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Mideast edition, Friday, July 27, 2007

FORWARD OPERATING BASE Q-WEST, Iraq — Translators who work for the U.S. military in Iraq are as important to the overall mission as armor is to soldiers who patrol the streets of Baghdad — both are essential.

American military personnel usually receive little language training pertinent for the areas they are sent to, so interpreters act as their link to understanding the foreign world in which they work.

Take the case of one interpreter, an Iraqi-born man turned-American citizen in his 40s dubbed “U.B.” out of fear he could be targeted for assassination.

U.B. works at a base in northern Iraq, acting as translator to the commanders of the U.S. Army unit patrolling an area believed to be home to operatives from al-Qaida in Iraq. But his road to being a translator was not easy.

“I escaped Iraq in 1983 on foot. … I walked for three days through the northeastern mountains of Irbil province until I reached Iran,” U.B. said during an interview at FOB Q-West recently.

“I had no passport — I had no plan. Once I got to Iran, I hoped to leave there for somewhere else. I wanted to get to America,” said U.B., whose travels came during the Iran-Iraq war.

After several days of walking through the Iranian countryside, he made it to a small western town where he declared himself to authorities, U.B. said.

He wound up in Tehran, where government officials — led by Ayatollah Khomeini, who only a few years previously had inspired a revolution culminating in the taking of 63 American hostages, 52 of which were held for 444 days — were sympathetic to Kurdish people fleeing persecution in Iraq. They had set up refugee camps for them, separated by gender, which is standard Muslim practice.

A year lapsed by, while U.B. languished in the camp, plotting for a way out.

Then a new opportunity presented itself. In Tehran there was Arat Street, U.B. said, famous at the time for being an underground passport-forging Mecca of sorts, where shopkeepers had back rooms in which shadowy men expertly made such documents for the right price.

In U.B.’s case, the price was $3,000, a cost far out of his reach. He tried to round up the money, but was unsuccessful.

“Somehow, some way, I had to get to the U.S., so we planned an escape from Iran,” he said.

He went to the southern Iranian coast to try to hop an ocean cargo freighter, which was rumored to be a reliable way out of the country. But again, failure slapped him in the face.

After going back to Tehran, he heard from friends who had been in the same position, but made it into Turkey.

Meanwhile, his five brothers, two sisters and both parents had enduring constant harassment by police authorities in Kurdish-dominated Iraq, U.B. said. One after another, they finally fled to Turkey, Iran and Syria. By then, U.B. had made it to Istanbul, Turkey’s capital.

“I went to the American consul, but I was rejected,” he said. “So I went to the Canadians.”

Canada let him in, but to the frigid northern reaches of Edmonton. While there, U.B. chanced upon the woman of his dreams, who happened to be an American. He wound up in America after their marriage.

The couple is still happily married and has two children. They live in Chicago.

“America gave me my dream,” he said. “That’s why I’m here in Iraq — to give back to both the country that gave me my freedom and happiness, and to return something to the land I was born in and escaped from.”


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