More than a million Iraqis have fled to Syria since the war began, but on my first night in Damascus a few weeks ago, I set out to find one man -- Omar, the man who'd helped save my life.
Omar is a 23-year-old Iraqi who was working as an interpreter with the U.S. Army when I was injured in Iraq a year and a half ago, and he was with me in the tank when our vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device.
The soldiers who were with us that day say if it wasn't for Omar, who administered my immediate first aid, I probably would not have survived. "It was Omar who said, 'No, no we can get him out of here,'" recalled Maj. Mike Jason.
A year and a half later, I finally had the chance to thank Omar in person. For the first time since the attack, I headed back to the Middle East with Doug Vogt and Magnus Macedo, the same team that was with me last January.
Dozens of IED Experiences Prepped Omar for the Attack
Omar was a teenager in military school when the war began, but he and his classmates were released early to join the Iraqi army. Fluent in English, he ended up finding work with the U.S. Army as a translator.
He had been working with them for three years when we first met in January 2006 while I was in Iraq to report on the hand over of power to the Iraqi troops. When our team made a last-minute decision to join an Iraqi patrol, an American officer sent Omar with us in case anything went wrong.
We were lucky to have him. In the aftermath of the explosion, Omar was the one to leap into action and bandage my wounds, while also talking to my crew to keep them calm. Having been through 36 previous IED attacks, he knew exactly what to do.
But soon after putting me on a medevac flight out of Iraq, Omar decided he had had enough. His family was receiving threats because of his work with the U.S. Army, and they had been chased from neighborhood to neighborhood. His brother was shot in the leg in an assassination attempt.
"I became like a curse on my family," said Omar. So he left his job with the U.S. Army and escaped to Holland with a fake visa, but when he tried to apply for refugee status, he was sent back to Iraq. "The police came and took me and put me on a plane," he said.
Dreams of Joining the U.S. Army
Now Omar splits his time between an apartment outside Damascus and a tent in a refugee camp on the Syrian border. His dream is to move to the United States and work for the U.S. Army, and the officers he worked with in Iraq are helping him apply for resettlement in the United States.
"He knows more about America than any Iraqi, and more about Iraq than any American," said Maj. Jason.
Major Jason, and a few other soldiers who worked with Omar, have reached out to their connections in Washington as well as to the Council on Foreign Relations in their efforts to help Omar.
I, too, have discussed Omar's case with the State Department. But before he could gain entry into this country, Omar would have to be interviewed and screened by the Department of Homeland Security, a step that hasn't happened yet.
Omar is one of more than 4 million Iraqis who have been displaced from their homes since the war began. Though the U.S. government has indicated it plans to accept roughly 2,000 Iraqi refugees this year, as of this report it had resettled only about 70 -- all of whom had applied for resettlement and were in the pipeline before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
U.S. officials have stated that they are paying special attention to cases like Omar's, where Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government are now in need of its help.
"Their lives are in great danger, and oftentimes they're in great danger because they've worked with Americans and helped Americans," said Bill Frelick, the refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch. "The U.S. has a particular responsibility for these people."
As for Omar, he has less than $2,000 left, and no real plan for the future. What will he do when the money runs out? He said, "I will probably have to go back to Baghdad and face it."