The Forgotten

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

After dropping out of contact for several months, Muhammad e-mailed from Baghdad last April:

I'm writing for you today asking your help (if possible if possible) to pick up me from the hell which is Iraq. Actually, I reached now the climax of the suffering here in Iraq.

I never met Muhammad face to face. But I have come to know him through telephone conversations and e-mails that stretch back to 2005. (Muhammed asked me not to identify him, his family, or the American news organization for which he worked.) A former colleague had put me in touch with him when I was trying to contact members of an Iraqi family about whom I was planning to write. Muhammad, despite not knowing who I was, and despite my pleas that he use the telephone for the search, insisted on going into the streets of Baghdad to find the family personally. That was two years ago; soon after, Muhammed's troubles began:

In 2005 robbers got my car while I was driving near my home and tried to kill me when they (6 people using two cars) put their pistols in my head and I said the (Shahada) Islamic words before the death, but they left me by the will of God.

The incident jolted Muhammed into action. He moved his wife and three children to Damascus, joining what was to become a mass exodus from Iraq. There are now more than 2.2 million Iraqi refugees -- the vast majority of them in Syria and Jordan -- along with another two million who are internally displaced in Iraq. On a typical day, thousands of families swarm the border checkpoints, hoping to escape the violence. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that 60,000 Iraqis flee each month.

At least 50,000 Iraqis (some estimates are double that number) have been employed by either the U.S. government or private American organizations, meaning that at least 250,000 family members (again, it could be double that number) have a connection with U.S. institutions, whether governmental, military, private, or NGO.

Muhammed, like many other Iraqis who had these jobs, became a long distance commuter, visiting his family every two months at most, then returning to Baghdad after a brief stay. This brought more problems:

I feel just like divorced man when he goes to see his children trying to do anything to make them happy and respond to all their requests because I'm staying with them just for ten days and that certainly will spoil them because now they are just like getting one side upbringing by the mother only.

Adding to the pressure, prices in Damascus have soared since the influx of Iraqis. Syria's deputy foreign minister says prices for food and basic goods have increased by 30% and rents by 150%. The government has restricted access to free health care. Because Iraqi refugees are not permitted to work in Syria, a key question becomes more oppressive by the day: what to do when the money runs out. For families like Muhammad's, the cost of living has temporarily replaced the fear of death as the central concern of daily life. Mohammed himself, however, was burdened with both concerns, since he continued to commute between Baghdad and Damascus. Then things changed again:

I got a report (from my neighborhood) saying that the Al-mahdi army (Muqtada's people -- the Shiite religious man) asked about me and they are looking for me now because both that I'm Sunni as well as they heard that I'm working within American media.

This news came from an acquaintance who himself had been hunted, kidnapped, and then released. Muhammad immediately stopped going home and began living at his employer's office. He also reduced the time he spent on the streets, and cut back on the visits he made to his parents, who were nearby. Still, his job -- and salary -- kept him from permanent flight. But then more bad news changed his mind. While visiting his family in Damascus, he got a frantic call from a teacher who worked at a Baghdad school where Muhammad took courses. The caller told him that some menacing men had come to the school repeatedly, looking for Muhammad. The teacher begged him to remain in Damascus. That's when Muhammad wrote to ask my help.

Like the vast majority of Iraqi exiles, Muhammad wants to go to the U.S. where, he hopes, his language skills would allow him to continue working at a news organization. (His spoken English is much better than his written English.) But U.S. refugee policy since the Iraq invasion in 2003, as well as the sheer number of refugees, makes success a remote possibility for any given applicant.

The U.S. government admitted one Iraqi refugee in April and one in May. Sixty-three were admitted in June. In 2007 so far, the total is 190, but even this number is misleading, since all but 17 of them were back-logged cases of Iraqis who had fled before the war began.

Last February, the Bush Administration promised to admit 7,000 refugees by the end of September. Given the rate at which Iraqis have actually been processed, U.S. officials are now conceding that no more than 2,000 will gain entry. Nonetheless, Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey told the Washington Post that the U.S. is "welcoming the persecuted and standing by our friends."

Critics of current policy -- Senators Edward Kennedy and Gordon Smith introduced a bi-partisan bill called the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act in June -- note that in the eight months immediately following the Vietnam war, the U.S. took in more than 131,000 South Vietnamese who had been involved in the American war effort. Gerald Ford, who was president at that time, subsequently said, "To do anything less would, in my opinion, only add moral shame to military humiliation."

The Bush Administration rejects the comparison. Sauerbrey, in her letter to the Washington Post, wrote, "Iraq is not Vietnam, and conditions today are different from those in 1975." She pointed out that the Iraq war is not over and that the post-September 11th world requires "rigorous security screening to ensure that anyone wishing to harm Americans is not admitted to the United States."

Human rights organizations point out that rigorous screening procedures are in place, as they should be, but those Iraqis at greatest risk are those who have been risking their lives all along - in behalf of the Americans. As Eleanor Acer of New York-based Human Rights First puts it: "Those who have worked for the U.S. military, the U.S. government and even the U.S. media have been the victims of threats, kidnappings, killings, and other brutal violence. The United States has a moral obligation to protect the people who are at risk because of their ties to this country."

Meanwhile, tens -- indeed hundreds -- of thousands of Iraqis in Damascus, Amman, and other Mideast cities sit and wait, unable to go forward, and afraid to turn back.