Photography Gabriela Bulisova
In 2007 and 2008, Gabriela Bulisova travelled to Syria to photograph Iraqi refugees living in Damascus. She found them in dire economic and emotional straits—often traumatized, desperate and disillusioned. Uprooted from their homes and families with no future and no hope for return, they bear witness to the lesser seen, lesser-known consequences of the war.
Gabriela Bulisova: ‘While working in Syria, I heard about the plight of Iraqis who were forced from their homes specifically because they had helped the United States. Some of them had made it to America, where their experiences and feelings were both similar to and different from those of Iraqi refugees who had remained in the Middle East. By focusing on the struggles of those in the United States, I hope to create greater understanding for both the Iraqi refugees in our midst and the millions who are largely out of sight in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
‘Some of the most recent Iraqi refugees in America served as translators, working for the U.S. military or as experts with other U.S. government agencies, NGOs, or American companies in Iraq. They saved lives; they built cultural and linguistic bridges; they sacrificed their own safety and that of their families to participate in what they thought would be the creation of a better Iraq. They quickly became one of the most hunted groups in the country. They bore a lethal stigma as “collaborators” or “traitors” which transcended sect or tribe, and were targeted in assassination campaigns that drove many of them into hiding or out of the country.
‘For people who fear for their lives and seek refugee status in America, the U.S. government offers resettlement as the “option of last resort” for the most vulnerable refugees. In this project, I photographed and interviewed Iraqi refugees who have been resettled in the United States and are living in Washington, D.C. or other American cities. In some respects, these immigrants might be considered lucky, as they made it safely out of Iraq, where their lives were in immediate danger. Thousands of others are still in Iraq or neighbouring countries. During the fiscal years of 2007 and 2008, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs issued only 1,490 special immigrant visas for Iraqi translators and interpreters who had assisted the United States. This number includes family members.
‘Once in the United States, these refugees encounter the intricate, challenging, and often disillusioning process of transitioning to life in America. Many feel abandoned by the country they helped and for which they risked their lives; many are unemployed, facing dire financial crises; many yearn for the embrace of family and friends left behind; and many wish they could return home. Still fearful for their own safety and that of family members in Iraq, many refugees asked that I not reveal their faces or names.
‘Under President George W. Bush, questions about assistance and safety did not receive serious attention until 2007, when the U.S. Congress passed legislation to facilitate asylum for Iraqis who had aided the United States. As a candidate, Barack Obama declared, “We must also keep faith with Iraqis who kept faith with us. One tragic outcome of this war is that the Iraqis who stood with America—the interpreters, embassy workers and subcontractors—are being targeted for assassination. Keeping this moral obligation is a key part of how we turn the page in Iraq.’
‘A new challenge is emerging as the United States cuts back its military presence in Iraq and is less able to protect the Iraqis it employs.’
“I don’t know if I will be able to get back to Iraq...it’s a difficult position. As hard as it was to leave Iraq, it is also difficult to get back there. I did not think for one moment that I would miss that place where I lost my brother and where people were chasing me and trying to kill me for no reason. Because a person goes to work is not a reason to kill them. Yet I miss Iraq and, especially, I miss my family. Sometimes here, I feel I am very much a foreigner.”
“The threat came in early 2006. Like many Iraqis, I got the white envelope with a bullet in it and with a very short message: “Leave your house, leave your town, or death is coming to you.” They gave me just 24 hours to leave...and I left. I received the threat because I was working with the United States Army, with the United States Marine Corps, with the MPs--the military police in my city.”
When this man and his family of six resettled to the United States, they had great hopes for a life of privilege and a warm welcome. They looked forward to starting their lives anew in the country that had promised to take care of them, a country where they would not have to fear death and violence. Very soon, however, they realized that was not what was awaiting them. Rather, isolation, and a lack of financial support and employment opportunities, left them faced with the realities of living in exile. The stress, despair and disillusionment, imprinted an emotional toll on the family.
Three generations of Iraqi women - a grandmother, a mother, and a daughter - were violently separated and forced to flee to three different countries. Now, after three years of experiences none of them want to recall, they are finally living together as new American residents. However, even in the United States, they live in hidden exile, unable to reveal their identities for fear of being discovered by their male relatives and Iraqi anti-American and targeted with assassination attempts. They rely on their strong Christian faith to remain hopeful about their future.
“My ideal job is working for the government in some field related to national security. The United States helped me a lot, more than my own people helped me. I feel that I owe it something: I wish I could pay back even a little bit of what the United States did for me. I’ve given myself a deadline for my job search: if I cannot find anything that suits my skills or satisfies me, I will join the army again. This time, I would be listed as an army linguist; it will help with my papers, there will be medical benefits, and it will get me new training and new skills. And, when I am done with the army after three years, I will get the security clearance that will help me find a job.”
In 2004, this man was invited to come to the United States for surgery - to fit him with a prosthetic arm - he was touted publicly as an example of Saddam Hussein’s atrocities and why the United States need to intervene in Iraq. President Bush personally met with him at the White House, where the portrait of the two he holds was taken. Today, disillusioned, unhappy, and desperately poor, he still treasures the portrait greatly and holds Mr. Bush in high esteem.
“I found most of the Iraqi refugees here are struggling to survive; they do not really receive real assistance to address their situation. The agencies that are supposed to be helping are making life more and more difficult for us. They are very uncooperative, very unhelpful, and have done nothing for us. I have told this to them directly.”
“I am a very normal guy, with a very normal lifestyle.
My only fault is that I was born an Iraqi.”