The troops called him Roy. He was a lanky Iraqi teenager who liked hip-hop and looked too young to be working for the U.S. military.
During nine months of firefights, raids on enemy compounds and long nights on watch in Iraq, Roy interpreted the country's language and culture for the platoon led by U.S. Army Captain Blake Hall.
He helped Hall identify the signs of a hostile neighborhood and impending attacks. The two became very close.
Hall admired Roy’s witty one-liners, but even more so, his bravery.
“Not allowed to carry a weapon in combat, and still, you know, with bullets flying overhead, faithfully doing his job right by my side. I don’t think I’m that brave,” Hall said.
“I know I’m not that brave.”
Roy ultimately wouldn’t make it out of Iraq. But his former captain, Hall, would spend the next several years working to get his family out.
When Hall’s tour ended, Roy wasn’t yet eligible for a special visa offered to Iraqis who worked with U.S. forces. He still had three months of combat work left.
So Hall returned to the U.S. and began the paperwork to bring his former interpreter over. Then one day he got an email: Roy had been killed in a bombing along with six American soldiers.
“I felt like I had just been punched in the stomach,” Hall said.
He spent the next 18 months numb, trying to process his combat experience and his loss. One thing kept nagging him — his promise to Roy.
“And ultimately I decided I needed to find his mom,” Hall said, “just to tell her how important he was to us and how special he was.
Hall wanted to ask her for forgiveness.
“I still felt very guilty about leaving [Roy] behind. He was the only member of my platoon I didn’t bring back,” Hall said.
After much searching, Hall finally got in touch with Roy’s mom. Her name and those of her family members will remain anonymous for security reasons because they still have family in Iraq.
She didn’t hate him, as he had feared. But she and her family were in danger.
Insurgents and other anti-U.S. groups target Iraqis perceived as having collaborated with the Americans.
Hall vowed to get the family to the U.S. He worked with pro bono lawyers and the nonprofit Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.
Hall said it’s unacceptable to make people who risked their life for American ideals wait in dangerous situations for permission to come to the U.S.
“Every one of them that’s hunted down, every one of them that has to live in danger, or has their quality of life diminished because they served with Americans, it’s a tarnish to our national honor,” he said.
Iraqis still living in their country who worked for the U.S. government, or whose family members worked for the U.S., currently have to wait 18 months just to get an initial interview, according to the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.
And it still take at least a year after that before they complete the process and potentially get on a plane.
In Afghanistan, under a special visa program for Afghans who've worked for the U.S. government, there's a backlog of 5,000 applications just to apply for the program.
Roy's family waited nearly two years to get refugee status. Finally, on February 12, they were scheduled to arrive at the San Diego International Airport.
Hall flew out from the east coast to meet them.
Roy's aunt and grandmother, who left Iraq several years ago and now live in San Diego, were also at the airport. They brought a big box of Iraqi chocolates and a dozen roses.
Roy’s cousin, who was also a military interpreter in Iraq, flew in from El Paso, Texas, to be part of the greeting committee.
“Yeah, they’re coming,” said Roy’s aunt excitedly as she spotted Roy’s father shuffling in to the terminal.
Hugs and kisses were passed around to Roy’s parents, his 11-year old sister, and 22-year old brother. The family looked exhausted; they’d been traveling for nearly 40 hours.
Back at the aunt’s apartment, the women brought out plates of food — rice croquettes stuffed with ground beef and almonds, and a kind of Iraqi pizza.
“Sit, eat!” Roy’s grandmother ordered us.
As it is for most refugees, finally arriving in a new country is a mixed bag.
“I’m happy and sad,” Roy’s mom said.
“Happy [for the] future of my children, but I’m sad [for] the future of my country. It’s bad, really bad.”
In the next few weeks, a local refugee resettlement agency will help the family get oriented and find an apartment. They’ll help get Roy’s sister enrolled in school, and help his father start looking for jobs.
For now, the family is relieved to be safe. And they credit Hall for that.
“I see Blake my angel,” Roy’s mom said in rough English.
“Really, really. The angel that God sent him to me,” she said.
Blake chuckled self-consciously from his place on the couch.
“Really, really, Blake,” she said earnestly.
“He’s like Roy. Because he loves Roy, I see Roy in him.”
The family’s first night in the U.S. wears on. In the morning, they’ll start the rest of their lives.
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