Beth Murphy’s documentary The List reminds us that true Americans come from all corners of the world—including Iraq.
Thousands of Iraqis risked their lives, opposing Saddam Hussein because they believed in America’s vision to build a democratic Iraq. They worked with Americans as drivers, interpreters, guides, administrative staff and engineers. Now, they are targeted, kidnapped, tortured and killed by terrorists—and left behind by the United States.
One such Iraqi found a severed dog’s head at his home with a note that read, “We will cut off your head. You’re next”.
An email of another threatened Iraqi pleads “Is it possible that the United States of America abandons me?”
The film focuses on former US AID (United States Agency for International Development) employee Kirk Johnson’s fight to bring Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government and military to the United States. Several of his Iraqi colleagues and their family members were tortured and killed. When Johnson initially started a list to help 50 of his endangered US AID co-workers, it then resulted in thousands of urgent emails from U.S.-affiliated Iraqis asking for help pouring into his inbox. Documenting the Iraqis’ loyal work for the United States and the imminent dangers they face, with pro bono attorneys Johnson started an organization, The List Project. They have helped 1,100 U.S.-affiliated Iraqis obtain safe haven in the United States. Yet more than 3,000 people are on Johnson’s list.
The movie traces the difficult, Kafkaesque journeys to America of three people from the list, Yaghdan, Ibrahim and Anna.
At a Tribeca Film Festival panel discussion on April 24, Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, described the Iraqi allies as the most effective weapon for U.S. troops. Rieckhoff, one of the 9/11 first responders at the World Trade Center, served in the Iraq War from 2003 to 2004. He said that the U.S.-affiliated Iraqis saved his life and those of his soldiers more times than he will ever be able to count. However, in describing his departure from Iraq, Rieckhoff said, “You have that moment, you pull away and it’s like, ‘Good luck, man’ and you know that your government can’t follow through. It’s just profoundly disappointing. It’s devastating.”
The List Project is not just an effort, but also a fight.
It is a fight against indifference and a desire to disengage from a mess that the Bush administration created. George Packer, a staff writer at The New Yorker, the author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, and an advisory board member of The List Project moderated the discussion. He pointed to a scene when Johnson says there is no benefit to anyone for letting in a refugee, except the refugee. Bringing in refugees can only hurt careers, so people look for any reason possible to deny their entrance to the United States.
The fight is against a public policy notion articulated by U.S. Representative (R-California) Dana Rohrabacher, in a congressional hearing. He says Americans do not want educated people who support democracy and a stable government to leave Iraq, when they are needed to stay behind to build their country. Rohrabacher resoundingly concludes that Americans should not subsidize such Iraqis’ exit from their homeland.
The List Project website acknowledges that violence and economic hardship have precipitated a brain drain from Iraq. However, Johnson’s team believes the refugee situation poses a problem, which the international community must resolve. Denying visas to a small group of highly identifiable people, hunted solely for collaborating with the United States, will not establish stability in Iraq.
Rieckhoff added that as public policy, abandoning our supporters will result in a backlash against U.S. soldiers in foreign countries, including Afghanistan. “Guys who would have stepped up and said, ‘I’m going to tell you where that roadside bomb is. I’m going to tell you where that sniper is. I’m going to help you understand what that guy across the street said,’ they are not going to do it. They are just not going to do it and we’re going to lose people and we have lost people, undoubtedly.”
Finally, the fight is against fear that an Iraqi allowed onto American soil will commit an act of violence. Although unrelated to any Iraqis, the recent uncovering of the underwear bomb plot dramatizes the motivation for vigilance during frightening, strange times.
Panelist Marcia Tavares Maack, a pro bono List Project attorney, acknowledged the need to balance security concerns with helping people who need to be helped. Yet, she noted the delays in security processing have become a problem, especially when these Iraqis, frequently in hiding, do not have the luxury of time. Furthermore, Packer emphasized that the U.S.-affiliated Iraqis “had been vetted more than any other group on Earth just to get that job in Iraq.”
In the discussion, Murphy explained her film explores the human consequences of war and who we are as Americans, when we operate overseas. She felt Johnson represents the best of Americans, traveling abroad. He grew up in a Chicago-area suburb, and studied Arabic at the University of Chicago. Although Johnson did not support the war, because of his fluency in the language and knowledge of the culture, he felt a duty to assist in Iraq’s reconstruction, and worked in Baghdad and Fallujah.
Equally telling, the film questions what are American values, inside our borders? During a congressional hearing, Johnson asks if the United States has become so frightened that we cannot distinguish our friends from terrorists then have we lost the war on terrorism?
In the film, Ibrahim procured supplies outside the Green Zone for the U.S. government. During his harrowing journey to the United States, in Egypt police beat him, accusing him of helping Americans, betraying a great Arab leader, Saddam Hussein. Despite a dangerous, frantic route to immigration, beaming with excitement upon getting his American visa, Ibrahim says he hopes he is going home, forever. He comments that the sky’s horizon looks beautiful, and that’s where he should be looking because not everyone gets a second chance. “There is a story behind every single American who arrived in America,” he says with a wide smile.
Panelist Anna Khanakeh served as a liaison for U.S. troops in Iraq. Packer asked if she felt conflicted about a country, which gave her a job, put her life in danger, initially denied her U.S. visa application, but eventually opened its doors.
“I definitely wanted to come to America with my family because I really felt that this is my home,” Anna said. Her nephew is a U.S. Marine who served in Fallujah. Anna’s sister worked for the U.S. government in Iraq and moved with their mother to the United States. Their mother died while Anna waited to get to the United States. However, in the film, when Anna and her family get to America, on a visit to the beach, her daughter etches in the sand in big characters, “I (heart) USA.”
“Nobody told my daughter to write I love USA,” Anna said. “This is my family’s feelings, too.”
The List reminds us that America is a country not based on race or religion but upon shared ideals—a belief in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Sometimes the bravery occurs outside of our borders. Other times, equally as important, it must occur, here at home.
Director/Producer Beth Murphy: Photo Credit: Betsy Kim
George Packer, Beth Murphy, Anna Khanakeh, Paul Rieckhoff, Marcia Tavares Maack. Photo Credit: Betsy Kim