A few weeks ago, Yousra was a beloved swim instructor at her town's community pool near Seattle, teaching children how to float, dive and hold their breath underwater. What her students didn't know was that Yousra had been a championship swimmer in her native country of Iraq -- and that she had to leave her home two years ago because her job, working as a translator for the U.S. Army, had become too dangerous.
"A lady who was working with me was kidnapped, and she disappeared for a very long time," said Yousra, who began working with the U.S. Army after the war began in 2003. "They really hurt her. That really scared me."
Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, thousands of interpreters have served side by side with U.S. forces. To date, nearly 800 interpreters from both countries combined have been issued visas to move to the United States with their families.
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About 300 interpreters and translators have been murdered since 2003. And as of Sept. 21, a new military regulation requires many interpreters working in Baghdad to go into the field without their masks. The goal is to foster trust between the military and Iraqi civilians, but some interpreters worry that the rule exposes them to greater risk.
Murad, another translator for the U.S. military, was targeted by insurgents. "One of my colleagues got killed," said Murad, whose last name, like Yousra's, is not being used to guard his safety. "It's very scary, and nobody can defend you."
Thanks to some of the U.S. soldiers with whom they served, Yousra and Murad were able to get special immigrant visas, which are designed to help people who have risked their lives serving the U.S. government .
Yousra, her husband and their three young sons arrived in this country in July 2007. (Their oldest son, who remained in Iraq, is slated to arrive in the near future.)
Although she applied for dozens of jobs, she could not find steady work. Since arriving, her family has been living off its dwindling savings and on donations from a local church.
Yousra was surprised and disappointed. "I thought this program was well planned, and when we were going to come here, we were going to find jobs or probably work for the military from here, but it was all the other way around."
Translators Disappointed With U.S. Support
Faced with mounting bills and no clear prospects, Yousra believed she had one option -- to leave her family behind and return to Iraq to serve once again as a translator for the U.S. military. This time, however, she would be working with a private contracting firm, and making more than $100,000 a year.
Although the decision meant leaving behind her family and returning to the danger she worked so hard to escape, "this is my only choice," she told ABC News.
There's others like Yousra. "Every single interpreter that I have talked to who has made it here, they have contemplated or are contemplating returning to Iraq," said Army Capt. Jason Faler, founder of the Checkpoint One Foundation, which assists Iraqi translators who have come to the United States.
Murad, who was Faler's translator, is one of them.
Unable to find work, Murad is desperate not to seem like a burden on society but is frustrated with what the American government has offered him. "We want to start our life again here," he said. "If someone just hire[s] us, that mean[s] we can make money. We can spend our money. Now, we don't feel we are human."
Faler, who shares Murad's frustration at the lack of infrastructure, said, "Here they are, they're safe. Nobody's shooting at them anymore, no one's threatening to kidnap them. But now what?"
Yousra said her "sponsor tried to call one of the senators and they said, 'Well, she should be satisfied that she's here.' Well, what's the point of being here if they're just dumped here and no one is asking how they are doing, where they are living, what they are eating?"
The State Department is now offering assistance with basic living needs for up to eight months to translators who entered the United States after Dec. 27, 2007. But that assistance does not apply to more than 500 translators who arrived before that date.
And, so, despite the danger, the translators are going back, one by one. This month Yousra left her family and is now back in Iraq, serving alongside U.S. troops.
Murad will return to Iraq in the coming weeks. "I'm sure they are waiting to return back to kill me," Murad said. "But I don't care."
Until there is a better solution, Murad, Yousra and the others will take their chances in a war zone.