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Johnson's USAID colleagues in 2005

On the list

An excerpt from To Be a Friend Is Fatal by Kirk W. Johnson, AB’02

Kirk Johnson, AB’02, was studying in Cairo on a Fulbright grant when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Although deeply opposed to the war, Johnson decided to join the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to help with reconstruction.

Johnson arrived in the Green Zone, the walled American compound in Baghdad, in December 2004. His idealism quickly crumbled. He discovered he was the only American USAID employee who spoke Arabic. The Iraqi employees—who risked their lives to work for the occupying American forces—were “clearly expendible,” Johnson says. Americans were required to wear body armor; Iraqis were not issued body armor. Even the names of Iraqi employees appeared irrelevant; during the agency’s orientation, Johnson and the other Americans were told, “Just call everyone Ahmed or Mohammad.”

At lunch, Johnson drew stares when he sat at a table with Iraqis, hoping to improve his Arabic slang. He stopped wearing body armor, in solidarity with his Iraqi colleagues; after being reprimanded, he compromised by wearing it without the plates.

On leave not quite a year later, Johnson fell from a window during a PTSD-related fugue state and was unable to return to Iraq. During his protracted convalescence in the United States, the risk for Iraqi employees grew. One day he received an e-mail from a former colleague, Yaghdan, asking for help.

Yaghdan had been recognized while leaving the Green Zone—Iraqi employees all had to live in the Red Zone, the rest of Baghdad—and days later discovered the severed head of a dog in his yard. Slipped under the door was a note threatening that he and his wife Haifa would be next.

Johnson, who had worked in public affairs at USAID, wrote about Yaghdan in a 2006 op-ed, “Safeguarding Our Allies,” for the Los Angeles Times. He hoped to bring attention to the issue so a refugee organization or someone in government would help these Iraqis get asylum. But no help was forthcoming. Instead Johnson was inundated by e-mails from other Iraqi employees in similarly grim circumstances. Some had already fled Iraq; others remained in hiding.

By early 2007 he had published another article in the Washington Post Magazine and met with the US State Department’s Refugee Bureau and USAID, with little success. Unemployed, uninsured, sleeping on a mattress in his aunt’s basement in Boston, Johnson struggled to figure out how to help his ever-growing list of Iraqi refugees—or if he too should just walk away.

—Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93


The list project

I had a crippling pain in my head that I suspected was a migraine. I fell asleep each night with my laptop open next to me, the screen a jumble of half-written e-mails. I had no health insurance, and the headache was getting worse; any time I glanced to the left or right, a jolt of pain burrowed into my brain.

I was worried that whatever caused my accident was surfacing again, that something had given way in my brain. I walked over to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and sat down in the emergency room. I filled out an application form for MassHealth, Massachusetts’s health care for low-income residents, sheepishly entering “0” for annual income. I stared at the check boxes on the paper, an impromptu evaluation of my life. Twenty-six. Broke. Uninsured. No job prospects. Sleeping fitfully in an unfinished basement. My dating life was still in a yearlong slumber, as I spent most nights entering names of Iraqi refugees into Excel.

After a CT scan, an IV dripped heavenly morphine into my forearm, relieving me of the headache for the first time in weeks.

The attending ER doctor came in with my CT scan results and asked in an excited tone, “So what happened to you, Mr. Johnson?”

I smiled, and explained my accident.

“Are you a little stressed right now?” he asked.

“Yeah. I guess I am.”

“What do you do?”

What did I do?

“It’s kinda hard to explain. I’ve got a list of refugees …”

The morphine was making me drowsy, but I was aware of how incoherent I was sounding.

“OK, well we’re going to keep you in here for another couple hours to rest and then send you home with some medicine to help you out. Try to control your stress levels, though, OK? We don’t want to see you back in here again with the same problem.”

That afternoon, I checked out with an acute tension headache and walked from the hospital into downtown Brighton. I sat at a café, charged a two-dollar cup of tea to my credit card, and stared distractedly into the glass. More than 300 Iraqis, widows and fathers, infants and elderly, were depending on me. My thoughts, once again, seesawed toward quitting. For my own sanity, I told myself, I should just write to everyone to announce that I’d run out of money and energy and could no longer help.


Iraq map

While I was in the hospital, another 15 e-mails had arrived. It seemed as though many had only heard my name over the phone from other Iraqis, addressing me as “Mr. Kirk” and referencing the friend who had referred them.

I found an e-mail from someone at the State Department requesting a call. The painkiller administered by the hospital was still working its way through me, but I dialed and stared out the window as the bureaucrat complained about a quote of mine from a recent article. Someone across the street was stapling a sheet of paper to a telephone pole. Intrigued, I wandered over, half listening to the USGovernmentspeak tumbling into my right ear—“…will require interagency resources that may or may not be available…”—and found a picture of a black and white cat under the heading “Lost.” A $50 reward was posted. My eyes bulged. I set out in search of the cat and then tuned back into the call. “…If they don’t answer their phone, you know, we can’t really help them.”

“I don’t understand; have you tried calling them?” I snapped. “They all tell me they’re desperate to hear from you.”

“I can’t speak about the particulars of any case, as you know, but I know that sometimes refugees don’t answer the phone.”

“OK. Well, I’ll make sure they pick up the call.”

I wandered up a steep side street in Brighton as we talked, peering into front yards and around trash cans.

“You know, there are some of us here who think you’re not being entirely fair about what State can and can’t do in this situation.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, my voice slightly winded from the uphill climb.

She was growing bolder: “I don’t think you realize that we have had to rent office space in the region! We’ve had to fill those offices with staffers and get all kinds of equipment!”

At this, I paused in my search for the cat.

“OK, so what am I supposed to say to that? Do you want me to tell these Iraqis to stop being so impatient because the State Department needs to rent office space and buy printer toner?”

I felt a twinge of guilt. This was not a political appointee capable of steering policy but a career foreign service officer doing some time in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. But she had been the one to start this debate, and she parried: “We are not the only actor in the resettlement process! The Department of Homeland Security is also responsible! So is UNHCR! So is the International Organization for Migration!”

“But I don’t understand. Is this a budgetary and logistics problem for State? Or is the problem at DHS? Explain it to me so that I’m not being unfair.”

She reined herself back in, and the portcullis of USGspeak dropped on the conversation.

“We have committed to doing what we can, as one actor in a multiactor refugee resettlement program, to help the Iraqis on your list.”

As the conversation ended, I realized I was a 30-minute walk from home and decided that the cat couldn’t have strayed so far. I made my way back and transcribed as much of the conversation as I could before deciding to heed the ER doctor’s advice and take the rest of the day off.


The death threat Yaghdan received

I needed help. I called several of the established refugee advocacy organizations and asked if they would take over my list but was politely rebuffed. Even though I depended heavily on their expertise and reports from the field, I was soon disabused of the notion that I could simply dump my list on anther refugee nonprofit. Some organizations receive funds to help refugees in the field; others work to help refugees who have been resettled in the United States. But I didn’t need an organization to pass out short-term relief to those on my list in Syria and Jordan. I didn’t need a stateside-focused organization, because nobody on my list had made it to America yet. I needed to find a group that acted as the bridge, to shepherd a refugee through the vast and dark space of the US Refugee Admissions Program.

So when Sharon Waxman and Janice Kaguyutan, senior advisers to Senator Edward Kennedy, suggested that I get in touch with an attorney friend of theirs who had worked on Iraqi asylum cases, I leaped at the idea.

Chris Nugent, at the law firm of Holland and Knight, was clearly in a trench of his own. Over the course of a ten-minute call, paralegals and attorneys kept walking into his office to ask questions, his keyboard never seemed to stop clacking, and an unanswered cell phone rang persistently. He had read George Packer’s piece, “Betrayed: The Iraqis Who Trusted America the Most” in the New Yorker. He knew about my list, he said, before walking me through a number of Iraqi asylum cases he had successfully represented. Chris had a stellar foundation in asylum and immigration law and knew far more than most people in DC about what was happening in Iraq, as a result of interacting with his clients.

Before we hung up, I asked him if I could call him occasionally for advice. Soon I was peppering him with several calls a day. What would happen if Yaghdan and Haifa were deported back to Iraq? If we could somehow get them into Europe, would that speed the process along? Were there any laws against wiring money to him in Syria? Chris started to help Yaghdan and other colleagues of mine, giving concrete guidance about the refugee resettlement process. There was never any discussion of payment.


On Valentine’s Day 2007, a former Iraqi colleague of mine was murdered. His name was Nouri, and he had helped to maintain the vehicles in the motor pool that shuttled Americans to and from meetings in the Green Zone. One day, when he reached into his pocket to pay for a haircut, he inadvertently dropped his USAID badge on the floor. He was assassinated within two days. USAID management issued a condolence note and took up a small collection for Nouri’s wife; Iraqi staffers were demoralized to find out that the Valentine’s Day bash scheduled for that night would go on.

A week after Nouri’s assassination, I received a frantic phone call from Tona and Amina, two former colleagues from USAID who had been photographed by a man in an Iraqi police uniform as they walked out of the Green Zone. Since then, Tona had claimed asylum while on a skills-training course in Washington administered by USAID in late 2006. Amina, who had just arrived on a similar course, was desperate to do the same.

By this point, several Iraqis working for the State Department and USAID had defected during these training missions. The agency was embarrassed by the defections, since the US Citizenship and Immigration Services would now need to adjudicate whether its Iraqi employees had knowingly intended to claim asylum on a short-term visitor’s visa, thus committing visa fraud.

I had no idea that Amina was coming to the United States. In a quivering voice, she told me about the man with the gun at the Qadisiyya checkpoint who had been imprisoned after Amina had alerted a nearby American soldier. Her family had called her during her training in Washington to tell her that the gunman had just been released from detention. They told her not to come home.

“I don’t know what to do. I promised USAID that I wouldn’t stay here, but I’m scared. They will be so angry with me if I stay. And I don’t know if—”

When I realized this young woman was still putting the wishes of a bureaucracy before her own safety, I cut her off midsentence and told her to forget about USAID. I walked her through the basic process of claiming asylum and connected her with Chris Nugent that same night. She went to the law firm of Holland and Knight the following morning, where Chris began to draft her application for asylum.

When she wrote to her boss at USAID to inform her about the new threat and submit a resignation letter, the executive officer back in Baghdad was furious. Amina received a scathing reply, blaming her for the negative impact her decision would have on the rest of the foreign service nationals—the Iraqis who worked for the agency.

From: ________ (IRAQ/EXO) [mailto:*****@usaid.gov]
Sent: Tuesday, February 27, 2007 1:33 AM
To: Amina
Subject: RE: Resignation

Amina, given the talk I had with you last Tuesday night, I am surprised and disappointed. I thought I had made it very clear that we were placing enormous faith in you by sending you to the US and that if you failed to return it would have serious repercussions on the rest of the FSN staff.

I can only hope that you do not intend to remain illegally in the US. You should know that if you do and are caught you will be deported back to Iraq as an illegal alien and turned over to the authorities.

I wish you no ill but can not condone your deceit. May God protect you!

Amina called me within minutes of receiving the e-mail, past one in the morning. She was in hysterics, terrified that police would show up at her door to deport her back to Iraq. The executive officer’s reference to handing her over to the authorities suggested the new Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which had already earned a heinous reputation for torture rooms.

I told her to store my number in her quick dial and that she should call any time she was feeling scared. I was getting used to making promises I wasn’t sure I could keep, but I knew enough about asylum law to be confident that she would succeed in her application. I adopted a daily routine of checking in with her, trying to buoy her spirits.

Once Chris had filed her asylum petition, Amina’s fears of being deported in the middle of the night subsided, leaving her with the more profound realization that she had just filed paperwork that would sever her from her homeland.


A plan was emerging from my calls with Chris. I had spent so much time looking for a refugee organization to take over my list; it had never occurred to me that a law firm might help. If I could somehow find funding to defray the costs of a paralegal, Chris was optimistic that Holland and Knight would take on my list as a formal pro bono initiative. He could then train other attorneys at the firm, allowing even more Iraqis on the list to benefit from direct legal counsel. I was soon introduced to another gifted attorney named Eric Blinderman, who had worked with the Justice Department in Iraq on the trial of Saddam Hussein. Since his return to work as a litigation lawyer with the firm Proskauer Rose, he had tenaciously orchestrated the resettlement of several former Iraqi colleagues to America. He thought that Proskauer Rose might also commit to the project.

I was at another crossroads—my biggest since drafting the Los Angeles Times op-ed that had set everything in motion six months earlier. I’d received an embarrassing number of rejection letters from law schools but had been offered a spot at the University of Michigan.

Still, I felt the tug to finish what I had started. If I quit, I was certain that Yaghdan wouldn’t make it to the United States. What would have been the point of all this work if I bailed on him now?

I also had a pair of blue-chip law firms offering to help. Why couldn’t I just create my own organization to do what the others couldn’t?

With little sense of what I was doing, I drafted a grant application and sent it off to the Tides Foundation in California. Within a few days, I was on the phone with its founder, Drummond Pike, who listened patiently as I laid out my plan to work with the lawyers. I asked him for help.

A few weeks later, I got it. Drummond called to inform me that I would receive $175,000 from the foundation. This was on top of an additional pledge of $125,000 from an anonymous donor. I had never worked in the nonprofit world, but I knew a groundswell when I felt it.

I called the University of Michigan and deferred my spot in the law school for one year.

I then called the State Department to inform it that I was mobilizing law firms to help the Iraqis on my list. The official on the other end of the line paused and said, “Kirk, this is over the top. Refugees don’t need lawyers.”

On June 20, 2007, World Refugee Day, the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies was launched. Nearly 100 attorneys gathered to receive training on handling Iraqi refugee cases in a constellation of conference rooms in the Washington office of Holland and Knight. In a gesture of cooperation, I invited officials from the Departments of State and Homeland Security to make a presentation to the group. In my first step as director, I hired Tona and Amina to help manage the burgeoning caseload.


Excerpted and adapted with permission from To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind (Scribner, 2013). Read a Q&A with Kirk W. Johnson, AB’02.

Left: Johnson snapped this photo of his USAID colleagues in January 2005. The faces of Iraqis who later became refugees have been obscured. (Author’s collection)

Below, map: Originally posted to Baghdad, Johnson felt frustrated that he was not directly involved in the reconstruction efforts. After a few months he requested and received a transfer to Fallujah, which had been largely destroyed during the fight to contain the Iraq insurgency. (Map by Tom Tian, AB’10)

Below, letter: The death threat Yaghdan received reads in part, “We will cut off your heads and throw them in the trash.” (Author’s collection)