NEW YORK -- There are more than 3,000 names on Kirk Johnson's list -- a list that has brought him incredible joy but which has also taken an emotional toll.
The names are of Iraqis who worked alongside Americans as translators and advisers during the more than eight-year-long Iraq war and who now fear for their lives and their families' safety. Just last week, one was mailed a syringe filled with poison and a note telling him to inject himself before the senders did so themselves.
Johnson has worked furiously for the last four years to help resettle these Iraqis in the United States. They seek him out after receiving death threats from Al Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents who consider them the enemy for helping U.S. forces.
Now, a new documentary called "The List" artfully dovetails the plight of these Iraqis with Johnson’s story. It had its world premiere at New York City's Tribeca Film Festival on April 21. A few nights later, producer and director Beth Murphy joined Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, for a postscreening talk.
"You’re sitting in a bar with [Johnson] and having a conversation and someone calls him and says, 'I'm going to get killed in an hour,’" Rieckhoff says. "I mean, imagine that constant pressure on him and on his family. I just think it’s incredible."
Compelled To Help
Johnson first went to Iraq in 2004 to work for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In the film, he says he felt compelled to go because he spoke Arabic and understood the culture. He also wanted to serve his country – despite disagreeing with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
A panel discussion about "The List" at the Tribeca Film Festival (left to right): George Packer, staff writer for "The New Yorker"; director Beth Murphy; Anna Khanaka, one of the Iraqis that Kirk Johnson coordinated asylum for; Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America; lawyer Marcia Tavares Maack
In 2007, after hearing of the plight of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, he founded The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. The film portrays Johnson as a hero to the 1,500 Iraqis he has helped resettle in the United States but doesn’t hide the toll it has taken. Johnson grinds his teeth in his sleep, sleepwalks, and suffers from insomnia.
In one scene, he hangs his head in disbelief while looking at the website for No Buddy Left Behind, an organization that rescues dogs from Iraq. The dogs were safe in the United States within weeks, while most of the Iraqis in "The List" had been in limbo for years.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, “Any Iraqi who believes he/she is at risk or has experienced serious harm as a result of association with the U.S. is encouraged to contact the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to receive guidance.”
The U.S. State Department says more than 36,000 Iraqi refugees were resettled in the United States between 2008-10, but that number is dropping. Only 9,400 were resettled in 2011. In the last three months, fewer than 1,000 Iraqis have received refugee status. Groups like the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project have criticized the Obama administration for not doing more.
'Who We Should Be'
Rieckhoff said he is "profoundly disappointed" by how his government has treated its former citizen allies.
"These folks were not just the eyes and ears on the battlefield. They were our body armor. They were the most effective weapon we could have had to protect ourselves," Rieckhoff says. "Having Isim or Muhammad or Said with me saved my life more times than I'll ever count. Saved the lives of my men more times than I'll ever count. Saved the lives of Iraqis more times than I'll ever count.
Johnson first went to Iraq in 2004 to work for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"And when you have that moment when you pull away and say, 'Good luck, man,' and you know that your government can’t follow through, it's just profoundly disappointing. It's devastating."
Murphy said she hopes "The List" makes Americans think about how their country is represented abroad. Johnson, she says, represents "the best of America."
"He went into Iraq as a person who spoke the language fluently, understood the culture, and had lived in the region before, and so he got it," Murphy says. "And I think we'd like to say, 'Wow. When we go into the Middle East, that's who we should be. Absolutely. That's who we would like to be, that's how we're going to connect in the most meaningful way and be able to make the most difference.'
"And I think the reality is something very different, and so to recognize not only who we want to be but who we are."
She also said Johnson is already receiving requests from desperate Afghans who are being targeted for helping U.S. forces in that conflict. Those requests are expected to increase as U.S. and NATO forces prepare to withdraw in 2014.