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W. Chicago man leads group helping Iraqis in danger for helping U.S.
By Elisabeth Mistretta | Daily Herald Staff

West Chicago native Kirk Johnson worked for a U.S. government agency in Iraq, and now tries to relocate Iraqi colleagues who are targeted for death by their countrymen for working with the U.S.

 

Courtesy of Kirk Johnson

Community High School in West Chicago honored 1998 alumni Kirk Johnson this month for his humanitarian work in creating The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies.

 

Courtesy of Kirk Johnson

After a nearby mobile phone tower was attacked in Fallujah in 2005, West Chicago native Kirk Johnson, right, and co-worker Shaun McNally assessed the situation with an Iraqi man.

 

Courtesy of Kirk Johnson

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Published: 10/19/2008 12:01 AM

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Even though his skull was cracked, his wrists, jaw and nose broken and he'd taken 70 stitches in his face, Kirk Johnson knew his friend, Yaghdan, would suffer a worse fate if Johnson didn't do something quickly.

And so the West Chicago native, suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder after a year in Iraq, pulled himself out of bed almost two years ago and began typing a letter that would save Yaghdan's life - and scores more.

Johnson is founder of The List Project to Settle Iraqi Refugees. The list started with Yaghdan and a handful of others, but today includes 1,500 Iraqis who are in danger because they helped the U.S. Johnson's work has drawn national attention and acclaim, but only recently was he recognized locally, with a first-of-its-kind humanitarian award from his alma mater, Community High School in West Chicago.

The 28-year-old Johnson takes the recognition modestly and in stride, knowing a vast amount of work remains to be done.

"All I've done so far," he says, "is bark a bit."

Against the war

Johnson was 24 when he met Yaghdan, who asked that his last name be omitted for his safety, when the two worked together in Baghdad three years ago. Both men worked for the U.S. government helping rebuild Iraq's infrastructure.

Johnson spoke fluent Arabic after years studying at College of DuPage and with a private tutor. His fascination with Middle Eastern culture sparked when his grandmother - who believed travel was the best education - took him on a trip to Egypt as a high school sophomore. After graduating from University of Chicago in 2002, he was named a Fulbright Scholar and returned to Egypt to study.

During his stay, the U.S. invaded Iraq.

"I was very much opposed to the war and, since I was in the region, I could see what was already happening in terms of the prism of the public reaction," Johnson said. "At the same time, I had received all these scholarships that were in part paid for by the government, and I couldn't argue against the need to rebuild after the war. I felt there was an obligation to try to go do right when there was a wrong. So when I saw the government was looking for Arabic speakers, I signed up."

In some ways, Johnson and Yaghdan spent their days like any office co-workers.

They shared lunch during breaks. And sometimes they would goof off, crumpling pieces of paper and launching them at each other over their cubicle walls.

But the similarities ended there. Even though their jobs kept them inside the Green Zone, the center of the U.S. presence in Iraq, danger lurked daily.

This was especially true for Yaghdan, who routinely lied about his occupation, changed his appearance and altered the route from his Baghdad neighborhood to avoid being targeted by local militias that frequently attacked Iraqis working with the U.S.

His strategy worked for a while. But by late 2006, months after Johnson had left Iraq for a break following a year's service, the militias caught up with Yaghdan while he stood in line before work, waiting for clearance to enter the Green Zone.

"I saw a man near the gate that I recognized as a man from my neighborhood, and I was hoping he was working for the U.S., too, so there would be mutual fear," said Yaghdan.

He knew his cover was blown, however, when he returned home about a week later to find the severed head of a dog in front of his house with a note.

"It said my head, my wife's head and my family's head would be next."

He immediately sought help from his U.S. superiors, asking for a weapons permit, for relocation to Jordan or even a move to the north of Iraq.

All requests were denied.

According to Johnson, the agency "basically said, 'That's unfortunate, and we'll give you a month leave and then give your job to someone else.' So, basically, they fired him in slow motion."

After moving his father to the south of Iraq with his brothers and buying a temporary visa to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Yaghdan knew he was living on borrowed time.

So he fired off an e-mail plea for help to everyone he hoped would listen.

Simply, a list

Johnson's 12 months in Iraq affected him more than he knew. Not realizing he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, during his leave and on a family reunion in the Dominican Republic, he suffered a fugue - with a symptom similar to a sleepwalking bout - and plummeted more than 15 feet from a hotel window.

He spent months recovering from broken bones, bruises and cuts, visiting numerous doctors, and eventually learning he could not return to Iraq. He also spent that time wondering if his work really did any good.

"I was sort of plagued by these feelings that I hadn't finished my job there," Johnson said.

But Johnson was done sulking after he read Yaghdan's e-mail in October 2006. Not knowing anything about how to settle refugees, he took a political cue from his father, Tom Johnson, a former Illinois representative for the 50th district, and wrote a letter to his then-congressman, Dennis Hastert. Johnson said that was unsuccessful, which spurred him to submit an editorial to the Los Angeles Times, pleading his friend's case. It ran in December 2006 and soon made the rounds with Johnson's former co-workers in Iraq.

"I heard from other colleagues with equally horrific fates," said Johnson.

Not sure how to help the 50 Iraqis hiding in countries like Syria and Jordan or still in Iraq - all of whom were targeted for their work with the U.S. military or contractors - Johnson opened a spreadsheet on his computer and, simply, made a list.

A breakthrough

By February 2007, Johnson, his dad, mom Ginger and a lawyer were working to relocate Yaghdan. But to help the others, Johnson traveled to Washington, D.C., and presented his list to the U.S. State Department as well as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Finally, Johnson started seeing the changes he hoped to spark: Following these meetings, the State Department committed to referring the names of the Iraqis on his list to the UN group for priority processing.

His work also gained major media attention and, thanks to a March 2007 article in The New Yorker, Johnson received grant funding from Rena and Sami David to transform his list into an official not-for-profit group. Sami David is an Iraqi refugee who settled in the U.S. in 1948, and the couple helped Johnson officially create The List Project to Settle Iraqi Refugees. Based in New York City, it now employs a small staff, launched its own Web site, holds fundraisers for its cause and reaches out to new supporters on social networking sites like Facebook.

"They are taking a chance on someone who never ran a (not-for-profit) before and they've saved lives," Johnson said. "For all of the good we do, it's like someone else deserves the credit because of their generosity."

And while the Davids were learning about Johnson in The New Yorker, Sherry Bowne was back in West Chicago reading the same article and marveling at the extraordinary man in the story who had the same name as one of her son's classmates.

Awaken government

"Ginger and I have been friends since our kids were in high school and, after I read the article, I said to her 'This is incredible. Why didn't you tell everyone about this?'" Bowne said. "She never mentioned a thing."

Bowne, vice president of the Education Foundation for Community High School, thought it only fitting for the group to honor Kirk Johnson this month with its first alumni humanitarian award.

"In a very thoughtful way, not at all partisan, he has tried to awaken our government to just save lives," she said.

Today, the list weighs almost 130 pounds, bursting with documentation for each Iraqi Johnson hopes to relocate here. Our country has a special obligation to take in these men and women, he says, because their work helped our government. And the world is watching how we handle this crisis, he added.

"There are a lot of Americans who wonder why we need to help these people," Johnson said. "But this particular group of Iraqis present the true choice of our nation. Can we allow ourselves to trust the Iraqis who have supported our troops, aid workers and diplomats? Or are we consumed by our irrational fear? If we're at a point that we can't see our friends as our friends and we see them as potential enemies, you have to ask yourself as a nation, what principles do we have left to protect ourselves against terrorists? There is a great deal at stake here."

So far, only about 175 Iraqis on the list have been safely resettled, and that includes Yaghdan and his wife. Now 31, he lives in the suburbs, works in a hospital and helps other Iraqis get situated for life in this country, which often means menial jobs far below their education level.

Yaghdan said he is grateful to call Johnson his friend and hopes other Americans will follow his lead.

"He has made a big difference," Yaghdan said. "Kirk shows that every U.S. citizen can make a big difference if they work actively."

To learn more

The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies

thelistproject.org

(888) 895-5782

P.O. Box 502

New York, NY 10101