When he answered his phone in Baghdad, Kamal Murad, an interpreter for U.S. troops, smelled trouble.
“How was your day?” the voice asked Murad.
Iraqi insurgents got Murad’s number from the cell phone of an interpreter they had tortured and killed. “We know who you are,” the caller said. “You’re next.”
“I told them no, no, I’m not working. I didn’t tell them any truth about me. But they said, ’No, you’re lying.’ They had the details about my number, my home, everything.”
Murad and his family, now in Salem, no longer live in fear.
A phone call now could be from Jason Faler, an Arabic-speaking Oregon National Guard captain and Iraq vet who knew the right people and got Murad, who was his interpreter, Murad’s wife and three young children out in September.
Faler and Murad developed a deep bond in Iraq, one that continues.
For weeks the Murads lived in the Salem home of Faler’s parents. Iraqi interpreters who get to the United States stay at least temporarily with the soldiers they worked with or their families more often than not, Faler said.
Murad’s wife, Bushara, has developed a close friendship with Faler’s wife Rita, who is Lebanese-Egyptian.
Kamal Murad is among a small contingent of Iraqi interpreters who have been able to get the special visas required for them to move to the United States. They face a careful screening process requiring them to fill out bewildering forms in English and get the signature of an American general or admiral to vouch for them. Faler, a military intelligence officer, helped the Murads through the bureaucracy.
Except for a pot of thick Turkish coffee on the stove, there is nothing in the Murads’ apartment to suggest Iraq. Some donated VCR tapes for the children, ages 2 to 7, favor Walt Disney.
At the apartment, Murad reflects on the dangers he faced in Iraq and on his desperate efforts to get to America.
When Murad went on missions with the Americans he at first wore a mask to conceal his identity. “Then I stopped wearing the mask. I didn’t feel I was doing anything bad. I felt I was doing something good,” he said.
Murad remembers one interpreter who was discovered: “They used drills to make many holes in his body then they murdered him and tossed his body in the trash. He dreamed of coming to the United States.”
Murad decided it was time to leave Iraq. Faler made the necessary contacts for him. But it would be expensive. Most Iraqi interpreters spend all they have or can borrow to get to the U.S., Faler said, typically $10,000 to $18,000, depending on delays and other problems.
“I sold our home for a very cheap price,” Murad said. “I sold my furniture, everything. I got some help from my brother, a little bit of money, I borrowed some from my mom.”
He and his family got their visas at the U.S. Embassy in Syria, then flew to Jordan, and then to the United States.
Now that the Murads are in the U.S., they are living simple lives in an apartment with donated furniture. They get a lot of help from Faler.
Faler found Murad a job at a Chinese restaurant, but it pays just minimum wage and there are no benefits.
The Murads have learned the bus system. “Friends ride us around,” he said, when buses don’t suffice.
The two oldest children are in a public school for non-English speakers. For the first time in two years, Murad said, he can let them play outside. They bring home picture cards with English words to help their mother improve her very limited English.
Murad graduated from a Baghdad technical university with a civil engineering degree specializing in roads and bridges. Once he and his family are settled in, he hopes to go back to school for an engineering degree he can use here.
The Iraqi is not yet in touch with Oregon’s Arabic-speaking community, the legacy of years of mistrust and suspicion.
“I don’t know what’s inside people. I suspect people. I want to make a good background, a life here for my wife and kids. I don’t want to be in touch with anything suspect,” he said.
'We must show this message to Iraqis'
Instead, he cherishes the kindnesses he and his family receive from Faler and others in the community.
“People are very nice. We must show this message to Iraqis, it’s not just tanks and Humvees,” he said.
Murad is in e-mail contact with a brother in Iraq who interprets for the military police.
“He said that they are attacked by bombs or car bombs or suicide bombers,” but told me, ’We are still alive,”’ Murad said.
Faler is continuing his efforts to help Iraqi interpreters.
Last summer he formed the Checkpoint One Foundation to help more interpreters get here and to aid those who already have arrived. The foundation depends on donations and was formed because Faler believes people who risk their lives for the U.S. government should not be abandoned.
Faler says he appreciates the need for careful screening, which is designed to be sure who is coming to the United States, but says it should be faster. Two more interpreters, with whom Faler also worked, are waiting for their visas outside of Iraq. They are marked by insurgents and cannot return.
“We become very attached, very concerned for their safety,” said Faler, speaking of the close bonds between U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi interpreters. “We know the names of their children and their spouses. They know the names of ours. They tell us things about themselves they’ll never tell their neighbors.”