Washington, DC, United States – One night in December 2006, Farah Marcolla’s life changed forever. She was living in Baghdad and had just returned home from her work at Camp Victory, a US military base in the Iraqi capital. She was sitting with her family when armed men dressed in Iraqi military uniforms banged on her front door and stormed into her house.
“They were screaming and called me a traitor for supporting the Americans, which I denied to protect my family,” she recalls.
They dragged her husband and father outside, blindfolded Farah and tied her to the staircase.
A few seconds later, she heard the shots.
The men had killed her husband, bodyguard and driver and kidnapped her father.
Her father was released four days later, after Farah’s mother paid the ransom.
“It was the hardest and most terrifying moment of my life,” Farah says.
‘I became a target’
In 2003, shortly after the US invasion of Iraq, Farah had started working as an engineering consultant for the US military. Then 21, she oversaw building projects like the construction of helipads and markets and managed deliveries of heavy equipment and baby incubators for hospitals.
“I’m proud of my work in Iraq, but I got punished for it,” she reflects. “I became a target.”
After the attack, Farah knew she had to get out of Iraq as quickly as she could. She applied for the SIV, the Special Immigrant Visa, in 2008.
After four years of being stuck in bureaucratic limbo, the NGO International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) took on her case. Within five months, Farah was approved and had boarded a plane to Washington, DC with her two teenage sons. But she had to leave her parents and siblings behind.
Farah’s entire family applied for the SIV years ago, but they have been waiting for an answer ever since.
“My chances of seeing my family again are slim, but I won’t give up hope,” she says.
The most vetted group
Because of the grave dangers that tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who worked as interpreters, engineers, drivers or cultural consultants for American forces in their country face, many seek asylum in the US. But last Friday, President Donald Trump upended countless lives with the stroke of a pen when he signed an executive order suspending immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries – including Iraq – for 90 days, blocking refugees for 120 days and halting the arrival of Syrian refugees indefinitely. Although Afghan SIV holders aren’t affected by the ban, there have been holdups at airports. To Iraqis, however, the ban comes as a blow.
Shortly after the announcement, chaos ensued. Mass protests erupted across the US, world leaders like Angela Merkel criticised the order and Trump fired the acting attorney general Sally Yates after she refused to defend his ban.
In light of the global backlash, the president defended the order. “To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting,” he said in a statement. “This is not about religion – this is about terror and keeping our country safe.” Trump said the US would start issuing visas to all countries again after the “most secure policies” were implemented.
In fact, refugees are already the most vetted group to enter the US.
Iraqis and Afghans applying for the SIV undergo stringent background checks, interviews, medical exams and screenings by multiple security agencies, including the CIA and the FBI. This process often takes years and there is now a huge backlog. As of last year, 58,000 Iraqis had applications pending, according to IRAP. The Direct Access programme has replaced the SIV for Iraqis with US affiliations, whether they worked for the military or US-based media organisations and NGOs. That means tens of thousands are still in limbo.
The SIV programme used to receive vast bipartisan support and was championed by veterans such as the Republican Senator John McCain.
“I don’t understand why they are closing the door in our faces now. The history of the United States is to help people, not to separate families,” Farah says.
“Yes, I am a Muslim, but I want to live in peace,” she explains when asked about the current anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment in the country. “We helped to protect the Americans and suffered from the same enemy. Terrorists are savages, they have nothing in common with Islam.”
‘A death sentence for wartime allies’
Matt Zeller, a retired US army captain, reiterates that view. He founded the non-profit No One Left Behind that helps Iraqis and Afghans obtain SIVs and get resettled in the US. Since Friday, he says his organisation has been inundated with requests for help.
“My life was saved by my Afghan Muslim translator,” Matt says. “They’re peaceful people who want to live in safety. But now, Muslims are being scapegoated. To single them out because of their religion is atrocious.”
He says that at least 20,000 Iraqis have been admitted to the US since the SIV programme was implemented in 2008.
“The executive order could be a death sentence for the wartime allies that served us in Iraq and Afghanistan. This could seriously harm US national security,” Matt warns. “We’re hearing rumours that there might be an exemption for Iraqi SIV holders, but nothing is confirmed yet,” he adds, addressing the current chaos and confusion surrounding the immigration ban.
There might be a sliver of hope for some Iraqis – the new US defence secretary, James Mattis, is said to be working on a list of Iraqis who helped the US military to be exempted from the ban.
Farah now lives in suburban Virginia with her sons and her new husband, a Lieutenant Commander in the US navy. Although she is safe, she spends her days worrying about her family in Iraq. Her 67-year-old father’s health is deteriorating and he urgently needs medication.
“My first thought when I wake up in the morning is my family being in danger. I have my phone on me all the time to make sure they’re okay,” she says.
“I’m grateful for my life here, but I wish my family was here with me.”