This is the third installment of a multi-part series, in Razul’s own words, as told to Erin O’Hare. Catch up on the first and second parts.

After growing up in a poor family in Iraq, teaching himself English, and doing life-threatening work as a translator for United States Army and allied troops in Iraq, Tony Razul arrived in Charlottesville. In this segment, Razul talks about adjusting to living here, completing his education, and quickly running into yet another layer of red tape.

This article was edited lightly for clarity.

If you get to choose the place or the location to go to, it will take an extra two or three months. But I already run out of money and I can’t go back to Iraq and I’m already in Jordan, and my passport is already at the U.S. Embassy! I can’t even travel — they took my passport! So I asked them, “What are my options?” And they were like, “Charlottesville is available. They have a space.” So I was like, “Send me to Charlottesville!” I had no place to go.

I wanted Virginia. I just did not know about Charlottesville because, when you think about Virginia overseas, you think about D.C. and Norfolk, Virginia. You don’t think about it like the rest of the state, you know? Charlottesville, I never heard of it before.

I got to Charlottesville. There is an office here called the International Rescue Committee, which helps the new immigrants to settle here. The IRC did more than enough for me. They provided me with a small apartment with another roommate, and they hooked me up with work just across the street. They did great. However, because I’m alone, they can’t really keep up with me. Their focus is more with families. And more with people who don’t know the language. I understand that. And I really thank them and appreciate the work that they do.

Charlottesville is very small. Very small. See, in Iraq and in other countries, even in Europe, you have big cities. And when you go out of the city, there’s nothing. Then there’s another big city, and so on and so forth. In the U.S., apparently, it’s like, you got the big city, the mid-size city, a small city and you got city/town, and you got a city attached to this one, but it does not attach to that one, so, it’s very confusing. Charlottesville was very small to me. Very expensive. Even at the time, back in 2009, it was very expensive. It used to not have a lot of amenities, not a lot of things going on.

It’s very quiet. Actually, the prison base that I worked at, it’s twice as big as Charlottesville, the whole Charlottesville. It’s a really nice town, Charlottesville. After I realized that, after I introduced to the environment of Charlottesville, I realized that Charlottesville is a very nice city. I’m glad I got sent here, not sent to another [place].

At first, first when I moved here, obviously, I knew the language, I knew the culture, I knew the traditions, etc. That gave me the upper hand of finding a job, start working, start to be the good American. It’s just a different environment. You’re away from your family, you’re away from your friends. You basically live a quiet life, like a retiree. That scares me, a lot, because I have a lot of energy. At the time, I had a lot of energy. I was running, like, all the way [to] Route 29, back and forth. I just didn’t know what to do. I was bored.

I still have the effect from working nights. My sleep is light, because when I was going through the missions overseas, you have to have a light sleep. If you go to deep sleep, you might wake up or you might never wake up, because you get mortars all the time. You’ve got snipers, you’ve got shooters, you’ve got bombs. You have to have a light sleep in order for you to wake up really quick and run. So, it was very different for me. When my neighbor was talking on the phone, next block, even when I was asleep, I was still waking up to hear her.

You’re alert all the time [in a war zone]. Your mind gets programmed into you’re asleep but you’re not really asleep. Half and half. Charlottesville was very different for me.

I thought I would finish school and start to have a good job. Ninety-nine percent of people here in the U.S., that’s what they think, that school is your gate to opportunities. Except that’s not the case for me. I went to school back in Iraq, I finished my high school and I went to law school, but I only studied two years of the law school. In Iraq, the law is a bachelor’s — your law school comes after the high school, right away. It’s one of the things that, like humanities here or music or arts or whatever. Here in the U.S., the law is master’s [degree], because you have to finish your bachelor’s in order to get to law school.

I went to school here. I went to Piedmont Virginia Community College, studied political science — this is while I was in Charlottesville — I started working for UVA Hospital as a certified nurse assistant. That was the “highest” position I could have. The other jobs were offered to me was a custodian or laundry worker on the night shift. Kroger bagger was always an option, but they were offering $9 an hour at the time. My rent was $600 a month without counting other expenses.

I was at work from 10 p.m. at night until the next day at like 8 a.m. And I was going to school from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. I told you — I could not sleep. I wanted to have full time of both because, if you have a part-time job, you’re not going to be able to pay your rent and other expenses. So you have to choose a full-time job. At the same time, if you choose a full-time job, you will take so many years to finish just an associate’s degree. You can’t go both full time, you have to choose which one.

But I chose both, to go full-time. I finished my Piedmont school and then I transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. That’s where I left the job with UVA Hospital. I finished my bachelor’s in Richmond, in political science, international relations and homeland security. International relations major and homeland security minor. Also when I was a VCU student, I did internship called “Jordanian counterterrorism social media analysis” for the State Department. I finished that with a GPA of 3.5. I know, it’s pretty good! 

After that, I thought, “Hey, I got the language, I got the military experience. I got the school. I got everything else on the books. It’s like a checklist. Now I need to get the intelligence job.” And the first rock that you’re going to hit while you’re running around happy is the bureaucracy. Again.

I went full circle.

After growing up in Iraq and doing very dangerous work as a translator for U.S. and allied troops there, resettling in Charlottesville was…different at first. Credit: Credit: Courtesy of Tony Razul Credit: Credit: Courtesy of Tony Razul

Here’s what the jobs look like for the U.S. government or any other company that have contract with the government: They want you to have bachelor’s degree and citizenship. (I got my U.S. citizenship in late 2014.) They want you to be really young with a lot of internships. They want you to be located near D.C. and have experience what you do for more than five to 10 years. They want you to be 18 years old but they want you to have 20 years of experience. I don’t know how that works, but it’s math. And at the same time, they want something called — ready for this? — top-secret clearance.

Now, all of this is in one hand, and the clearance is on the other. You can have the 20 years of experience while you an 18-year-old, somehow you might figure that out, maybe reading or have experience while you are in the womb, they don’t care. But the clearance makes all the difference. The clearance is a circle. You can’t have an intelligence job without the clearance, but you can’t have the clearance without the job. “Sorry, we can’t hire you because you don’t have the clearance.” OK, good … “But you can’t have a clearance unless we hire you.”

So, after I checked all the boxes and everything else, you have to apply for, it turns out, to get the clearance, you have to get a bunch of internships and a whole bunch of lengthy processes that you have to go through in order to gain that clearance. If the company decides to sponsor you for that job, which, most companies, they don’t want to sponsor you for the job. Because the clearance takes a long time to process, especially if it’s a top-secret clearance. It takes somebody a year, year-and-a-half, two years, to finish. By the time you get the clearance, the company has already lost the contract.

It’s not like getting clearance is a shop where you go in and buy it and you walk away with a receipt. It’s a process. This is what the intelligence community’s shooting themselves in the foot. They’re sitting on a whole cache of information that needs to be translated, needs to be analyzed, by experienced people who used to be on the field, people who have the knowledge of culture and military and administrative. … Basically, they need a person like me. But, apparently, I’m not that person for them.

If you’re looking for a person like me, but you don’t choose me — you would rather choose Joe that never heard of Iraq, to analyze that intelligence about Iraq, then most likely you’re getting the wrong information. You can’t, for example, hire somebody from Texas to do analysis about Charlottesville. You need a Charlottesvillian person to do it because they know the geography, they know the history, they know the terrain. They know the information. And, this is like, as I said, this is intelligence 101. If you want the right intelligence and the right timing, you have to bring the professional. You have to do whatever to get that person in there. You don’t say, cut corners and bring somebody like, “Oh, this is Joe, he just finished high school. He took Arabic at some point, but I’m pretty sure he will be fit for that assignment.” OK, he took Arabic, good for him. Does he know the language? Does he know the history, geography, the terrain? Does he know anything about Iraq? Has he been there before? No? So how do you trust this person to give the right intelligence? Yeah, I’m pretty sure Joe is a good guy, it’s not his fault I’m ignored.

That’s what I don’t understand. For example, what President [Joe] Biden recently said, we’re going to keep watching Afghanistan from the outside and target some strategic targets inside of the United States. Well, you need to hire Afghans, so they can understand the language and understand the intelligence about that, so they can give you the accurate information on time. You can’t just keep relying on somebody whose dad used to be an officer to give you that intelligence information. This is people’s lives. When you send a drone, you send it to kill. And when that drone’s going to bomb that house, you need to make sure that inside that house there are the targets.

It’s a whole chain. When it comes to intelligence, it’s a whole chain. One link to another, and a lot of those links are broken. That’s why our — most of our — intelligence briefings are giving you what you want to hear. They don’t give you the right information because they’re still scrambling around.  

If you go to the CIA office right now, how many Iraqis do you expect are working there? Few, zero. Most people working in there, they might finish some Ivy League [degree], but they never knew Iraq. They never understand it. Yeah, some officers used to be soldiers, and they deployed there. But just because you’ve been deployed there once or twice, it doesn’t mean that you have the full information about that country. Just because you’ve visited Alaska once or twice, it doesn’t mean you are experienced in Alaska, an expert in Alaska. Same thing.

And most of these soldiers, when they get deployed to Iraq, don’t get deployed to the cities of Iraq. They get deployed to the bases, the Army bases, which happen to be located at least 60, 70 miles away from the nearest city, because most military bases are not in the cities, they’re outside the cities for security issues and strategic issues.

I came to a full circle of bureaucracy. I applied and I applied for all of the intelligence communities, all of the companies that work in Northern Virginia and have contracts with the intelligence community. I basically received no response. No response or “yeah, we chose another candidate.” This is just their way of saying no response, it’s just a nicer one. Thanks for the reply.

So, if the U.S. wants us to help, they have to trust us. They could create some kind of a program for the Afghans and Iraqis, a conditional program, meaning, they would hire people like me to do some basic works with unclassified information — some translation, some intelligence analysis, video analysis, media analysis — for the first year or two. This is just an example, but, after we pass all the security checks and all, then advance us to deeper programs.

This is just a suggestion from an amateur!

Intelligence comes in all shapes and forms. It comes as media, as videos, as recordings, all kinds. You hire people like me, as the translators and subject matter experts, filter all this data and information that just happens to be unclassified, anybody could read. But they filter this information, and after a year or two of this trial, if you see the program works, then you can take these people, give them full-on security clearance, and you can have them set up for a real-time classified analysis. Real-time classified intelligence analysis. How about this idea?

Over a year or two, you would understand who is this person. Especially nowadays, because you would have access to his social media accounts. You would have access to basically all of his life. So if you can read his emails, social media, everything else, and it does not ring red flag while he is on the trial, then maybe he is a trustable person.

But the [U.S. intelligence offices] hire somebody like Joe, just finished high school, just because his dad used to be an officer, so he gets the pass to get that job. They put him with analyzing zone strikes and analyzing media. They put him as an expert and he’s never been to Afghanistan. He may have some good résumé and pretend that he know it, but he don’t!

Instead, we see people like me working as baggers in Kroger. People who used to be dealing with a lot of other information [are] now, “Thank you so much, come again, here is your groceries.”

Read part four, “‘I’d do it all over again.’ Former Iraqi translator talks about his desire to continue serving the United States now that he’s here.”


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