Honoring Those Who Have Helped Our Own

05/26/2015 01:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2016

Yesterday was Memorial Day. To me, Memorial Day is one of the most important days of the year; it is a time to celebrate our veterans with parades and lay wreaths at the graves of those American soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. We are accustomed to honoring American servicemen and servicewomen, but it is important to recognize that there are non-Americans to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. Specifically, we should honor the Iraqi and Syrian nationals who have risked their lives helping American troops in the Middle East.

Following more than a decade of U.S. military and advisory involvement in the Middle East, American servicemen and servicewomen have received assistance from thousands of moderate Iraqis and Syrians. According to Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) founder Michael Breen, "At great personal risk, [moderate Iraqis and Syrians] bridged the language gap, guided soldiers and marines through unfamiliar streets, served as cultural advisers and made crucial introductions." These Iraqis and Syrians saved American lives, and they deserve our gratitude for their service.

In the past few years, the state of the Middle East has taken a major turn for the worse. Between a three-year Syrian Civil War and the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Syrians and Iraqis are in grave danger. Who is targeted first? Moderates, and especially those heroes who have helped American forces.

To learn more about the plight of Iraqi and Syrian refugees, check out political satirist John Oliver's report on his HBO show "Last Week Tonight."

These Iraqis and Syrians aided our Americans when we needed it most; we owe it to them to return the favor. Thankfully, both Republicans and Democrats agree. With support from the countless servicemen, servicewomen, veterans, and aid workers helped by Iraqi and Syrian moderates, Congress has passed several laws that allow for the safe immigration of U.S.-affiliated Iraqi and Syrian moderates to the United States.

So, what's the problem? In a word: bureaucracy. Thousands of American visas have been authorized for Middle Eastern immigrants, but comparatively few have been assigned or utilized. This is not due to lack of interest -- in fact, thousands of refugees are waiting for American visas. However, the process of applying for an American visa is complicated, and refugees desperately need legal assistance to help them navigate the process. Without legal assistance, thousands wait in bureaucratic limbo for their immigration applications to be approved, even as extremist groups threaten their lives and their families. To be clear, this is not just an inconvenience; it is a matter of life or death. The longer Iraqi and Syrian refugees have to wait in their home countries, the more likely they and their families are to be murdered by groups like ISIS.

Thankfully, there are heroes at home who volunteer to help our heroes abroad. Law students, lawyers and other volunteers provide pro-bono services to bring Iraqi and Syrian refugees to the safety of the United States.

Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) is a non-profit organization that connects Middle Eastern refugees with American law students and lawyers to lubricate the process of applying for American visas. Dedicated, talented law students from the nation's top law schools (including Penn Law) provide invaluable legal and case management services to moderate Syrians and Iraqis who are just trying to live in peace.

IRAP is always in need of funds to help Iraqi and Syrian refugees. For example, this year, Penn Law's chapter of IRAP traveled to Beirut, Lebanon to meet with and assist potential visa-seekers in the Middle East. The Lebanon trip connected Penn Law students with several Iraqi and Syrian refugees. But the Penn Law IRAP trip cost over $14,000.

This Memorial Day, consider making a small donation to support the Iraqi Refugee Assistant Project so that IRAP volunteers can save our heroes abroad. For so many of these Iraqi and Syrian refugees, your donation could literally mean the difference between life and death for them and their families.

Thank you, everyone, for honoring our veterans and those men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice. I hope you will also keep in your thoughts and prayers the Iraqi and Syrian refugees who have helped our servicemen and servicewomen.