NEW YORK —Kirk Johnson is the founder of an organization that officially turns a year old on Friday, which is World Refugee Day.
Johnson went to work in Iraq as a young idealistic coordinator for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2005. During a break from Iraq, Johnson almost died from a post-traumatic stress disorder-related injury.
Though he thought his work for Iraq was done, he got a call from an Iraqi colleague who had received a severed dog’s head with a warning that he would be next.
After receiving the call, Johnson was spurred into action and began compiling a list of Iraqis who had been targeted and threatened because of their work with the United States and who were seeking resettlement here.
Within weeks the list had grown dramatically and began to receive attention from the media and Congress. The outspoken and energetic Johnson and volunteer attorneys compile extensive documents proving these Iraqis worked for American entities. This has helped expedite the process, and has saved lives.
In an interview, Johnson discussed the status of the List Project.
You have been referred to as the Oscar Schindler of the Iraqis. When you first heard that, what crossed your mind?
I always cringe when I hear this only because I don't feel like I've done that much. I just sort of barked about this issue, annoyed some people, and scratched the surface of what I think is a desperate situation. I don’t see this “Schindler” thing in lofty terms…
But he did save lives, and that is what you are trying to do, right?
Well, I came back from Iraq and had a PTSD “thing.” As I was recovering I was plagued with these thoughts of, “I’ve spent a year of my life trying to do something in a dangerous place, but I don’t think anything I have done in Iraq contributed positively to anything on the ground.” I had opposed the war but I had gone anyway to try to help. Many who went to do something in Iraq were defeated by the woeful lack of planning and the realities on the ground. So I occasionally pause and say, “Maybe this is something good I have finally done.”
An average of 12 new Iraqis are referred to the List each week. How many are on your list right now?
The 1,000th marker is very quickly approaching. There is an “intake” process involved –we find out how many family members there are, we provide legal assistance, and we check to see if they have an American supervisor. We ask any Iraqi who writes to me to provide contacts of who their (American) boss in Iraq is and we do it in the spirit of helping the government along, sort of trying to “boost” the process.
How many Iraqis has The List Project helped bring to the United States?
The last figure we have is 95, which includes the families of those who worked with American organizations. But we don't hear from them until they're, let’s say, in Iowa. The State Department and Homeland Security are the final arbiters. We exist as a pressure point. But they have to go through this labyrinth of interviews and the whole process.
(According to the Department of Homeland Security, a total of 3,559 Iraqi refugees had been resettled in the U.S. as of March of this year.)
Once Iraqi families get here, is it “happily ever after?”
No, and I'm wrestling with how to grow the project to address this. Most of them are thrilled to be here, but what I see regularly is: A family comes, it's the first time they've known peace, and from my own experience, PTSD wreaks havoc after you leave.
Iraqi refugees come with milk-and-honey ideas of what the U.S. will be like. In this context there is a great “coming down” when they realize they won't find a high-paying job immediately. There is a recalibration that happens that is not always that smooth.
Is it true that some recent refugees have even gone back to Iraq?
Some have signed up to go back to Iraq as interpreters...When they’re being offered $130,000 to do that, they go against all reason, but there is desperation to make ends meet. Titan L3 was doing a lot of recruiting — this is the main firm finding interpreters for our troops. So we're going to bring different NGO's (Non-Governmental Organizations) to help these highly educated refugees so they don't make “panicked” decisions.
How can people help through your organization?
There are a number of ways to help through the List project. We are trying to move beyond writing a letter to Congress. People can form chapters and the List project can connect them with an Iraqi family who is now in the U.S., and they can help them with specific things. On our website, for example, we have the List Kids, and it’s a list of items you can buy that goes directly to the children who have resettled here. We are also working on a campus component to organize college events. Churches and synagogues have been writing about how to get involved.
Also, if people are in management positions and want to help, we’ll plug them in to potentially hire and employ Iraqis. We don't want to dictate what are the best ways to help, but the best thing is just to connect. My parents have learned so much about Iraq and the Middle East just by meeting a family who has been spending time with them.
The List Project is officially a year old. What's your first-year “report card”?
I would say in terms of the project, I'm feeling pretty good, but in terms of the issue, I don't feel we could get higher than a C.
We've reached this sort of shrunken state and we've forgotten we are a superpower. For example, we’re letting Damascus dictate our abilities. The refugee process got frozen for seven months in Syria because Department of Homeland Security agents couldn’t get stamps in their passports. That makes the process laughable.
There has been a crippling myopia in the White House that doesn't allow them to process realities and occurrences and facts that happen, that conflict with the administration statement. All policy must conform to the surge being a success. So why bother with the refugee crisis? About 23 Iraqis have written to me in the past ten days, surge or no surge.
We estimate that we have lost at least 300 interpreters in the last couple of years not on my list. That's what keeps us up late at night. Fortunately the Iraqis’ survival skills help most of them eke it out.
The refugee crisis in Iraq is staggering. It’s 15 percent of the population. This is the equivalent of 50 million Americans being uprooted. Katrina doesn't even come close.
In February of 2008, President Bush signed the Defense Authorization Act. Has this improved the situation for Iraqis seeking resettlement?
I think maybe I'm naive in setting the bar this high, but I don't see why we can't follow the example of our past, as well as the example set by our coalition forces allies, in using our resources to conduct an airlift of these critically endangered Iraqis who have helped us. What we've done in the past, like Pacific Haven in ’96, when we airlifted like 8,000 Iraqis from the North, there is absolutely no reason that we can't repeat that operation. We can fly them to Guam, where there are Americans and they would be safe. That’s the way to do this. In April the U.K. started an airlift, and Denmark has done it too.
You have said that your work for Iraqi refugees started out as the equivalent of playing “air guitar” instead of real guitar, what do you mean by that?
I never had any desire or intention to be an advocate for refugees. And I don't have any dreams of being one for the rest of my life, either. I naively felt that my obligation to my friend was to write an Op-Ed to shine a little light on his plight. That was what, 17 months ago? I didn't know what I was doing, making the list, barking at the State Department and the Bush administration. But since I had nothing to lose, and these Iraqis have everything to lose, it seemed worth taking some risks. We have been constantly buoyed by the Americans who write to say they understand this moral and strategic imperative, and will work to fulfill it even if the White House is silent.