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The Option of Last Resort: Iraqi Refugees in the United States
One of the least reported stories of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is the dispersal of close to 5 million Iraqis displaced internally or forced to flee across the country’s borders. This exile is one of the greatest refugee crises in modern history—the statistical equivalent of nearly 50 million Americans leaving the United States. These masses of people displaced by the war in Iraq have become invisible and insignificant, overshadowed by other war-related events. Many of the displaced were the brains, the talent, the pride and the future of Iraq. Many of them, traumatized by unforgettable violence, will never return home.
In 2007 and 2008, I traveled to Syria to photograph Iraqi refugees living in Damascus. I found them in dire economic and emotional straits—often scarred, desperate and disillusioned. Uprooted from their homes and families with no future and no hope for return, they are the lesser seen, lesser-known consequences of the war. I wanted to tell their stories. I also 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 they were having experiences and feelings both similar to and different from those of Iraqi refugees who had remained in the Middle East.
Some of the most recent Iraqi refugees in America had signed up to serve 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 the safety of their families to help 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” that transcended sect or tribe, and they were targeted in assassination campaigns that drove many of them either into hiding or out of the country.
For people who fear for their life 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 to the United States and are living in Washington, D.C. or other American cities. In some respects, these immigrants might be considered lucky, since they made it safely out of Iraq where their lives were in immediate danger. Thousands of others are still in Iraq or neighboring countries. In fiscal years 2007 and 2008, the 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 risked their lives for; many are unemployed and 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 the safety 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 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.” Yet today, a new challenge is emerging as the United States cuts back its military presence in Iraq, and takes with it the ability to protect the Iraqis it employs.
Gabriela Bulisova is a documentary photographer from the former Czechoslovakia, based in Washington, D.C. She carries her camera to marginalized communities in places such as Azerbaijan, Chernobyl, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and the Unites States. By bringing the faces of the forgotten to light and giving voice to those who have been silenced, she hopes to capture people through the lens of an advocate, rather than a dispassionate observer.
Bulisova has received numerous recognitions and awards including the Open Society Institute’s Documentary Project: Moving Walls 18, the Aperture Portfolio Review Top Tier Portfolios of Merit, the CANON “Explorer of Light” award, a CEC ArtsLink Projects grant, the Corcoran School of Art and Design Faculty Grant Award, a PDN Annual Photography Competition (Student Category), and a Puffin Foundation Grant. Bulisova was a participant at the Eddie Adams Workshop for emerging photographers and a graduate fellow at the National Graduate Photography Institute, Columbia University.
Bulisova received her Master of Fine Arts in Photography and Digital Imaging in 2005 from Maryland Institute College of Art/MICA in Baltimore. She is currently an adjunct professor of photography and photojournalism at MICA and at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, Washington, D.C. Bulisova is a member of the Metro Collective Photographic Agency and the Women Photojournalists of Washington.