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Iraqi interpreter labeled a traitor, finds refuge in Philly

For nearly two years, as more and more Iraqis came to view U.S. soldiers not as saviors but as jackals, Safa Ismael showed up for work outside the concrete barricades surrounding the U.S. military base in Mosul.

Safa Ismael (left) with Patrick Dugan, State Rep. Bryan Lentz, and Lt. Col. Jeffrey Voice. They helped Ismael immigrate to the United States after he was targeted for working with them in Iraq. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Safa Ismael (left) with Patrick Dugan, State Rep. Bryan Lentz, and Lt. Col. Jeffrey Voice. They helped Ismael immigrate to the United States after he was targeted for working with them in Iraq. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)Read more

For nearly two years, as more and more Iraqis came to view U.S. soldiers not as saviors but as jackals, Safa Ismael showed up for work outside the concrete barricades surrounding the U.S. military base in Mosul.

He didn't quit when fellow interpreters were executed in busy markets or shot dead in their homes. He didn't give up when he was chased through the city, when neighbors screamed "traitor" in his face, when insurgents put his name on a list of collaborators.

Instead, Ismael bought a gun and slept with it under his pillow. And still, every day, he returned to the gates to translate for American soldiers building schools, wells, and a fledgling government for the northern city.

To the soldiers of the 416th Civil Affairs Battalion - among them a Philadelphia Municipal Court judge and an assistant district attorney in the city - he was a marvel.

"That kid had a lot of guts," said Patrick Dugan, the judge. "Safa would keep coming back."

When a car bomb nearly killed him, Ismael knew he had to leave Iraq for good.

So he wound up in Philadelphia, through the efforts of Dugan and other soldiers with clout, including Bryan Lentz, a former assistant district attorney, and Jeffrey Voice, an Army lieutenant colonel from Northeast Philadelphia.

Ismael became the first person granted asylum in the United States under a revised law allowing for resettlement of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters.

"It's something that we owed him," said Dugan, then a sergeant. "He protected us. He kept us alive. The least we could do was get him here and give him a fresh start."

Only now, five years later and working in the Linguistic Data Consortium at the University of Pennsylvania, does Ismael, 30, feel safe enough to speak publicly.

He worries about his mother and eight siblings. A visit home is risky.

"I'm sure terrorists will bring back their lists and say, 'This hasn't been checked off yet,' " Ismael said. "I don't want to bring trouble to my already troubled family."

But Ismael has a family here as well.

"If you could've seen the joy of the people who were meeting him at the airport, the tears," Dugan said. "It felt so good to see him here safe."

When he landed in November 2005, Ismael, his forehead cut from the car bombing only weeks before, was stunned at the sight of seven men with whom he had served.

"I didn't expect at any point in my life that I would see them all together . . . waiting for me," Ismael said.

When troops invaded Iraq in March 2003, many Mosul residents embraced them. Ismael had no fear in approaching the U.S. military to offer his services as a translator. As a third-year college student majoring in English-Arabic translation and interpretation, he considered it a kind of internship.

"I wanted to one day speak the language fluently, to one day not have to read the subtitles of movies," he said.

Ismael worked first with Marines and members of the 101st Airborne Division, whose interaction with Iraqi civilians was often at the end of a rifle.

It wasn't until the 416th, an Army Reserve unit, arrived in January 2004 with a mission to win hearts and minds that Ismael found his niche.

At 6-foot-3, he quickly attracted notice among the troops. He warned soldiers heading into dangerous neighborhoods. He explained history and political rifts. He agreed to translate, even in meetings with known insurgent collaborators, like the police chief of Mosul.

"We couldn't function without translators," said Lentz, then an Army major who worked with Ismael nearly every day. "He wasn't trained as a CIA agent. He was a 20-something kid."

In time, the soldiers trusted Ismael so much that they had him eavesdrop on other interpreters suspected of ties with insurgents, Voice said.

In 2004, the government began to lose control as insurgents infiltrated the police and Iraqi army. Gunmen assassinated a governor working with the soldiers. Insurgents abducted an Iraqi who worked closely with Lentz and executed the man in a busy marketplace.

Friends warned Ismael that his name had been written on a list of "traitors" posted on a mosque door.

He began taking multiple cabs to the base after he was chased in his car leaving work. He ran a red light and crashed in a traffic circle, causing a scene that scared off his pursuers.

With his perseverance came a grim realization: It was too late to turn back.

"Had I quit working with the Americans or not, at that point I would have still faced the same danger," he said. "Once you're in, you're in."

As the 416th prepared to leave Iraq in October 2004, insurgents roamed Mosul. They set up checkpoints, killing at will. An interpreter and a childhood friend of Ismael's was shot dead when he answered the door.

Ismael hid at home. During the holy month of Ramadan, in November, he chanced a visit with a friend who had also worked with the military. Later, he called his friend's cell phone. The man's mother answered, weeping. Her son had been kidnapped.

Ismael fled to Syria and later to Egypt, where he has relatives. But he returned to Mosul in February 2005, determined to finish his degree. Again, he hid at his home most of the time.

Then a friend and fellow interpreter who had spent a year in the United Arab Emirates was killed when he returned to Iraq to visit family.

Ismael knew his time was up.

Lentz, Voice, and Dugan helped him secure a six-month visitor's visa to the United States. Lentz, a Delaware County state representative now running for the U.S. House, called in a favor. He asked Dino Privitera, a lawyer friend from his days at the District Attorney's Office, to help Ismael gain asylum.

Insurgents took one last shot at him.

Ismael had gone to say goodbye to a close friend. A car and a van boxed him in on a highway, slowing traffic to a crawl.

The van behind him exploded. The blast shattered the windshield, spraying glass that cut Ismael's brow and raked his friend and Ismael's younger brother, Zakariya.

"I heard my brother in the backseat screaming," Ismael said. "I knew I was hurt, but I couldn't feel much. . . . The pressure felt as if somebody had hit me with two big rocks on each side of my head."

Ismael's friend, who was driving, floored it to the hospital. All three survived.

Ismael went to Syria. Within days, Lentz, Voice, Dugan, and several other soldiers met him at Philadelphia International.

Said Voice: "We all ran up to him. Now we had him here. He was back in the womb."

For the next year, Privitera worked on his case, and Ismael lived at Voice's home. Ismael volunteered for the International Visitors Council of Philadelphia until he received a citizenship status that permitted him to work.

In 2006, a new law permitted interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan to seek refuge in the United States. Ismael, according to Privitera, was the first. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D., Mass.), who cosponsored refugee legislation, asked Ismael to testify before Congress about his work with the Americans and the threats made on his life.

He did - under a pseudonym and behind a screen.

Ismael can never live in Mosul again. He could not attend his father's funeral in 2006 because he had not secured all of his residency papers. Last summer, he risked a trip home, renting a house outside of Mosul where his family could visit him.

Now he is pursuing a master's degree in government administration. He hopes to one day work with the State Department, possibly translating in the Middle East. He craves "the feeling of accomplishment, the feeling of the inner good" that he felt when he worked alongside soldiers.

And Ismael has had another stroke of luck. His younger brother, Zakariya, lives with him in University City after winning a 2007 visa lottery through the State Department.

And, of course, Ismael still has Lentz, Voice, Dugan, and the others who helped him come here.

In Mosul, Ismael endeared himself to Dugan and others by picking up on the Philadelphia dialect, greeting them with, "Yo! How youse doing?"

He never imagined he'd come to know it so well.

"Philly, it feels like home to me already," he said.