Choosing Chattanooga

Choosing Chattanooga

Iraqi man immigrated here to live near soldier

May 24th, 2009 by Perla Trevizo in News

Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell 26-year-old Aram Putrus, who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military, fled Iraq in 2007 to Turkey after his name was found on a death list posted at a local mosque.

Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell 26-year-old Aram Putrus, who...

When Aram Putrus left Iraq, it wasn't by choice.

The Taliban had found out he was working as an interpreter for the U.S. military and his name was on a death list posted on a mosque, military officials say.

"Leaving family, friends, your country, is hard," said the 26-year-old, who now lives in Chattanooga. "I had to leave because I had to save my life."

Mr. Putrus said two of his friends were decapitated by terrorists who recorded the brutal killings and made the CD public.

His story is not that unusual. After the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, sectarian and insurgent fighting has made life very unstable and unsafe for Iraqis, especially minorities and those with ties to the U.S. military, experts say.

In 2007, Mr. Putrus fled to Turkey, where he spent a month trying to cross illegally into Greece. He was caught two times and held in different jails for a total of 20 days before he finally succeeded.

He spent eight hours in the trunk of a car, going from the border of Greece to Athens, where he lived and worked for about a year until he was approved to emigrate to the United States with a special visa given to Iraqi or Afghani interpreters who worked with U.S. military.

He still wears two blue bracelets on his right hand he got at two very difficult jobs he held in Greece, one of them as a mover where he worked more 24 hours with only one hour of sleep.

Between Oct. 1, 2007 and Aug. 31, 2008, 870 Iraqis received the Special Immigrant Visas, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Mr. Putrus arrived in Chattanooga on Nov. 11, 2008, more than a year after he fled Iraq. He chose to come here to be close to his friend and sponsor Staff Sgt. Dewey Young, from Sparta, Tenn.

From 2004 and 2005, Mr. Putrus and another interpreter worked closely with Staff Sgt. Young, assistant chaplain for the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, then known as the 278th Regimental Combat Team.

"They are neat young men, very amiable, did everything they could to make our stay there friendly and welcome and I kind of adopted them," said Staff Sgt. Young.

Before Staff Sgt. Young left Iraq, he promised the Iraqi men he would see whether they would be eligible to immigrate to America. Staff Sgt. Young found a lawyer who processed Mr. Putrus and his friend's visa.

In Chattanooga, Mr. Putrus received the help of Bridge Refugees and Sponsorship Services, even though he is considered an immigrant and not a refugee. The agency found him an apartment and helped him find his first jobs.

He worked at the Pilgrim's Pride chicken processing plant across from his apartment on Market Street for three months. About four days a week he also worked making salads at the 212 Market restaurant.

But in April he quit his job at the chicken processing plant to focus on studying for the General Education Development test and possibly join the military to be an interpreter.

"Sometimes I (was) working and I started thinking, 'Am I really in America doing this chicken thing?' But then I encouraged myself and said, 'It's going to be OK,'" he said.

Because he hasn't been able to get his education certificates, including the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in English, from Iraq, he will start from the beginning to eventually complete possibly a computer science degree.

"If you don't have a college degree here you can't move up, that's why it's so important for me," said the fare skin, hazel-eyes Iraqi.

Because of the current economic situation, the Bridge agency is having difficulty finding high-skill jobs for refugees and immigrants who were professionals in their home countries.

Marina Peshterianu, office manager for Bridge, said the majority of Iraqis are currently working, but many have taken low-skill jobs while they work on their education or certification to validate their degrees in the United States.

"This is a difficult economy; we are just trying to find jobs that will provide self-sufficiency," said Mrs. Peshterianu.

In Iraq, Mr. Putrus had completed a university degree, but he left school to work for the military, which offered high-paying jobs.

The combined income of his parents was about $300 a month in Iraq. His father was a diesel mechanic and his mother, who passed away while he was in Greece, was a nurse. The military started Mr. Putrus at $600 a month, and by the end of the year he was making $900, he said.

More than 300 interpreters working with U.S. troops have been killed since 2003, and some have been tortured by extremists who see them as traitors, according to the Washington Post.

Mr. Putrus quit his job with the military for a couple of weeks because his family was concerned for his safety. He could not find another job, so he went back to the military, but told no one except his family.

"You didn't know who you could trust," he said.

Eventually, not even a good paycheck could mitigate the well-founded fear for his and his family's lives.

After struggling in Turkey and Greece, Mr. Putrus, who is Christian, says the transition to resettle in Chattanooga has been relatively smooth.

"The good thing, specific to this city, is the people here. They are very friendly, very kind," he said. "I wasn't expecting that."

For companionship, he mainly visits another Christian Iraqi family who lives close to him. Mostly, though, he focuses on work and study, he says.

He talks to his family in Iraq almost every day by phone and chats to them often on the computer.

Although he is not in the job he wants, life is good, he said.

"Every beginning is hard, I just have to be patient and it will be good."