Retired Army Sgt. John McFarlane finally had the chance this week to welcome home one of his "soldiers," a translator named Omar who had served alongside him in 2006 with a military transition team in Iraq.
Though McFarlane reconnected with many of his military buddies in the past, this reunion felt particularly special. Last week Omar was an Iraqi refugee in Syria, and today he is safely in the United States on a special immigrant visa that allows him permanent residency.
"To me, Omar is family because he is one of my troops," said McFarlane, who is letting Omar stay in his Kentucky home. "I'm tickled to death."
McFarlane was not the only familiar face to greet Omar in the United States — ABC's Bob Woodruff, who first met Omar while embedded with McFarlane's unit in Iraq in January 2006, was also at the airport when Omar's flight from Jordan touched down Tuesday.
It was Omar who provided critical first aid to Woodruff when he was hit by an improvised explosive device. McFarlane, the first American soldier to reach the vehicle, says that if not for Omar's quick action that day, Woodruff likely would not have survived.
Last year, as Woodruff recovered from his injuries, McFarlane and the members of his team began to return home from their tours of deployment. Omar stayed in Iraq and continued to work with the military until his situation became too dangerous and he was forced to leave. He ended up in Syria where he lived as a refugee for months, dreaming of one day moving to the United States.
This week, his dream came true when he was granted a visa as part of the government's special immigration visa program for interpreters. "I am happy to be here. I am speechless," said Omar, on arriving in the United States for the first time.
The interpreter visa program was created by Congress as a way to help translators in both Iraq and Afghanistan whose lives are now in danger because of their work with the U.S. military. This year President Bush signed off on legislation allowing for up to 500 translators per year to be granted visas to the United States.
Though this news initially encouraged interpreters like Omar who needed to flee Iraq, the process was anything but easy. Omar's visa comes as the result of months of persistent efforts on the part of McFarlane and many others, including the Council on Foreign Relations, a Kentucky senator's office and ABC News, as well as the fact that, due to his relationship with Woodruff, he was often treated as a "high profile" case — a circumstance most interpreters do not have to their advantage.
For Omar, the process began in April when he e-mailed Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Omar had run across Beinart's contact information on a Web site that included information about the interpreter visa program. Beinart passed the e-mail to his researcher Will Evans, who started to look into the program to see where to begin.
"It came out of the blue," said Evans. "It was an entirely random event."
Meanwhile, Woodruff had made an unbelievable recovery and was able to reunite with McFarlane and two officers from their team — Maj. Bill Taylor and Maj. Mike Jason. When the soldiers related the story of how Omar had saved his life, Woodruff was eager to get in touch with the translator, but the soldiers had lost touch with Omar. Jason then spent months tapping all of his remaining contacts in Iraq until one day he found a current e-mail address for Omar, and they were finally able to reach him.
Jason also got in touch with Evans and the Council on Foreign Relations, and things began to fall into place. Brian Lowe, an intern at the foreign relations group, spent the next few months filing the paperwork for Omar's application, and then worked with a contact in the Department of Homeland Security to fill in the missing pieces. The application was finally deemed complete and approved at the end of June.
Evans and Lowe then explained to the soldiers that they had gotten as far as possible with what they could do. McFarlane wrote to Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning for help with the next step, and his letter reached Bunning's director of constituent services, Pamela Dimmerman. She contacted the National Visa Center and kept in close communication with its staff over the next two months to ensure that they continued to move Omar's case forward.
As a result of the efforts from Bunning's office, Omar was scheduled for an immigration interview in late August, and after navigating a few additional snags with his paperwork, he was allowed to book a flight to the United States. When Omar landed in Louisville, Ky., Dimmerman was able to give him a hug. "I felt like my child came home," she said, teary-eyed.
Omar is well aware that other translators have not been so fortunate. "I think they forget us," said one Iraqi translator nicknamed "Opie," now in hiding in Jordan. Opie's arms and legs are disfigured by the scars of a chemical bomb attack, and he lives in fear of being assassinated because he is seen as a traitor.
Yet he has no contact with the soldiers he served with, and no one to help him steer his application through the layers of bureaucracy that will face him, so Opie has little hope of gaining the kind of visa that Omar was granted. "It's not fair," he said. "I gave them my blood. I gave them my life."
While Omar and everyone who has worked with him is thrilled that he was granted a visa, some believe that the amount of effort it took will be impossible to achieve for the thousands of other refugees in the same situation.
"It's indicative of a larger problem that it took so many people and a couple of little miracles," said Lowe. "These are translators who are risking their lives to help the military. I understand there are bureaucratic challenges, but I wish there was a better way."
Jason is encouraged, however, by what they have been able to do for Omar. "It gives us hope that we can help these guys out," he said. "We get to come home and go about our lives, and these guys are still there. Maybe this will open up a dialogue and a changing of procedures to help these guys out."
As for Omar, he is excited to be in the United State, but his arrival is bittersweet. He left behind his family, his fiancee and a broken country that he hopes to be able to return to one day. "As soon as Iraq gets better again, then, of course, I'm going to head back to my country," he said.
For now, he is settling into life in Kentucky — he is looking for a job, applying for a green card and eating McFarlane's homemade waffles. McFarlane took Omar shopping in a mall for the first time this week, and they have plans to visit fairs, festivals and a high school football game.
"I feel so lucky," said Omar. "I am seeing all these new colors and new cars and new people and looking to the beginning of my new life. Anybody in my shoes would be so happy."