Now Playing: The sound of silence
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
No one wanted to stay in Iraq, including the Iraqis. They were always looking for ways to get out. There were constant rumors of Iraqi women looking for American men. They supposedly wouldn’t ask questions about potential suitors’ personal habits and would promise to faithfully dote on their future spouses if Americans would marry them and take them out of Iraq. Office water-cooler conversations among men in the Zone often centered around identifying which Iraqi women were looking for men. Whenever I talked to Iraqi women, especially those who were supposedly interested in marrying an American, I felt very uncomfortable. They were friendly, attractive, and smart, but I didn’t want to give them any false impressions. If I had met them on the streets of Washington, I might have tried to date them. In Iraq, I tried to avoid them. I simply couldn’t trust myself.
For those Iraqis uninterested in marrying their way out of Iraq, the American visa lottery offered a small glimmer of hope. Each year, the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program gave visas to 50,000 people randomly drawn from the pool of applicants throughout the globe. It was designed to encourage people from countries with historically low rates of immigration to America to join the "melting pot." Anyone who applied directly through the State Department website didn’t have to pay upfront fees, which was nice, considering the massive odds against winning a visa.
One of my Iraqi coworkers briefly mentioned that he wanted me to review his visa application before he gave it to a company that had agreed to submit it for him. He also needed me to show him how to use the Mission’s digital scanner so he could ensure that his digital photo fulfilled the technical specifications. While reviewing the State Department’s requirements, I learned that anyone could submit an application free of charge. When I told my Iraqi friend about this, he didn’t believe me. He said that for the last few years he had used a company that charged him $10 per submission, which he thought was a good deal, since other companies charged $50 per submission. He refused to believe it was free when so many people were collecting money to submit the applications. Eventually, I convinced my Iraqi friend that I was right and warned him that he was paying $10 with no proof that the application package was ever forwarded to the State Department. By using the free method provided on the State Department website, at least he would receive a confirmation.
After I helped my friend, over the next few days other Iraqis came to me looking for the same assistance. They’d heard that I knew of a free website that provided confirmation receipts, and they wanted me to explain how the website worked. Eventually, I decided to email almost every Iraqi I knew in the compound to explain how the program worked. They were extremely grateful. They told me that no one else had ever tried to help them apply for visas, and they were afraid that if they did ask, their American employers might disapprove of their actions. Meanwhile, all of them were passing on sensitive contact information and expressing their desire to move to America, and the employees at the application processing companies could have easily given this information to insurgents.
I knew that I had to help my Iraqi friends, but I hid it from the other Americans. I had a deep-seated fear that my bosses would tell me to stop helping them because the Americans didn’t want to lose their highly skilled Iraqi workforce. In fact, one American even told me that she couldn’t respect an Iraqi who chose to leave the country rather than help convert it into a peaceful, functioning democracy. I asked her if she would stay in her country if she had been marked for death by an insurgent. She didn’t answer, but she didn’t change her initial statement. According to her, the sympathetic Iraqis needed to stay, or else the Americans wouldn’t be able to do their job.