By Jessica Coomes, The Express-Times
WASHINGTON, D.C. | A half a world away from his family in Bethlehem, George Bou Jaoudeh lives and works at the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, integrating Iraqi police officers into security operations.
It's not a job Bou Jaoudeh imagined himself taking when he left war-scarred Lebanon in 2004 for the United States. But, as a new immigrant without citizenship, he said, he could not find another job in the security field.
Now, as the time comes for 49-year-old Bou Jaoudeh to apply for citizenship, the years he spent outside of the country could derail his naturalization application.
Applicants must spend at least a year in the United States, but Bou Jaoudeh's civilian job for the U.S. government has required him to be in Iraq for four months at a time with 20-day respites in Bethlehem.
Bou Jaoudeh said he deserves a waiver because of his service to the American government, and he has received backing from an area member of Congress, support of two American ambassadors and an assurance from the homeland security secretary to work on the case.
'Saved my life'
Bou Jaoudeh spent 17 years as a security official at the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon, where he was responsible for protecting American ambassadors, including Ryan Crocker, who now is the ambassador to Iraq.
"His prescience and diligence probably saved my life and other official Americans on a number of occasions," Crocker wrote in a letter supportive of Bou Jaoudeh after his citizenship troubles arose.
Vincent Battle, another former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, said Bou Jaoudeh is "among the finest security professionals that I have worked with in nearly 30 years of government service" in a 2006 letter of recommendation.
In Lebanon, violence touched Bou Jaoudeh personally. Terrorists killed some of his family members, including his mother, he said.
So in 2004, when he was awarded a visa to the United States, he moved his wife and sons to Bethlehem. He chose the Lehigh Valley because some of his family members already were calling it home.
For eight months, Bou Jaoudeh said, he drained his savings while searching for a security-related job, only to be rejected time and time again because he was not an American citizen.
"You can't imagine the stress at home," Bou Jaoudeh said in a telephone interview last week from his apartment at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. "My wife cried every night. I cried every night."
Finally, when Bou Jaoudeh said he had just $1,000 in his bank account, he contacted officials he knew at the U.S. State Department and appealed for a job. He was offered a position in Iraq, and he accepted.
'Should be rewarded'
Though Bou Jaoudeh has been overseas working for the American government, officials cannot waive rules that require citizenship applicants to have lived continuously in the United States, Michael Aytes, acting deputy director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, wrote recently to U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Lehigh Valley.
Dent has taken on Bou Jaoudeh's case and intends to introduce legislation in Congress that would exempt him from the residency mandate.
Besides leaving the United States before he had been in the country for one full year, Bou Jaoudeh did not know he should have filed paperwork with the government to preserve his residency. By the time he submitted the forms, it was too late.
Dent said the government has treated Bou Jaoudeh unfairly.
"If this man is not eligible for citizenship, I don't know who is," the congressman said. "His loyal, dedicated service to our nation should be rewarded with citizenship, and it should be rewarded quickly. I believe he has met the requirement."
Last week, when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified before Congress, Dent pressed her on Bou Jaoudeh's case.
"One of the things we need to have is the flexibility to deal with special cases," Napolitano said. "I'd be glad to work with you on that."
'It's not fair'
Dent is Bou Jaoudeh's last hope.
"I don't have any other options," Bou Jaoudeh said. "If he fails, it will be catastrophic for me and my family."
Living away from his wife has taken a toll on his marriage, Bou Jaoudeh said. His wife and sons did not want to come to the United States in 2004, but Bou Jaoudeh insisted, calling the country a place of peace.
Bou Jaoudeh even bought a house in Bethlehem, so his wife would feel connected to the country.
"It's not the life I promised my family," Bou Jaoudeh said. "It's not fair. I can handle it, but for my wife and my sons, they don't deserve to be treated like this. They don't have to be disappointed like this.
"I came to the United States full of pride and hope. Look where I end up."
For those family reasons, Bou Jaoudeh said, he does not want to continue working in Iraq after his contract ends this year.
To find security work close to home, Bou Jaoudeh said, he needs his citizenship.
Jessica Coomes is Washington, D.C., correspondent for The Express-Times. She can be reached at 202-731-5316 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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