Published 05 Jul 07
By Abigail R. Esman
World Defense Review columnist
Yearning to breathe free
On August 2, 2005, four Iraqi men wearing police uniforms and traveling in a white Toyota truck snatched American journalist Steven Vincent off the streets of Basra as he changed money at a foreign currency office.
Two days earlier, Vincent had published an article in the New York Times about policemen traveling in white Toyota Mark IIIs – "death cars," he called them – and people who had mysteriously disappeared.
With Vincent, the captors abducted his fixer and friend, Nour al-Khal, a young woman in her early thirties who had also previously worked for USAid, and for the Public International Law and Policy Group, a pro-bono law firm based in Washington, D.C. operating in Baghdad. Although the kidnappers repeatedly dismissed al-Khal, saying they only wanted Vincent, not her, al-Khal refused to leave his side; she was certain he'd be safer if she were with him.
For six hours, the kidnappers beat Vincent as Nour sat beside him, helpless. When he fought back, she says, one of the abductors bit him in the leg.
"When one of the men took me to the car," she says, "Steven was still fighting them so they hit him on his head with the barrels of their rifles so he bled. I put my hand on his head to stop the blood, but they put my hand down."
To this day, Nour still keeps the headscarf that she wore that night, soaked with Steven's blood.
"I kept putting my hand on his head to stop the blood despite what they said to me," she recalls now. "They slapped me so severely on my mouth, my mouth also filled with blood. I spit it in the car, hoping that the police could find my blood in the car so that they could identify these men [if we were killed.]"
And then eventually, the "policemen" let them go.
"Run," they said.
Vincent let his translator run ahead, following right behind her – but not quite fast enough. The kidnappers shot him in the back, killing him instantly. Nour, too, was shot three times before being left for dead. Miraculously, she survived, the words that brought about her rescue now legendary among those who know the story: "What are you waiting for?" she asked the (real) police, when they'd been alerted and had finally arrived at the scene. "Pick me up."
Since then, Vincent's widow, Lisa Ramaci, has worked tirelessly to bring Nour to safety in the USA. Unable to remain in Iraq after being released from the hospital three (surgeons removed two bullets; one remains embedded in her left leg), she moved secretly to Amman, where she lived until recently, not even telling her own family where she was: she feared, she says, that they would try to visit her, and she didn't want them to take the risk.
In Amman, Nour became one of 700,000 Iraqis seeking refuge in that country from the horrors of their homeland. Recent reports state, in fact, that as many as four million Iraqis now live as refugees – two million of whom have taken shelter outside Iraqi borders in areas such as Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Syria. Most cite sectarian violence as a reason for leaving, but more than 30 percent have fled because of kidnappings or threats against themselves or family members.
Others, like al-Khal, have left because working with American or other members of the coalition forces has put their own lives at risk. And still more face violence because of the "un-Islamic" nature of their professions: bar owners, beauticians, teachers. They settle, not in organized refugee camps, but in cramped apartments in the inner cities. Most of them are unable to work legally. They receive no government assistance. Al-Khal describes seeing hundreds of Iraqi women – university-educated, professionals – now forced to walk the streets as prostitutes, serving Iraqi officials and Americans working in Iraq who come to Amman in transit, en route back to the United States.
She herself was lucky. In Lisa Ramaci, she had an unwavering, determined, and fearless advocate dedicated to saving the life of the woman who had risked her own life for her husband. An American furniture expert at an auction house, Ramaci knew nothing about the process necessary to bring al-Khal to America; she only knew she had to get it done. She gave radio interviews, wrote letters, contacted agencies. The answer came back over and over again, the same: Nour al-Khal and others who had fled Iraq had no claim to U.S. refugee assistance. Iraq, the American government said, was a democracy now. There was no reason she could not go home.
Then last December, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts penned an op-ed for the Washington Post, in which he declared:
"Thousands of these refugees are fleeing because they have been affiliated in some way with the United States. Cooks, drivers and translators have been called traitors for cooperating with the United States. They know all too well that the fate of those who work with U.S. civilians or military forces can be sudden death. Yet, beyond a congressionally mandated program that accepts 50 Iraqi translators from Iraq and Afghanistan each year, the administration has done nothing to resettle brave Iraqis who provided assistance in some way to our military. This lack of conscience is fundamentally unfair. We need to do much more to help Iraqi refugees, especially those who have helped our troops.
"Our nation is spending $8 billion a month to wage the war in Iraq. Yet to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of the refugees who have fled the war, the State Department plans to spend only $20 million in the current fiscal year."
Angered by the situation, in January, Kennedy called a congressional hearing on the Iraqi refugee crisis. Ramaci testified, telling a spellbound audience the story of what Nour al-Khal had done for an American journalist, and the urgency of saving her life – and the lives of others.
It worked. Shortly after Ramaci's meeting with Senator Kennedy, Ramaci received word that al-Khal would likely arrive in the USA within a year. Meantime, she would remain in hiding in Amman, barely even taking the risk of leaving her apartment. Yet even during this time, al-Khal, who was imprisoned at the age of 17 under Saddam Hussein for a poem she ha written, continued to dream of a democratic Iraq and planned she told a reporter for PBS, one day to return. " "I want this freedom in my country," she said. "What I [can] do in America, I want to do it in my country."
On June 26, Nour al-Khal arrived at New York's JFK airport, along with 40 other Iraqis – including the family of Khaile al-Khafajee, who had served as a translator for Marine Captain Zachary Iscol – with the aid of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Rescue Committee, and others. (Iscol had also testified before Kennedy's panel in January, underscoring the urgency of the Iraqi refugee crisis.)
Three days later, I went with al-Khal and Ramaci to visit the International Rescue Committee, and to the Social Security Office to file an application for a card, stopping briefly for lunch along the way.
"So," I said to Nour, who sported an elegant ensemble of olive slacks and matching top, with beige high heels, olive-toned handbag and a light tan hijab, or scarf, covering her thick, ebony-colored hair. "What, so far, has been the best part?" The words were barely spoken before she answered, her voice strong. "Safe," she said. "The best part, is being safe again."
Welcome, Nour al-Khal, and fellow Iraqi refugees who have arrived now on our shores.
America salutes you; we are so proud to have you here.
— Abigail R. Esman is an award-winning author-journalist who divides her time between New York and The Netherlands. In addition to her column in World Defense Review, her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Salon.com, Esquire, Vogue, Glamour, Town & Country, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic and many others. She is currently working on a book about Muslim extremism and democracy in the West to be published by Praeger in 2010.
Visit Esman on the web at abigailesman.com.
© 2007 Abigail R. Esman
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