Leader Spotlight: Walaa Ali
Our Leader Spotlights offer a glimpse into our diverse leadership: veterans and former interpreters and translators who are continuing to serve in creative ways. Today, we profiled Walaa Ali, a former program manager and interpreter with American NGOs in Iraq.
Tell me about your service with the U.S. military.
My name is Walaa Ali and I am originally from Baghdad. As a program manager and interpreter with American NGOs in Iraq, I worked with Provincial Reconstruction Teams [PRTs] who assisted Iraq’s transition to self-reliance through local projects designed to promote reconciliation, build the capacity of Iraqi government officials, and support business development. Our work was mainly in central and southern Iraq in various cities, districts, neighborhoods, and villages.
We facilitated discussion and problem solving between local councils, tribal leaders, religious leaders, political officials, and the US military to plan and implement successful projects focused on conflict resolution in areas where violent instances were common. For example, finding ways to mitigate tribal conflicts caused by lack of water and resources by building generators and wells was one way that we promoted stability within the country.
Why did you sign up to help the Americans? What was that experience like for you?
Thousands of Iraqis agreed to work with Americans after 2003; I was only one of these. We risked our lives, and those of our family members, working to establish a new country based on freedom and democracy. Often we faced reprisal from insurgents who considered us traitors. Even the short journey to work each day became dangerous and complicated. To stay safe, we hid ourselves by wearing Niqab, showing only our eyes, and changing our transportation routes to work every day.
I had such respect for the Americans who were risking their lives so my fellow Iraqis could survive and thrive. The respect was mutual; I felt that my contribution and support were valued and respected. Working with the U.S. government was a rewarding experience. I gained professional skills, an understanding of other cultures, and friendships with many Americans.
Tell me about your journey to the United States.
My journey here has been long and challenging, so naturally it has had a significant impact on my views of loyalty and service to others.
My immigration story really begins in 2006, when I began working as a program manager for an American international NGO. Both 2006 and 2007 were some of the most violent yeas in Iraq. Many Iraqis were being killed by terrorists because they thought of us as traitors. My family and I were living in a very hot area of the Iraqi capital known as the Dura District. During these years, I witnessed many horrific scenes—terrorist groups shooting civilians and bodies being burned or eaten by dogs.
In July of 2007, our lives changed dramatically when armed men banged on our front door and stormed into our house. They were screaming and calling us traitors for supporting the Americans. They beat us and ordered us to leave the house that night. They threatened us, saying that they would behead us and put our heads on our car roof if we did not do as they said.
We fled that night and stayed with a relative. The next day we received a call from a neighbor informing us that our house had been burned by the terrorist group. My family and I moved into a small house inside the American compound, where we lived for the next three years. During this time, I joined another American NGO as a program manager.
In 2008, my family and I applied to the International Refugee Assistance Program. There was no timeline for when, or even if, we would be resettled by this program. We simply waited. The next year I joined United States Agency for International Development, USAID, as a performance management and administrative specialist. My new position brought additional challenges because my work now took place inside the International Zone. This area was targeted by terrorist groups due to the heavy American presence, including the U.S. embassy. A wrong step, too long spent near the checkpoint, or too predictable of a routine was an invitation to be shot.
As a USAID employee, I was eligible to apply to the SIV program, which I did. In 2012, I started to receive horrifying calls and messages, threatening my life and those of my family. In response to the threats, I decided to move to the northern region of the country. I was thankful that the USAID mission director agreed to give me a letter facilitating the move. I was able to find a house and settle my family in our new home. Two months later, with much assistance from USAID officials, I received my SIV visa and travelled to the United States.
Arriving here, I was both joyful and overwhelmed. To this day, I am so grateful to the American families who let me stay with them in their homes as I adjusted. Finding employment, and learning a new culture and system, took time and energy. It’s not a simple process, and because my family wasn’t here yet, I had to draw heavily on my strength from within.
When my sister arrived in the United States several months after me, having received her SIV visa as well, I was thrilled. The two of us managed to afford to rent an apartment together. It was wonderful not to be alone. In 2014, my mother received her approval from International Refugee Assistance Program to join us. We were overjoyed to welcome her into our new home. However, this joy was slightly diminished because my other relatives had been denied the right to immigrate here. It is extremely discouraging to wait six years for assistance, only to be handed a denial with no explanation at the end. I still do not understand why my family must be split into halves. I want to understand, but they have given me no reason. I still have hope they’ll join us here, and we have been appealing the decision since 2014.
I was proud to serve the U.S. government in Iraq, because they did a great service for my people and they understood and appreciated the price that I paid in order to assist them. I was accepted and cared about, valuable to the organization. People went above and beyond their job descriptions to make sure I was safe and appreciated.
Now, I work for Catholic Charities and have the opportunity to serve others whose histories are similar to mine was a great blessing for me. I have first-hand knowledge of the immigration process, and it is a privilege to help others. This is in my character, helping others, for I believe that what you give to others is what you will receive from God.
My life now is dramatically different than even a short time ago, and looks nothing like it did back in 2007. I have my mother and sister with me, and I recently received my U.S. citizenship too. As I look toward my future, I have two hopes: the first is to be reunited with the rest of my family, who were not given permission to come here and are still facing threats in Iraq. My second hope is to work again with U.S. government. America has given so many people hope and assistance, myself included. I would be proud to support them again, because they saw me as more than simply an employee. They took risks to protect me and my loved ones, because they knew my value.
What’s your message for the US government about the SIV program?
When we began working with the U.S. government, we were promised that we and our immediate family members could come and live in America, which seemed like a dream come true. We risked so much to help the U.S. government and keep their people safe, and we were facing persecution and death threats for offering this service.
But my family has been split in half. We have been waiting ten years to live together in a place of peace. The government needs to uphold their promises to the people who risked so much to aid American troops and organizations.
Now, the president’s refugee ban has created a new obstacle for former Iraqi partners, who remain in immediate danger due to their associations with the United States. What type of justice is this, that our sacrifice is repaid in broken promises and more red tape?
What would you like Americans to know about refugees?
In every country, in every culture, there are differences and similarities. Our languages may not sound the same, and we may express ourselves in unique ways, but we are all human. Everyone’s blood is red. Love, fear, sorrow, distress, anger, rejection, joy, and comfort are universal. Just because someone comes from an area where war and destruction are prevalent does not mean that they promote violence. In fact, by their decision to leave, they are demonstrating their disapproval.
Refugees are seeking peace; we want the chance to live and love without fear of pain and bloodshed for traits we have no control over. We have witnessed the deaths of those we love. We have endured the pain and fear of physical and psychological torture. We have faced the paralyzing fright of feeling helpless to protect those we care for or change the circumstances of our homelands. We are not strangers, for we are human also.