This Is Why Refugees Flee

Banning Muslim immigration to the U.S. is unconscionable. In Iraq's case, it's also incoherent.

I used to joke about being the only woman living in an Iraqi frat house. When I worked for The Washington Post in Baghdad in 2007, our bureau employed roughly 20 people, all but three of them Iraqi natives. And by the fall of that year, almost all of them lived in our four-bedroom house—it was far too dangerous for Iraqis working for Americans to go home. My colleague Abu Saif taught me to play pool; our friend Salih preferred video games. Several of the men in the office had abandoned their own houses, shipped their families to Jordan or Lebanon, and continued reporting while awaiting the chance to leave for the U.S.

Most of my co-workers had not trained as journalists; most were professionals in other fields before the U.S. invaded their country in 2003. One had been an aircraft engineer, another a military officer. One had been responsible for translating the American movies beloved by Saddam Hussein into Arabic. Each of them lost their livelihood when the U.S. started a war. Each of them became invaluable to Americans' understanding of that war through their reporting and translation work. And under an executive order signed today by President Trump, thousands of people like them will be barred from entering the country for which they put their lives on the line.

The order immediately suspended entry into the U.S.—both immigrants and visitors—from Syria Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen for three months, and suspended all refugee visas for 4 months. After that, the total number of refugee visas allotted in 2017 will be cut from 110,000 to 50,000, and refugees will only be accepted from countries approved by the Secretary of Homeland Security, Secretary of State, and Director of National Intelligence, and new refugees from Syria will be barred from the country indefinitely. The overhauled admissions policy will also give priority to religious minorities, which would put Muslims last in line in each of the seven named nations (as well as the vast majority of Middle Eastern countries).


Thousands of people will be barred from entering the country for which they put their lives on the line.

A wholesale ban on refugees, even a temporary one, is a human rights travesty no matter the country. And the seven nations covered by Trump's executive order all are experiencing ongoing political crises (in Syria's case, a brutal civil war that has devolved into state-sanctioned genocide) that would qualify thousands of people for refugee visas under any other president. Yes, Islamic extremists are active in all seven countries—that's precisely why many citizens have been forced to flee.

Yet there's something particularly incoherent about blocking immigration from Iraq. Banning immigrants from majority-Muslim countries is primarily about stopping ISIS, the Sunni terrorist cell responsible for the 2015 Paris attack and the 2016 Nice truck assault. (On the campaign trail, Trump promised he would "bomb the shit out of" the group.) ISIS' top leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is an Iraqi citizen who was radicalized while being held in an American prison called Camp Bucca, which later became known as "Jihadi University" because so many prisoners there—many held for years without being charged—became terrorists. And ISIS itself is a rebranded version of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was created in 2004 to fight the American occupation. While the U.S. did not invent Islamic terrorism, one fact is indisputable: Had the U.S. not invaded Iraq in 2003, ISIS as such would not exist.

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Last month, the Obama administration announced that 75 percent of ISIS fighters had been killed in airstrikes, leaving fewer than 15,000 still working. That's probably an underestimate, and terrorists are a renewable resource, but whatever the actual number, it is a tiny fraction of the Iraqi population. As for the overwhelming majority, they are trying to save their own lives—from ISIS as well as from U.S. air strikes. Refusing to allow innocent people to flee life-threatening situations is always unconscionable, but doubly so when the danger is a direct result of American actions.

The system of admitting Iraqi refugees was already broken: In 2011, nearly 40,000 people applied for refugee status; fewer than 9,400 were admitted to the U.S., according to the State Department. The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, designed to expedite visas for Iraqis and Afghans who worked for the American military, has somehow performed even worse: As of 2015, more than 57,000 Iraqis had applied for SIVs; just under 1,200 were admitted, out of 2,500 visas allocated by Congress. In 2015, nine Iraqi refugees, some of whom had been waiting as long as six years for a verdict on their applications, sued then-Secretary of State John Kerry over the dangerous delays.

The overwhelming majority of Iraqis are trying to save their own lives.

It feels callous to the point of cruelty to describe people able to escape a war zone created by the U.S. as "lucky," but the reality is that getting out of Iraq has always required a huge stroke of luck. By that measure, the majority of my Iraqi colleagues won the lottery. Now they're living in D.C., in Arizona, in Oregon. Some are struggling to get by, others have found professional success. Mercifully, Trump hasn't proposed expelling them from the country yet, but a registry is almost certainly coming. Several now have kids and grandkids who are Americans by birth. Aren't they lucky.


Salih Saif Aldin had a reputation in the office for being grumpy, but he treated me like a beloved little sister. He was the one who escorted me to get a press pass my first day in Baghdad, then sat in the grass with me and gave me all his water when we had to wait two hours because the office was closed. He was the one who could persuade anyone to talk, who would always jump at the most dangerous assignments. He was singlehandedly responsible for several stories that exposed corruption or human rights abuses to the eyes of the world.

A week after I returned from Iraq in October of 2007, my cellphone rang on a Sunday afternoon. My friend Josh was calling from the Baghdad bureau. I could tell the moment he picked up that he was crying. Salih was dead.

Salih had been reporting in Sadiyah, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad, trying as always to get the truth. He was shot through the forehead from close range, executed because he was known to work for Americans. He was the 32-year-old father of a 6-year-old daughter; Fatima turns 16 this year.

Trump's executive order guarantees that more Iraqis will end up like Salih, that more people will die because they work for the U.S. government or a newspaper or an NGO. Or they'll die because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and they get hit by an American air strike. Or they'll die because ISIS, the group that grew out of American occupation, kills them as part of a war for which our country is morally responsible. Ever since I saw the news on Twitter about Trump's order, I haven't stopped thinking about Salih and the people who will die the way he did. I wish he was alive to tell the real story.

This story originally appeared on

* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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