LINCOLN — This is how a young Iraqi walked into one of the few job interviews that legitimately required applicants to undress.
As he approached a checkpoint outside a U.S. Army base in northern Iraq, a voice on the loudspeaker asked what he wanted.
To become an interpreter, he answered.
“Remove your shirt,” the speaker barked. Shoes and socks, next, followed by trousers.
He wasn't wearing explosives, only undershorts, so he was waved onto Forward Operating Base Sykes near the city of Tal Afar.
After he passed a written exam, demonstrating his command of English, Arabic and Kurdish, he was given a uniform. The name “Nickolas” stretched over the breast pocket, an alias to help protect him from enemies of the Americans.
For six years, he worked with U.S. forces. He translated conversations between tribal leaders and Army colonels. He hit the ground when bullets flew and prayed that unknown villagers weren't hiding suicide vests beneath their robes.
“I was a military man without a rank.”
Now he's just a man looking for work again, except he's in Nebraska's capital city, home to a growing number of Iraqi immigrants.
After the U.S. completed its withdrawal a year ago, he and other former military interpreters had become consumed by fear of kidnapping, torture and assassination. Finally, three years after he applied, the U.S. State Department granted him a special immigrant visa, and he arrived in Lincoln last summer.
Now he lives in a small apartment provided by Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska, which sponsored his resettlement. His wife is learning English. His oldest child attends kindergarten; his youngest is in day care.
He no longer fears what might lurk outside his door, but he holds tight to the caution that has kept him alive. Nick asked that his real name not be published.
“I'm planning to establish a new life here,” he said.
Nick, 29, and his family count themselves among the fortunate allies of the United States who have escaped the constant threat of violence in their home country.
Given the risks interpreters took and the American lives they helped save, it shouldn't be such a struggle to get them out, said Jason Faler, an Iraq War veteran in Tigard, Ore.
In 2007, Faler started the Checkpoint One Foundation, an organization that has resettled dozens of former military interpreters and their families from Iraq and Afghanistan.
For many of the military members who served alongside interpreters, it's akin to a moral obligation.
“The brotherhood aspect that exists between service members in combat is exactly the same with interpreters,” Faler said. “They were really like our brothers, and in some cases, like our sisters.”
Along with translation, the interpreters gave advice on how to avoid unintended insults and cultural missteps that could alienate potential allies. In addition, Faler said interpreters helped avoid danger because they could tell if something wasn't right.
Yet at the end of a mission, many left the safety of the military bases and returned to their homes, where they risked being easily targeted by terrorists.
“I think the American public is ignorant of the risk these interpreters placed themselves in to assist us in bringing to their nation what we came promising, which was freedom, liberty and peace,” Faler said.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military and private contractors have employed tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans to fill an assortment of roles, including as combat interpreters and document translators.
The number killed as a result of their employment is unknown. A recent U.N.report, however, said nearly 130 Afghan interpreters died violently in the first half of 2011 alone.
The U.S. started bringing over small numbers of interpreters in 2006. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., introduced a bill in 2007 to increase the visa limit from 50 to 500. It passed the House by a vote of 412-8, and the Senate approved companion legislation.
Meanwhile, in 2008, Congress designated up to 5,000 special immigrant visas for Iraqis and 1,500 for Afghans that applied to interpreters or anyone else who assisted the war efforts. Those visa ceilings, however, have never been reached in any year.
Since 2007, 11,253 Iraqis and 2,128 Afghans — which includes interpreters, other allies and their family members — have been brought to this country, said Beth Finan, spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.
In comparison, during fiscal year 2012 alone, the U.S. admitted about 60,000 total refugees, according to the department's Refugee Processing Center.
The State Department does not disclose the number of pending applications. A recent Washington Post story, however, reported that more than 5,700 Afghans have applied for the visas — a number that far exceeds the supply.
For Nick, the road that led to his experience as a combat interpreter started with an affinity for English. Although the school in his home village of Snuni offered limited English instruction, he mostly taught himself by reading Dickens and Shakespeare, watching Hollywood movies (“Spartacus” and “Braveheart” were favorites) and looking up words in a dictionary.
His fluency drew suspicion from a classmate at Mosul University, who accused Nick in 2005 of working for the Americans. Over several weeks, the accuser's tone grew increasingly angry, and another classmate warned Nick the guy was a terrorist cell leader.
Nick quit college and, with no other employment prospects, applied to be an interpreter.
He was hired by a military contractor and earned an average of $1,000 per month. When he started, soldiers in the Iraqi army made about $400 monthly, but their pay grew to match his over time.
He estimated there were 200 other Iraqis on the base who worked as interpreters.
Nick was assigned to the base commander and had to go wherever the commander went. He slept on the base and would work 28 days straight before getting four days off.
Before Nick left to visit family, the commander would give him a 9 mm handgun along with a permit that authorized him to carry it. He would hire a taxi to visit his mother and the woman he eventually would marry.
Only they knew he was an interpreter. It was too dangerous to tell others.
Nick accompanied the soldiers on many missions, but he doesn't like to talk about them in detail.
The roadside bombs and suicide bombers were bad. But the greatest tension came when he stepped out of an armored vehicle and into a crowded village, where people would be shouting and children clamoring for his attention.
“That was the worst moment, to meet somebody face to face, and you don't know if that's the one who is going to do something,” he said.
He and the other interpreters followed news of the war closely, and they dreaded the withdrawal, which was completed in late 2011.
“When the United States Army pulled out of Iraq, believe me, we had tears in our eyes,” he said.
Nick was still in Iraq when the Americans left. He knew he had to get out, and not only because of his work for the Americans.
He follows the Yezidi religion, an ancient faith tradition with just 500,000 members worldwide. The Yezidis in northern Iraq have faced persecution from extremists because of their religious beliefs, he said. In 2007, coordinated car bombings in the Yezidi villages of Qahtaniya and Jazeera killed nearly 800 and left more than 1,500 injured.
Although he had applied for a visa in 2009, he heard nothing from the U.S.Embassy. After troops left, he and his family mostly stayed at home, venturing beyond the limits of his village only infrequently.
Finally, the visa arrived last summer, and he and his family relocated to Lincoln. Lincoln is home to the largest Yezidi community in North America — roughly 500. The city of 260,000 has an overall Iraqi population estimated at a minimum of 10,000, a number that social service providers say is on the rise.
About 15 former interpreters are among the dozens of Iraqis who Nick has met since his arrival, he said.
Now he's working to get his mother out. And he's looking for a job. He'd love to sell computers or home electronics, or maybe do some civilian interpreting.
In the meantime, he's adjusting to life in America.
“I think living here is very decent,” he said. “Away from violence, away from poverty.”
Maybe one day, he'll learn what it means to live away from fear.
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