ABOUT IRAQI REFUGEE STORIES
Jennifer Utz (www.jennyjo.com) is a videojournalist who has been covering the Iraqi refugee crisis since the fall of 2006. She was one of the first US-based journalists to highlight the extent of the crisis. Her first report aired on Democracy Now in February 2007. Subsequent reports aired on ABC World News Tonight, France 24, and Current TV.
> Continue

SHARE YOUR STORIES

In the interest of allowing Iraqis to have a voice, this site welcomes stories from Iraqis and from those who have worked closely with them. Personal stories should be submitted using text and/or photographs (please keep the images small).

Be aware that there may be security considerations for those who have fled, so please do not include identifying details except where permission is obtained (we may also decide to change names or withhold certain details). Submissions may be edited for clarity or brevity. Please survey the site for a sense of the format.

Stories should be submitted by email to stories@iraqirefugeestories.org

 

"Joe's Story"
Submited by a member of the US Marines Corps
Edited for Brevity

This is a story about an unlikely friend that I made in a place where
he was supposed to be the enemy.
His name is Joe; an Iraqi man that
under any other circumstance I wouldn't have hesitated to kill. But as fate would have it, he became an inspiration and a dear friend.

Joe is a young man in his thirties with black hair and a scruffy
goatee. He is roughly 5'9" with a slender build. His accent is deep
and his demeanor is calm. His biggest vice is chain-smoking. He would
try to play football with us, taking a cigarette break every ten
minutes - he looked like he was going to die. Joe was always a hard worker
and a good-hearted individual. Sometimes I thought he was so nice because he figured we would kill him if he wasn't. But as I got to know him, I began to trust him. That was a rare thing in a country where he would have been viewed as an enemy.

When I landed in Iraq over three years ago, I didn't know what to
expect.
All of the stories I've heard were horrible. The enemy was everywhere, mixing in with the population. Taking pop shots at us as we drove by. Blowing themselves up just for the glory of their god and their country. So naturally
I was apprehensive about the citizens in Iraq. But on the other hand, that's
exactly what I signed up for. I wanted to get some revenge for what had
happened on September 11th.

So there I was, at a small forward operating base in the province of
Al-Hilla, Iraq. It was hit constantly by mortar attacks, drive-by
shootings, and even a suicide bomber that blew himself up at our front
gate. We arrived at night since most convoys and helos take small arms
fire when they come in. It was always better to travel at night
anyway. The insurgents accuracy decreases ten fold at night.

After settling into the transient housing on base, we checked in and
started work. We were shown around by the unit that preceded us and at
the end of our tour, they introduced us to the interpreters. They were
Ross, Ceaser, and Joe. All obvious cover names, but completely
understandable. I interacted with Joe first because he was a smoker.
I asked him to have a cigarette with me and I asked him how to pronounce
certain words that I had learned prior to deploying. He asked me questions
about my family and what it was like in America. At first I wanted to shoot him
for asking so many personal questions. I was thinking that maybe this guy
was an insurgent trying to get information out of me. But I politely told him
that I don't talk about my personal life. However I did tell him about
the girls back home. I told him that when we go to the beach, the
women don't wear anything but a swimsuit. He was definitely interested
in that part. A few hours after that we ended our first day of duty in
Iraq.

As the weeks went by, Joe became very popular with our unit.
All the guys loved him. Our friendship brought trust. I used to think to
myself that if Joe was an enemy spy, then that little guy was damn
good at it. After our shift, Joe, some of my Marines, and myself would
go to this coffee shop that one of the Iraqis ran. The coffee tasted
like hell but there wasn't a Starbucks for a thousand miles. All we
ever did there was play dominoes and B.S. all day. Joe would tell me
about his family, friends, and what life was like before the war. I
told him stories of the crap I got into when I was younger and how he
needs to see what a woman looks like without a Bhurka. We always
reverted back to that topic. Must be a guy thing.

I remember one day Joe snuck his cell phone on base and called his
mother to let her know that he was safe. I asked him to let me talk to
his mom. She seemed like a beautiful person. She reminded me of my mom.
He said that she couldn't speak any english. That didn't stop me. In my best
Arabic I asked her how she was doing. She responded with something that I couldn't understand. I remember telling her in English that her son was a very
brave and good man. Joe relayed that to her in his native tongue. So
as I said goodbye, she just repeated it to me. That was the first and
last time that I ever spoke to her. It was a very interesting experience.

Roughly a week after that we got the word that we were moving to
Fallujah.
I figured that was going to be the last time I would see
Joe. He wanted to come with us and asked the company that provides the
military with interpreters if he could go with us. We were excited to
hear that they gave him the green light. The only condition was that
he would have to find his own transportation to Fallujah. It took him
a couple of weeks to get there, but somehow he made it. That's when I
knew that this guy was dedicated. We even made him an honorary Marine.
For someone in his line of work to travel so far just to work with you
was admirable. He could've been killed on his way there. Insurgents
hate Iraqis that work for the U.S.

As our time in Iraq came to a close, Joe was sad. He said that he
would quit being an interpreter when we left. He didn't want to work
with anyone else except us. It felt like an honor for him to say that.
We all took pictures with him. Wrote letters of reccomendation, and even the Captain gave him a commendation. So our last goodbye was
back at our quarters. I gave the guy a hug and told him that if he
ever made it to America, I would take care of him. There was no way
that I would let him come here and work the night shift at a
convenience store. I told him to try as hard as he could to make it
to America. And as we smoked our final cigarette, Joe left and I never
saw him again.

A year after I returned home from Iraq, I heard from someone in my
unit that Joe had been killed.
An Army guy that worked with him before
he went to Fallujah said that Joe was executed by insurgent forces. It
was never confirmed but it seemed true because I emailed Joe and never
got a response. It was a sad day for all of us who worked with him. I
poured some beer out for him one night as I was drinking and said a
little prayer for him. I missed him even more after that.

About a year ago I received a call from a journalist who asked me if I
knew an Iraqi interpreter named Joe.
I told her yes and she told me
that he was alive. "Holy shit!", I thought to myself. I asked her how
she knew this information. I was extremely wary of this person. I
started thinking that this was the terrorist that killed Joe and got
my number from him. Then I thought about how absurd that could be.
Nevertheless I stayed cautious whenever speaking to this journalist.

As she and I spoke, she told me that Joe escaped to Syria as a
refugee. She said that Joe fled because he was being threatened by
insurgents for working as an interpreter for the Americans. One of his
friends got his head chopped off for being an interpreter and Joe
definitely didn't want that. She sent me proof that he was alive and
that he was struggling in Syria. He lived in a slum and barely made
any money to survive. I couldn't take it. I wanted to help my friend
but didn't know how. The journalist said that she was going back to
Syria to interview more refugees. I asked her if she could bring Joe
some pictures, a letter, and $100. I wanted Joe to have some cash so that he could buy a beer and a good dinner. He was very thankful for the gift.

As time went on, I started to make phone calls and write letters to
anyone in a high position that would listen to me.
I called my
congressman and even wrote the vice president of the United States. I
figured if you're gonna aim, aim high. I received a phone call from a
person in the State Department saying that there was not much that
they could do. Joe would just have to stay put and wait. It was
frustrating. Here was a guy that helped our country against his own
and this is how we repayed him. There are hundreds of people a day
crossing our borders soaking up our funding for programs and wasting
space. and Joe has to dodge the bad guys and fear for his life for
helping us. I have to say that I was a little pissed off. But a little
fish like myself couldn't do anything.

Recently Joe sent me an email that he was cleared to come to America.
I was ecstatic. I called all the guys and told them that Joe was
coming. Now I have to live up to my part. I promised Joe that I would
take care of him and that's what I plan on doing. I already have some
job interviews set up for him when he gets here. Because if you
recall, there is no way in hell that I will let him work the
nightshift. The first place that I plan on taking Joe is the beach. I
want him to see the infamous bikini that I mentioned when I first met
him. Then off to have a good steak and some beers. Oh and of course
you can't forget Disneyland. It's the happiest place on Earth. So when
he gets here Joe will have a roof over his head, and a second family
waiting for him.

In closing, Joe sacrificed everything. He left his family, friends,
and life behind. He had to dodge people who would kill him if they
knew who he was. He is viewed as a traitor by his own people. And now
he may be lucky enough to live in America. I can't wait for him to get
here. Though he left his family in Iraq, Joe has another family
waiting for him here. And we are going to do everything we can to make
sure he's ok.


joe
Click the letter for a full-size image

 

joe
Click the photo for a full-size image