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As the political debate over refugees in America heats up during this political season, this series explores the experiences of refugees who are settling, and have settled, in Virginia, and the programs that provide services for them. The Harrisonburg and Charlottesville areas lead the way in refugee resettlement in Virginia. Harrisonburg is second only to Northern Virginia in the number of resettled refugees, which numbered 260 in 2013.

A Safety Valve for Foreign Friends: the SIV Program

Lots of immigrants to the U-S are not technically refugees under the law, but nevertheless seek refuge here. It’s a population that mostly flies under the radar, but whose work has been vital to U.S. interests abroad. WMRA's Jordy Yager has the next installment of our series on Refugees in Virginia.

TONY RAZUL: I actually ended up losing 12 of my friends.

Tony Razul is what’s known as an SIV, meaning he came to America on a Special Immigrant Visa. Like many SIV’s, the 31-year old Razul was an interpreter for the U.S. military in his home country of Iraq.

RAZUL: We always targeted. There was like some prices. So for the - someone who kill the U.S. soldier, for example, will be paid $1,500. For someone who kill an interpreter, he will be paid $5,000. Because they knew that we are the communication hub and once when you eliminate an interpreter or translator, most of these US forces will be, like, lost.

That crucial role has not been lost on retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Tim Leroux, who did two tours in Iraq.

TIM LEROUX: In 2003, my translator was a guy named Mr. Abbas. And Mr. Abbas pretty much saved my life one night.

That night, Mr. Abbas helped detect a roadside ambush that lay in wait for Leroux and his unit.

LEROUX: We ended up in a fight but it could have been a lot worse had he not been with us.

Twelve years later, Leroux now works in Charlottesville’s private sector. He has a family. He’s taught at UVa. But about a year ago, he learned that Charlottesville actually has a large population of SIV’s.  Over the last two and a half years, more than 200 former translators and employees of the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan have moved here through the SIV program.

In the country as a whole, more than 30,000 SIV’s have come since the program started in 2007. The government grants them these visas as a way of saying thank you for their service. Technically speaking they’re not considered refugees, although every SIV I’ve met came to America because they feared for their lives in their home country.

Most SIV’s in Charlottesville use the housing and employment services offered by the International Rescue Committee, or IRC as it’s called. When Leroux became aware of the shear number of SIV’s here, he started volunteering with the IRC, but he couldn’t shake the feeling like there was something more he should be doing. 

LEROUX: The Iraqi and Afghan interpreters…they become like brother soldiers…you know, after a few months of really shared hardship and shared danger, these amazing bonds form. And what I think 99 percent of the veterans will tell you is that, leaving one member of the unit behind when you go home, it goes against all of the military ethos…Leaving somebody behind is — it’s exceptionally shameful and sad, and it’s not what we do, but it’s what we did to tens of thousands of these guys.

Leroux’s not just talking about the scores of Iraqi and Afghan translators unable to come to the U.S. More so, he’s talking about the ones who’ve made it here, but find themselves in the midst of a whole new battle.

RAZUL: To get a job was very hard. It wasn’t about your resume, it was about the people you know…For me, I needed someone to know to show me the way, because I was getting lost like a couple of blocks away from where I lived. I didn’t know where to go or who to ask.

Razul is one of about 40 SIV’s that Leroux has developed relationships with here. Working with the new non-profit, International Neighbors of Charlottesville, Leroux is trying to connect local U.S. veterans with Iraqi and Afghan SIV’s who’ve moved here.

LEROUX: I feel like veterans are uniquely qualified, uniquely positioned to help these guys. And first and foremost is our unique ability to put our arm around guy and say to a potential employer, for example, ‘Hey, you know, look…I know what he did and I’m here to vouch for him.’ That’s something that only a veteran can do really.

And that’s exactly what he did.

AHMED MIKHLIF: My name is Ahmed J. Mikhlif and I am 35 years old.

For 10 years, Mikhlif worked as a translator for the U.S. military in Iraq, where he was born. At one point he was in charge of seven other translators. When he first came to Charlottesville in 2014 with his wife and two children, Mikhlif found a maintenance job at Holiday Inn and then a better paying job at Comfort Inn. But it wasn’t until he met Leroux that he found a job he could turn into a career as an HVAC technician at Albemarle Heating and Air.

Not only did Leroux have good ties with company management, but he also spoke the same language as Mikhlif. Not Arabic, but another, more powerful language.

MIKHLIF: Both been through very very hard situation, where we got shot at, where we got IED’s, bombed vehicles went off and injured some of our partners or killed them. So we have seen a lot of things. That’s what makes me trust military more than the civilian employee.

Leroux is trying to lend a hand however he can. Whether it’s helping a single Afghan father take care of his 4 kids, getting them toys, helping them learn English and keep up with their studies. Or whether it’s helping the wife of an SIV, who served with U.S. forces for 12 years, get to the grocery store or get pro bono dental care.

As for Razul, he’s been here more than 6 years now. He got married last May to an American woman he met while taking classes at community college. He’s currently at Virginia Commonwealth University getting his bachelors in political science and international relations, with a homeland security minor. And he works as a resident supervisor at Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Staunton. He has dreams of being an international diplomat, but for now, he’s just grateful to be here.

RAZUL: Well, because America is always my dream. It’s my home country. I always wanted to live here. That’s right, physically I was overseas, but my heart was in the United States.

Jordy Yager was a freelance reporter for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.