Between Iraq and a Hard Place

The aftermath of the war in Iraq created a unique refugee class: Iraqis whose work for the U.S. put their lives at risk. The List Project at Vanderbilt (TLP@VU) is providing legal assistance to affected families resettling in Middle Tennessee.
by Grace Renshaw
(l-r) Professor Mike Newton, Rachel Weisshaar '12, Rachel Gore '09 and Andrew Free '10 of TLP@VU

For more information on TLP@VU or to learn more about volunteer opportunities, contact

The List Project at Vanderbilt, or TLP@VU, is a new student organization Andrew Free founded after spending a rewarding summer as an intern with the pro bono department of Holland & Knight in 2008. Free had received a Vanderbilt Public Interest Stipend to intern with H&K's pro bono department, where he worked under attorney Christopher Nugent, head of a special H&K team that provides pro bono legal aid to Iraqi refugees in collaboration with The List Project (TLP).

Founded only three years ago, TLP's aim is to locate Iraqis who were forced to flee their country because their work for the U.S. government or U.S. contractors made them targets for insurgent violence. After locating and identifying these Iraqi refugees, TLP helps them resettle in the United States if they choose. Over the past two years, TLP has aided more than 3,000 Iraqis and helped hundreds resettle. The organization supports them at every stage, from ensuring safe passage to the U.S. to dealing with the daunting legal and cultural issues they face once they arrive.

TLP is the brainchild of Kirk Johnson, a former official of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) who spent 2005 working on reconstruction projects in Baghdad and Fallujah. Soon after Johnson left USAID and returned home in 2006, he heard from an Iraqi friend who had received a death threat simply because he worked for an American contractor. To his dismay, Johnson discovered that there was no program in place to protect or expedite the resettlement of Iraqis whose lives were in danger as a result of their work for the U.S. Iraqis who wanted to participate in the rebuilding of their country could not work for U.S. officials or contractors without facing the possibility of blackmail, kidnapping and threats of murder against them or their family members for "collaborating" with the occupiers' multinational force.

Hoping to draw attention to the plight of Iraqis facing such threats, Johnson wrote a powerful opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times. "President Bush and Congress bear a moral responsibility to those Iraqis whose lives are imperiled because of their willingness to help us," he wrote. "We need to move swiftly to expand the special immigrant status... to permit these Iraqis asylum in our country."

After the op-ed appeared, Johnson received emails from dozens of Iraqis in the same plight. Realizing that the problem his friend faced was far from unique, he made a list of the names of his former Iraqi colleagues and began to try to locate them. His findings were disheartening: More than two-thirds were living as undocumented refugees in Syria, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other countries, where they were unable to work and their prospects were dim. He delivered the list to the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, as well as to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, urging them to take immediate action to allow these refugees to enter the U.S.

The List Project had begun.

Johnson's list quickly grew to include thousands of Iraqis who had worked for American forces, many of whom needed help navigating the U.S. immigration system. He formed a partnership with three law firms—Holland & Knight, Mayer Brown, and Proskauer Rose—willing to provide pro bono services to each Iraqi on the list. As a Holland & Knight intern assigned to The List Project in 2008, Andrew Free not only found the work extremely rewarding, but was surprised to learn that hundreds of Iraqi refugees had been resettled in Middle Tennessee, most in Nashville, which boasts the largest population of Kurds in the North America. The Kurds had come to Nashville in four separate waves, starting with approximately 200 who fled here in 1976 after a failed revolution in Iraqi Kurdistan. Over the next three years, they were followed by hundreds of Iranian Kurds fleeing after a failed autonomy movement during the final years of the Shah's regime. Two more waves of Iraqi Kurds arrived during the early and mid-1990s, the first in the wake of Saddam Hussein's genocidal campaign in Kurdistan and the second in 1996-97 after Saddam threatened to kill Kurds working for organizations that had received financial support from Western agencies. In the last wave, almost 2,000 Kurds were forced to flee overnight to Turkey, where they were quickly relocated by U.S. Armed Forces to Guam before most were permanently resettled in Nashville.

When Free returned to Vanderbilt, he started TLP@VU with the aim of addressing the needs of newly arrived U.S.-affiliated Iraqis in Nashville. "It's not a large group, but these people need a tremendous amount of legal and other assistance," Free says. "As a start, we want to help them find decent jobs and safe housing. Because of their association with U.S. forces in Iraq, many of these families are ostracized and become easy targets for those who prey on newly arrived and marginalized immigrant populations. U.S.-affiliated Iraqis who aren't Kurdish have little in the way of existing support networks when they arrive."

Free's fledgling student organization got a boost from a new program at the law school designed to encourage graduates to pursue public interest projects. With help from the law school, TLP@VU hired 2009 graduate Rachel Gore during fall 2009 to provide pro bono legal services to several Iraqi families and help them gain access to social services. "Rachel has been a vital part of our direct involvement with Iraqi families," Free says. "Because she has a law degree, she garners instant respect and trust, and her work on the ground with other conflict survivors enabled her to contribute keen insights into our population's needs. She's been able to do policy and advocacy work in a way full-time students just can't. We've been successful because of her involvement and because of the support we received from Dean Guthrie and the university."

One of the first U.S.-affiliated Iraqi refugees to resettle in Nashville, Sabba [name has been changed] arrived in 2007 with a daunting problem: finding affordable health care for his severely handicapped son, who has cerebral palsy. U.S. law requires most immigrants to live and work in the U.S. for five years before they become eligible for federal public assistance, including health care. "This law doesn't apply to those who enter the country as refugees or asylees," Free says. "But these Iraqis aren't legally classified as refugees, so they are subject to this requirement. U.S.-affiliated Iraqis are granted a Special Immigrant Visa if they faithfully serve the U.S. for at least one year and can certify there is a direct threat against them." Free and other students in TLP@VU have been working with Sabba, federal agencies and local Congressional offices to address this issue. "This man helped us start rebuilding his country," Free says. "He was personally targeted in IED attacks as a result and had to leave Iraq. Now he's watching his son die in America. He's been paying out-of-pocket for treatment or forgoing care his son desparately needs because the family can't get the benefits they'd be entitled to as refugees. American men and women are alive thanks to his work, but here, his green card puts his disabled son at the back of the health care line."

In addition to providing legal assistance, TLP@VU volunteers teach new Iraqi-Americans important basics about the American legal system and life in Nashville. "I came to law school because I want to do public interest work," says first-year student Rachel Weisshaar. "When Andrew [Free] came to the International Law Society meeting to talk about The List Project, it sounded like a great opportunity to be part of a dynamic project that's just getting off the ground here. It's extremely local and personal, but also very large-scale and macro. And it's a good project for 1Ls because if you've grown up in the U.S., there are some things you already know, like what Section 8 housing is and what to do if you get a speeding ticket."

Weisshaar is working with Street Law, a Vanderbilt Legal Aid program that offers legal education to at-risk populations, to adapt its curriculum for use with the Iraqis. She and other volunteers are also developing new materials focused on housing, employment and education. "The Iraqis tend to be highly skilled and interested in continuing education and employment," she says. "Things would be difficult for them here anyway, but they've arrived during an economic recession, which has really made it hard. In Iraq, they were engineers; here, if they're lucky, they're taxi drivers."

Students in TLP@VU help refugees develop resumés, prepare for job interviews, deal with cultural differences, and with such basic necessities as getting a driver's license and enrolling children in school. "These things are daunting when you don't understand how the system works," Free says. TLP@VU also seeks donations of household goods, since refugees arrive with only the belongings they can fit in two suitcases.

Because many of the Iraqis are well-educated professionals—"We're talking about people who were overseeing multimillion dollar construction projects in Iraq," Free points out—a system designed to deal with refugees who have spent much of their lives in camps is a poor fit. "Putting these families into a resettlement program designed to deal with people who have no formal education, don't speak English, and have low career expectations is a recipe for frustration. Most U.S.-affiliated Iraqis speak fluent to adequate English. They yearn for the same standard of living they had as upper-middle-class professionals in Iraq. In fact, we've learned that cultural issues affect the types of jobs they can consider. If a man accepts a janitorial job—a normal entry-level job for immigrants—a potential suitor in Iraq may refuse to marry his sister because he holds a menial job."

Professor Mike Newton, who traveled frequently to Iraq as one of the legal advisors to the High Tribunal that presided over the trial of Saddam Hussein, is the organization's faculty advisor. Newton helped cement the relationship between Vanderbilt and TLP, and secured a number of legal internships for Vanderbilt students. He finds the issue compelling for personal reasons. "One of my translators was murdered on his doorstep," Newton says. "I believe we have a moral obligation to assist these people and their families."

TLP founder Kirk Johnson and Chris Nugent, who sits on the TLP board of directors, visited Vanderbilt in October to meet with TLP@VU members. After the pair spoke at the law school, they visited with Iraqi families living in Nashville and Smyrna, accompanied by student volunteers. "Over several cups of tea," Rachel Gore wrote in a blog entry describing the visits, "each family explained their fears about their time in Iraq, their struggles after coming to the U.S., and their joy at meeting TLP members. Several Iraqis asked questions about their lives here and how to continue moving forward in this country."

In a time of economic uncertainty, that is no small question. But with help from TLP@VU, U.S.-affiliated Iraqis are gaining a foothold in the Nashville community and in their new country.

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