It was with apprehension that I took my wife and young son, Omar, to the United States embassy in Baghdad not long ago. I wasn't nervous about being spotted visiting the embassy, or for any security reason.
I was nervous that, even though I am an American citizen as well as an Iraqi citizen, my family's visa applications would be denied. I see it happen so often to legitimate applications.
Thankfully, there was a miracle in Baghdad that day; their visa applications were granted within 24 hours of our interview.
While I am very happy that Suaad and Omar will get to tag along with me to Minneapolis this summer, the success of their visa applications and the speed with which they were processed stand in stark contrast to the usual long delays and rejections given without explanation.
For the past year and longer, I and the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project (IARP) have worked to get visas for residents of the city of Najaf to visit their "sister city" of Minneapolis.
Many Najafis want to visit Minneapolis, to make new friends and colleagues among Minnesotans. Najafis from many professions -- including doctors, lawyers, teachers, students, parents, business owners and others -- are eager to see a different side of Americans than the soldiers and occupation forces.
Unfortunately, these applicants for peace frequently are denied visas, and infrequently are given a good reason why.
After preparing their applications for an American visa, Najafis must make the three-hour car trip to Baghdad, find overnight lodging, and present themselves at the giant U.S. embassy complex.
It is not an easy process, and often leaves the very people who want to come to the United States to make friends, generate business and build connections feeling rejected and unhappy. This is an area of American policy that Iraqis do not understand.
A few of the many questions that Iraqis are required to answer on their visa applications:
• Are you coming to the United States to engage in prostitution or unlawful commercialized vice or have you been engaged in prostitution or procuring prostitutes within the past 10 years?
• Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities?
• Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization?
• Have you ever ordered, incited, committed, assisted, or otherwise participated in genocide?
• Have you ever engaged in the recruitment or the use of the child soldiers?
• Have you ever been directly involved in the coercive transplantation of human organs or bodily tissue?
The United States embassy states that it takes a maximum of six weeks for it to process visas for Iraqis to enter the United States. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.
For example, the president of a university in Najaf had to wait a (humiliating) two months to get his visa released. It was finally released after the IARP; my organization in Najaf -- the Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT), and the office of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota submitted a complaint.
A doctor and engineer recently waited six months to get their visas, and another doctor waited nine months before receiving his.
Iraqis face these delays and difficulties after being invaded and occupied by more than a million American troops, rotated in and out over nine years -- with no visas!
After decades of war, sanctions and occupation that have devastated Iraq, the United States should allow Iraqis who want to partner and make friends with Americans into the country. This is the least part of what the United States can do, but it is an important step toward reconciliation.
The IARP and MPT advocate for a more welcoming policy through communication with the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, by assistance to Iraqis who want to visit the United States, and by generating positive publicity for Iraqi visitors. I, Suaad and Omar look forward to seeing you in Minnesota this summer.
Sami Rasouli, an Iraqi-American, is a former 20-year resident of Minneapolis.