abu Layla should know where it is.”
And even later, “When you’re finished, put it in Abu Layla’s box."
All of which would have been helpful information, but I didn’t know who Abu Layla was. (By the way, names have been changed because, who knows?) I was too embarassed to ask, since everyone else seemed to know. However, by the end of the day I needed to know and approached our Iraqi office manager, Malik. "Malik, Amir keeps talking about Abu Layla. Who is that?"
The office manager is a stout, balding man who always dresses in trousers and an ironed polo shirt and sports a pair of large, gold-framed engineer-style glasses that I secretly covet. They have thick lenses and are super-retro-cool. They look like those worn by Walt in “Breaking Bad.” I thought about all of this as he grinned mischievously. “Jonathan,” he put a hand on my shoulder and laughed good-naturedly, “Abu Layla is me."
And so I had another embarassing lesson in Arabic culture. “Abu Shada” means father of Shada, and Iraqi adults are often called with reference to their first-born children.
Malik is a helpful and attentive office manager, and genial (he didn’t laugh at me too much). He is also a refugee from Iraq (most of the staff at the office are refugees). He speaks very good English, which has been common with my Iraqi clients, though with none of my African clients. And, of course, Iraqis speak Arabic, while Somalis, Ethiopians, and Eritreans do not (Sudanese do, for the most part).
Some of these Iraqi refugees government jobs and perhaps even joined the Ba’ath Party (which was often necessary to get a promotion if you worked for the government), which made them targets after Saddam Hussein’s government collapsed under the weight of U.S. bombs. Others aided or worked for American or Multi-National Forces, or translated for a U.S. media company, and were endangered because of their association with Westerners. Most are well-educated, middle-class folks, or at least they were back home. Which is to say that, for the most part, they have an easier time than other refugees in Egypt, but their lives here might be a far cry from what they had in Iraq. (This also means that Iraq is losing a lot of its educated professionals.
Well over two million Iraqis have fled their country since Hussein was deposed in 2003, and many others have been displaced internally. Of those who left, many have gone to Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. A smaller number went to Egypt, but this is a still a lot of people: there are estimates of 150,000 as of September 2008, and it’s surely increased since then. I’ve heard reports of people returning; after all, it’s not nearly as dangerous as it was a few years back. But violence continues in Iraq (28 people, including an MP, were killed at a mosque bombing on Saturday) and for many of these refugees, it is not safe to go back now.
Even for those with a middle-class background, being a foreigner is difficult in Egyt. For the most part, Iraqis are not legally permitted to work. Doctors, engineers, it makes no difference. They cannot enroll in public schools, so expensive private institutions are their only option. Many are drawing from dwindling savings accounts. Some have substantial government pensions, but Egypt does not allow these accounts to be transferred in-country, unlike the policies of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Many feel unwelcome in Egypt. And the revolution, by creating instability and by undermining the authority of the police, has unnerved many of the Iraqis I’ve spoken to. This may be why, according to the accounts I’ve heard, the number of Iraqis applying for resettlement is increasing.
Many apply to the quote-unquote normal refugee resettlement program of the UNHCR; others apply directly to a country’s immigration authority, for instance if they have a close relative who lives there and is willing to sponsor them. But those who fled Iraq because they worked with Americans are eligible to apply to the Direct Access Program (DAP). DAP is supposed to make it easier for these Iraqis to apply for resettlement to the US, for instance by not requiring a referral from the UNHCR or other agency. Iraqis who worked with Americans for more than one year (and were thusly endangered and had to flee, of course) can also apply for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV).
These are very different than the UNHCR resettlement mechanism. Eligibility for the UNHCR program is based on vulnerability in the country of refuge, whereas DAP and SIV criteria don’t address that at all. They’re almost merit-based programs; the key to assembling an application is getting proof that the applicant did in fact work for the American military, or USAID, or whoever. Of course, they must have been targeted because of this association, as well, but that's not usually hard to prove. Stories of black Xs painted on doors and bullets in envelopes are all too common.
The process itself is fairly complex, which is one reason that many have not applied. Some (by now outdated, surely) stats I read reported that only 20,000 applications had been received, though 150,000 Iraqis are eligible for either DAP or SIV. Of those 20,000, only 4,500 or so had been resettled. There is a huge backlog of SIV applications waiting on approval from the US Chief of Mission; this step alone often takes more than a year. Both DAP and SIV require the applicant to provide documentation of their employment by USG or other eligible organizations, which they may not have. (In some cases, the USG insists on copies of contracts to which it is itself a party! The idea that it doesn’t have a copy already is unsettling.) These and other bureaucratic issues seem mundane enough, but since this is a program for people who may still be in mortal danger, such delays are very important. Consider that some people are applying while still in Iraq, where simply approaching the US Embassy in the Green Zone might not be safe. NYT ran an article about delays in the SIV program earlier this month, though I don’t think this issue gets a lot of media attention on the whole.