Viewpoints

Meet this Iraqi, an interpreter who risked his life for us during Iraq war

Laith Hammoudi couldn’t tell anyone what he did for a living. He came to work and went home every day by a different route. Each night we compiled the daily “terror report,” a roundup of bombs, shootings and other violence in Iraq. How can a man deal with that – and the existential threats to his own family – every day for 14 years? But Laith has endured.
Laith Hammoudi couldn’t tell anyone what he did for a living. He came to work and went home every day by a different route. Each night we compiled the daily “terror report,” a roundup of bombs, shootings and other violence in Iraq. How can a man deal with that – and the existential threats to his own family – every day for 14 years? But Laith has endured.

Meet Laith Hammoudi.

He’s a doting husband and father of three, a Liverpool Reds soccer fanatic and an Arabic-English interpreter.

He’s also banned – at least for a while – from coming to the U.S. from Iraq, where he put his life on the line for Americans. Including me.

President Donald Trump’s executive order late last week temporarily forbids citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling here. In 2011 President Barack Obama did the same thing to refugees from Iraq, for 120 days.

Trump said his order was aimed at stopping “radical Islamic terrorists” from entering America.

It may well do that. But it also stops good people like Laith from escaping the horror and terror ruining their countries.

Laith deserves to come here. He’s a good man. He’d be the kind of guy you’d want as a neighbor. He’d be an employee you could count on. He’d make a fine kids’ coach.

I know this because Laith and I spent 12 weeks together in Baghdad in 2008 and 2009. I was there as a reporter for McClatchy newspapers. Like other reporters in the Bagdad bureau, I relied on Laith to interpret.

We quickly found that Laith was also a natural-born journalist. Corinne Reilly, a reporter at the Merced Sun-Star (where I was executive editor) and later a Pulitzer finalist at the Virginian Pilot, went to Baghdad twice the same years I did. “I was young and inexperienced, probably too young and inexperienced,” she wrote in an email. “Laith made up for my shortcomings. He did it because he wanted the world to know what was happening in Iraq.”

She recalled a day when she and Laith visited the scene of an explosion and a morgue. “He stayed late in the office to talk me through what we’d seen,” she wrote. “Not for a story. For me. He knew I needed it.”

One morning Laith and I walked through Karrada, a fashionable neighborhood in Baghdad. I was interviewing merchants selling home gym equipment to people who didn’t want to dare the city’s dangerous streets to go to a sports club. I noticed Laith always walked between me and the street, where bombs would come from.

We also drove to Mishkhab, 135 miles southeast of Baghdad, to profile a rice farmer. We had to stop at many roadblocks where men with guns didn’t smile. At least until Laith said something that made them relax, made them laugh. Then they waved us through. I felt safe with Laith.

Laith couldn’t tell anyone what he did for a living. He came to work and went home every day by a different route. Each night we compiled the daily “terror report,” a roundup of bombs, shootings and other violence. He got files from stringers around Iraq. We then shipped them to the Washington bureau at midnight.

How can a man deal with that – and the existential threats to his own family – day in and day out, year in and year out? For 14 years? But Laith has endured.

Now he wants to get his family out. He’s lost faith in any kind of peaceful society in Iraq. Laith has been in the vetting process to come here for years. It’s been frustrating. He has passed medical and other tests. But he still hasn’t been granted a visa.

He emailed me earlier this month: “I can’t stay any longer. The great expectations of a modern and good Iraq after collapsing Saddam’s regime vanished, and the only hope I have is to leave this place.”

Corinne wrote: “Without Iraqis like him who were willing to risk their lives, Americans would have known a lot less about the realities of our war of choice. In this regard, he served our country. That’s what makes me think we owe him.”

Several nights in the bureau, after we filed, Laith and I smoked shisha, taking fruity tobacco hits off a water pipe. It was on one of those nights, with the threat of death hanging over us like the smoke from the pipe, we started calling each other “Brother.”

We need to help my brother Laith.

Mike Tharp is a former executive editor at the Merced Sun-Star. He was a soldier in Vietnam and covered six wars as a correspondent. He also reported for the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Far Eastern Economic Review and U.S. News & World Report. He can be reached at miketharp33@gmail.com

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