Opinion Extra

Op-ed: I was targeted for helping the U.S. in Iraq. Now America won’t give me shelter

President Donald Trump wants to reduce to zero the number of refugees admitted to the United States. That’s a repudiation of American values, but unsurprising from an administration that already makes it hard for even the most deserving refugees to come to America.

Consider my story. After Saddam Hussein’s fall, I risked my life helping American troops and diplomats. Now my family is in danger – but I’ve been told I don’t qualify for refugee status, and that my wife and I must return to Iraq.

Born into a middle-class Iraqi family, I grew up watching “The Terminator” and dreaming of America. Living under a dictatorship, Hollywood movies were a beacon of hope. That’s why, when Saddam fell, I began helping the U.S. Army, sharing intelligence on street-corner gossip and Friday-night sermons. Later, I became a staffing manager at the U.S. embassy, vetting the hundreds-strong local workforce that supported America’s 6,000-person diplomatic mission. I screened thousands of job applicants, compiling huge dossiers on every floor-sweeper and dishwasher to ensure they weren’t linked to extremist groups.

My job made me a public face of America’s presence in Iraq. Dirty looks and threatening phone calls became part of daily life, and my family moved from house to house to stay safe. By 2013, with ISIS gaining strength, we had no choice but to flee the country.

In theory, Iraqis threatened for helping the U.S. government quickly receive refugee status. In practice, approval can take years. I requested refugee status, but also applied to American doctorate programs. When I won a scholarship to study computer science at the University of South Carolina in 2014, I jumped at the chance.

It was just as well. Two years later, my mother and brother received refugee status because they were related to me. But incomprehensibly, the government rejected my own application, saying my wife and I faced no danger in Iraq. This isn’t true. My sister, whose own application is pending, has had to relocate repeatedly to avoid violence. My wife and I would face similar dangers if we returned.

Our story isn’t unusual. Over 100,000 Iraqis are waiting for refugee status, but last year just 200 were approved. Things are almost as bad for Afghanis, with 60 percent fewer refugee visas issued in 2018 than 2017. Reducing admittances to zero would be the final insult for those of us targeted for supporting America.

For now, I’m grateful to be studying in South Carolina. I’m researching artificial intelligence, and hope to use my skills to boost the U.S. economy. Refugees aren’t freeloaders: According to New American Economy, we pay $21 billion a year in taxes, and 13 percent of us start businesses, creating jobs for Americans. With the United States facing a shortage of computer scientists, South Carolina needs more people like me, not fewer.

President Trump says he’s putting America first, but his policies could force me to take my talents elsewhere. I’m applying for residency in Canada, which welcomes skilled immigrants. I’d rather stay here. But what can I do if America doesn’t want me?

I’m disappointed, and fear for my family if we’re forced to return to Iraq. But I also fear for American soldiers and diplomats. People around the world who risk their lives to support American interests need to know the United States will have their backs. Trump’s attacks on refugees will discourage people like me from making sacrifices in the future — no matter how much we love this country.

Zaid Alibadi is a PhD candidate at the University of South Carolina.