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“Gina” had a husband and a baby daughter when the United States invaded Iraq. In quick succession, her 11-month-old died from lack of medical care, and her husband left her. Trained as an English teacher, she switched from working as a translator for a CBS News reporter to working for the U.S. Army in the field. For four years, Gina, whose real name is not being used, left the relative safety of a Baghdad base where she lived to go on combat patrols with U.S. troops, translating for them as they hunted for insurgents and terrorists. She barreled into torture houses, got caught in the middle of skirmishes and stood feet away from soldiers cut down in the crossfire and blown apart by improvised explosive devices. Gina wanted to leave her homeland for almost two decades and lived in Jordan for several years but failed to obtain a British or U.S. visa. After witnessing the Iraq war on the front lines, Gina again pushed to leave the country that had become a dangerous place for people deemed sympathetic to Americans. With the help of a Boca Raton, Fla., attorney, Gina arrived in Washington state in May after a prolonged effort to get U.S. approval and a fretful monthlong holdup because of a counterfeit passport. Commercial litigator Gary Kovacs, an associate at Proskauer Rose, tried unsuccessfully to get a special visa for her. He helped her navigate a complicated refugee application process when the first effort failed. Kovacs’ work was part of a larger pro bono project called the List Project, a nonprofit that helps bring Iraqis who helped U.S. forces and other Americans to the United States. He is one of several Proskauer Rose attorneys in South Florida who donate their time to help people they have never met escape a country they have never been. “It’s a very frustrating process to try to navigate someone through this maze, really, when there’s so much at stake and hanging in the balance,” Kovacs said. “The client looks to you as the person in the United States — the person that is going to help them and ultimately get them to America.” Kovacs worked with New York colleague Eric Blinderman, who paired with the List Project after spending several years working in Iraq. Lawyers from Holland & Knight and Mayer Brown also volunteered with the nonprofit. IMMIGRATION HOOPS Without her attorneys, Gina said she wouldn’t have made it out of Iraq. “There are points in the law I don’t understand,” she said. “I suffered big problems. Without the help of Mr. Eric, I couldn’t come to the United States.” Kovacs took on Gina’s case in July 2007, shortly after the List Project became aware she was trying to get out of Iraq. Gina learned English while training to become an English teacher, a job she found she didn’t like. After the invasion, she learned news media needed English interpreters. The CBS reporter she worked with tried to get her out but also suggested she work for the U.S. Army because she wouldn’t have to leave the base on her own. “She advise I work with the U.S. Army because thats the only safe place for me,” the 46-year-old woman said. “Reporters and the media are very important targets at that time.” She started working with the military in June 2005, moving onto an Army base and going on combat patrols with soldiers — sometimes for weeks at a time — as troops searched for insurgents and members of the Mahdi Army and al Qaeda. Her role was to translate for soldiers trying to locate their quarry. She often faced snipers and rockets. She got stuck in mud on a night patrol and feared she would be an easy target. She recalled eating lunch with people who were hired the following day to attack the army. “We are doing our job to secure the area to help those locals, and we suffer killing of our soldiers,” Gina said. “They cooperate for any side for money and forget about our sacrifice and help.” Kovacs started by helping Gina prepare an application for a special immigration visa. But that would have required a letter of recommendation from a general or admiral — a roadblock that Kovacs said became next to impossible to clear. The associate reached out to sergeants and others to move the request up the chain of command. But soldiers kept rotating out of Iraq, and no letter was forthcoming. Kovacs and Blinderman also tried for a student visa, which failed. As time went on, President George W. Bush signed the Iraqi Refugee Crisis Act. Spearheaded by U.S. Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., the law authorized 5,000 special immigrant visas annually for Iraqis who worked with the United States. Previously, only 50 slots were reserved for translators who helped U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kovacs and Blinderman helped prepare Gina’s application and coached her on questions to prepare for her immigration interviews. “It was going over one by one every single incident that has ever occurred to her and people in similar situations — who was threatened, who was kidnapped, who was killed, what threats have you received,” Blinderman said. “You put that together in a time line so people can understand her story and why it is that she must leave that country in order to survive.” Gina cleared the refugee process and was slated to leave the country April 20. Kovacs sent Blinderman an e-mail that day, saying: “If I am correct, today is the big day. Have you heard anything? Do we know if she has departed?” Blinderman’s response: “Disaster struck.” Kovacs wanted to put his head on the desk. “We had been working so long, waited so long for this day and wanted it to be a celebration,” he said. “I couldn’t believe this was happening.” PASSPORT TROUBLE Because Gina was afraid to leave her base to get a passport, she had a fellow interpreter go for her, but it turned out to be fake. On the day she was due to fly out, the counterfeit was spotted, the passport was confiscated, Gina was not allowed to board the plane, and she was charged with carrying a forged document. She took a taxi back to the base but she was barred from entering because she already had turned in her identification and checked out of the base, thinking she was leaving for good. Her former supervisor helped place her on another base. “If anyone saw her and dimed her out to the insurgents, she would take that trip to the passport agency and never take it back,” Blinderman said. Kovacs and Blinderman immediately called Iraqi government officials and foreign service officers. They telephoned U.S. Embassy officials and Iraqi officials to find out the status of the passport charge and see if there was an immigration hold on her. Kovacs kept in touch with Gina to provide both updates and comfort. The attorneys successfully got a valid passport for her, and she left Iraq on May 26. Gina now lives with the family of a soldier she worked with in Iraq. She’s learning how to drive and taking it easy before looking for work. The two lawyers estimated they spent 80 hours each on Gina’s case between the time she was scheduled to leave in April and her eventual departure. Kovacs commended the Iraqi officials who helped clear Gina for travel. “They really are the ones that put themselves on the line,” he said. “It’s easy for me to sit here in Boca Raton and talk about this, but I don’t know if it’s the same way if I’m going out on the streets of Baghdad tonight.” IRAQ VETERAN Blinderman, the international litigation counsel for Proskauer Rose in New York, spent three years in Iraq working with the Defense and Justice departments and helped manage deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s trial. While in Iraq, Blinderman said several of his translators were killed, including a father of six who was gunned down in front of his wife and children. “The moment you begin working for the United States you become a target,” Blinderman said. He worked on the immigration cases of translators who took different routes to and from work and changed their clothes for their commute so they would look different. One translator found a severed dog’s head with a note telling him he was next. Another translator’s uncle was kidnapped and tortured, and the body was dumped with a warning of what could happen to him. Proskauer Rose has worked on 150 cases for more than 400 Iraqis seeking help, Blinderman said. More than 80 lawyers and staff members from the firm have donated time. The firm helped 100 Iraqis reach the United States by May. Boca Raton associate Jennifer Kramer is handling four cases. She has been with the firm for two years and has worked on Iraqi immigration cases for one year. She said she signed up because it seemed like a great opportunity to help people. She is representing an Iraqi doctor in his 30s who worked for an nongovernmental organization, was kidnapped and was freed after his family paid a $50,000 ransom. He is now in hiding. “We’re hoping to get him over here within the next six months,” said Kramer, who normally handles real estate for the firm. She said she communicates with him via e-mail and mobile phone. Her other cases are inactive because she lost contact with the Iraqis. “All of a sudden you don’t hear from them anymore,” Kramer said. “Who knows where they go. You hope they go somewhere safe, but you don’t know. Cleveland lawyer David Leopold, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association who was not involved with Gina’s case, said, “My hat goes off to any lawyer who takes the time to do pro bono work.” Kovacs takes little credit. “It felt in some ways that we weren’t doing enough or aren’t doing enough to help the people that helped the U.S. military in Iraq and throughout the world,” said Kovacs, who grew up on bases while his father served in the Air Force. “It was my little part in trying to do something to help someone who has put themselves in harm’s way for us as a nation.”

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