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Gabriela Bulisova

Iraqi Refugees

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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.

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Gabriela Bulisova

Metro Collective Photographic Agency

22 thoughts on “gabriela bulisova – iraqi refugees”

  1. Congratulations to this great story. I feel these pictures make a difference.
    It brings light into areas I was not aware of before. That is the most important thing, I guess.
    Thank you for capturing and showing it.

  2. Love the reflective feel of these images…lots of reflections and shadows…seems to be pointing to the past and the future…a melding of the two…a wondering of what lies ahead. beautiful thought-provoking images.

  3. As Thomas points out, this is a facet not known, or at least not well know, of a story that usually is reported about in a very unilateral sense.. how the pictures are composed and framed suits the feeling very well. Thank you!

  4. While those who pay attention to the news have heard about this problem, at least briefly, in the past, Grabriela has brought it home in a way that I have not seen before. Powerful, lonely, evocative, thought-provoking essay.

  5. “To the underprivileged, home is represented, not by a house, but by a practice or set of practices. Everyone has his own. These practices, chosen and not imposed, offer in their repetition, transient as they may be in themselves, more permanence, more shelter than any lodging. Home is no longer a dwelling but the untold story of a life being lived. At its most brutal, home is no more than one’s name – whilst to most people one is nameless.”

    –john berger, ‘and our faces, my heart, brief as photos’

    powerful, beautifully aware, lyrically told…

  6. There are some really fine images here, but the repetition of the reflections is a bit too much for me. One image using this technique would have been enough in my opinion. Most of them are weak in comparison to the other strong images. For me it is like having more than one silhouette in an essay. Usually not a good idea.

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  8. I cannot help being more intereted in what the people say and the subject of refugess than the pictures, whih may be fine, though not of much interest to me (hopefully, it’s only me and it can be dismissed as a philistine opinion). I do not recall one having them in the midst of the people/society that they moved into.

    Frankly, my first impression is that except for a few photo/stories, there is way too much “look at what happened to poor me” whining, What is interesting, especially in view of the latest events in North Africa, is that finally in the last few years, people from stricken countries have started to refuse of being constantly referred as victims, and only 3rd word fodder, all in one, for for both blood-thirsty dictators on one side and on the other, bleeding heart (and whatnot) commiserating. I would applaud an essay that shows this insisting pride.

  9. this is really important subject matter.. sensitively photographed and, (more importantly), very well supplemented with text..

    i know several iraqi immigrants here in norway who fled following work with the US military.
    all supported the initial invasion and very quickly became disenchanted with it..

    one began to work translating with the US forces in fallujah along with 10 of his friends. he told me they were treated as “disposable”, and soon 8 of the 10 friends had been murdered.. he fled, following no offer of US protection, and spent a year traveling the extremely dangerous, mafia-run route to europe.. arriving in norway 4 years ago.
    he was disgusted with what the US did in fallujah.. his testimony is disturbing.

    another, with a similar experience in baghdad, saw his brother murdered and was himself shot in the back as he tried to escape. the US forces said they could not protect him, and bizarrely advised him to “hide” to save his life.. and so he also fled.

    there are more – all found themselves in a new, unfamiliar life away from friends and family. one told me he cried every day for months.
    as i understand it, towards the end of the US involvement there was much more help provided to those that worked with the US forces.. yet those i have met – who had to travel independently to europe – were utterly neglected and left to be killed.

    in any case – thanks for doing this work..

  10. Gabriela, you offer a powerful witness to a story that is so often untold. Not just about the refugees from Iraq, but millions of women, men and children from across the globe. I especially appreciate your including narratives as well as images. And your sensitive handling of their need to be unrecognizable is both creative and respectful.

    I have had many years experience working with and getting to know refugees, first in the 1990s at a global refugee shelter here in Detroit and more recently at a public K-5 school in East Dearborn, Michigan where the vast majority of residents are 1st and 2nd generation immigrants from Middle Eastern countries.

    In many ways the children fare better than their parents and grandparents. They pick up English and adapt to American ways/dress/activities quickly. At the same time their behavior can be erratic, aggressive and hard to control. Others show signs of depression and deal with fears. Often the fears are legitimate because Homeland Security and ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) targets Middle Eastern, especially Muslim, immigrants. Most of our kids had first or second hand experience of seeing a father, grandfather or uncle taken away in handcuffs for no known reason. Many were jailed and/or deported.

    Since September 11, 2001, just being a Muslim of Arab descent in the U.S. has put you at risk of being considered a terriorist, no matter how many years you’ve lived here or what your resident status might be. This makes it hard to get a job, a loan or make friends. That is why so many Iraqi refugees try to settle in a city or town where they are not the only people from their country. They may feel more at home where they can speak their native language, eat and buy foods they’re used to, and see evidence of their home culture around them. But that tendency to band together only makes it harder to assimilate and to find employment.

    Gabriela, I know you understand all this. Your essay shows the depth of your understanding. And I thank you in the name of all my friends who feel invisible and alien in their new setting. Please keep telling their stories. They deserve to be seen and heard.

  11. Thank you all for taking the time to view the essay, thank you for sharing your impressions, your thoughts – I am grateful for your comments and I take them all to heart.

    Working on this story introduced me to many grand, inspiring and highly dedicated people – people who devoted their lives to helping Iraqi refugees affiliated with the United States. (The List Project was of invaluable assistance.) The Iraqis I photographed were confronted by an impossible dilemma: they either had to flee their homes and leave all their loved ones behind, or face a certain death. The reason being, they helped the United States either by becoming translators, interpreters or by offering other expertise. Their motivations for the decision to work with the US varied. Some were more ideological – they wanted to help with bringing just and democratic regime to Iraq. Some were more pragmatic – they needed jobs, they needed to feed their families. Their decisions threatened the lives and safety of themselves and their families.

    After a prolonged waiting period and many (often dangerous) obstacles, they finally made it to the U.S. Once here, they did not ask for much, just a bit of a help to reciprocate what they had done for our nation. Instead of finding a new home, they were largely forgotten and found themselves in a form of exile.

    Those people are the brains, the talent, and the future leadership of Iraq – except that they cannot go back! They are not lazy, they want to work, and they want to share their knowledge and talents. I did not want to portray them as victims. I wanted to shine some light onto the extreme disappointment and discouragement they encountered after arriving here.

    Every single one of the Iraqis I met and interviewed and photographed had great aspirations, great strength and determination to succeed in a new and entirely foreign country. They did not want welfare or any special treatment, but they encountered silence and hardship and minimal support.

    Both Iraq and the United States are the losers in this story – these refugees have so much to contribute to both societies and cultures. It is a shame and a tragedy that they are not able to do so.

    Again, thank you to Burn Magazine and all of you for sharing your thoughts with me. I am grateful to you for helping to shed light on this important topic.

  12. Gabriela,
    Your essay left a deep mark in my soul. I searched for more of your work and it is simply astounding. Each and every single of your photographs tells a remarkable story. I admire your artistic eye, photo-journalistic craft, and above all bravery and passion with which you make these stories known to the rest of the world.

    Thank you!

    Prajem Vam vsetko dobre, drzim palce a tesim sa na Vase dalsie projekty.

  13. Pingback: The List Project February e-brief « The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies | thelistproject.org

  14. Richard, ake mile prekvapenie! Som Vam velmi vdacna za odkaz, dojali ste ma Vasimi slovami. Dakujem, ze ste stravili cas a pozreli si moje fotografie.

    Dovolte mi, tiez Vam zapriat vsetko dobre. S peknym pozdravom,

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