Zaid Alibadi risked his life to help the American troops serving in his native Iraq. The U.S. government recognized the danger he faced when it admitted his mother and brother to the country as refugees who faced reprisals because of Alibadi’s association with the U.S. military.
But when the PhD candidate’s student visa runs out after he gets his degree at the University of South Carolina, he’s been told he won’t receive the same status — and now he and his wife face the prospect of being sent back next year.
“Do I want to go back? No,” Alibadi says. “But what can I do? I don’t know.”
Alibadi applied for refugee status in 2014 shortly after he arrived in the U.S., but was turned down, even though his brother Hasan and mother Nahidah Soramaeere were subsequently admitted from Iraq as refugees.
A lifelong admirer of the United States, Alibadi started working with the U.S. military in 2011 after finishing up his undergraduate studies in Baghdad. As the Americans prepared to withdraw from the country that year to U.S. bases in Kuwait, Alibadi acted as their eyes and ears on the Iraqi street, feeding information back to his officer contact. He went on to work in the U.S. embassy, vetting Iraqis to work with Americans in the city’s fortified Green Zone.
Alibadi consulted an immigration attorney and learned that in order to challenge his status in court, he would have to lose the legal status his student visa already gives him in the country. But that would complicate his hopes of landing a job after he finishes school this spring.
“Then I can’t work,” he said. “That’s not an option.”
As it is now, Alibadi’s best hope is to land a job offer in the U.S., which would allow him to extend his visa for up to three years. Failing that, he and his wife Marwah Khamas will be asked to leave the country by next August.
“It’s one of the Catch 22s in the system that you can’t apply for refugee status if you’re already here,” said Ted Goins, president of Lutheran Services Carolinas, which helps relocate hundreds of refugees from around the world in North and South Carolina every year, including Alibadi’s relatives.
He said Alibadi’s best bet may be to seek asylum in the United States — something the Trump administration has worked to make more difficult as the country has seen a spike in asylum claims at the southern border.
Alibadi could also apply for a “special immigrant visa,” reserved for those who worked alongside U.S. soldiers overseas. But it’s unclear how long it would take for him to claim either status.
There’s been a decline in the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. under President Donald Trump, dropping from a high of more than 100,000 under President Barack Obama during the height of the Syrian civil war to a cap of 30,000. This week, Trump administration officials are discussing whether to zero out regular refugee admissions completely.
While his other relatives have been admitted, Alibadi’s sister Shahad and her young daughter Fatimah have been waiting back in Iraq for approval to come to the U.S. for three years, with no apparent progress in their case.
“We’re afraid if we didn’t get any way to stay here legally and we were forced to go back to Iraq, we would just be in the same situation as my sister,” he said. “Maybe our lives will be threatened.”
While her husband has been in school, Khamas has been working retail at Belk on a temporary work authorization — alongside her mother-in-law, who now has permanent residence in the U.S. and now owns a home. His brother Hasan began working at Amazon’s Lexington County distribution center last year, and may soon move to Charlotte.
But Alibadi has pushed back his planned departure from USC’s Columbia campus to keep his visa, and has even applied for authorization to work in Canada if he needs to. Nevertheless, he is still optimistic that things will work out.
“I’ve always been an optimistic person, so yeah, I’m still optimistic,” Alibadi said. “Six years ago, I was in Baghdad. Security was really horrible, (I was) dealing with death on a daily basis. Now I’m in Columbia, South Carolina, United States, finishing my PhD.”
So when he considers what could be his last year in the U.S., “hopefully, some miracle will happen,” he said.