"I hadn't realized how many people had suffered Yaghdan's situation or worse," Johnson says. So he searched for his other Iraqi colleagues and found that 50, roughly half, had fled Iraq or were in hiding.
The State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration promised to give them priority. That was in February 2007. But time passed, and none seemed any closer to coming to safety. "The bureaucracy is just incapable of saving these people," Johnson says.
He pulls up a picture on his computer, a group shot of USAID workers he took in Baghdad in 2005. His finger touches the faces of those now dead or forced to flee.
The imminent danger facing the people on his list drives Johnson through long days juggling phone calls to two law firms helping to handle the cases pro bono. He also talks with key agencies in the refugee-processing system and to groups that might have still more names. He sifts through the e-mails that keep pouring in with pleas for help. Ties to the US or its allies can still be a death sentence in Iraq.
When Johnson started, he dedicated every penny he had to saving lives, relying on friends for housing. "There was a point when I'd buy a box of Triscuits and see how many meals I could get out of it," he says.
Today, one of the law firms lets him use an extra apartment. He funds the Project, including hiring three Iraqi staffers, from money donated by a philanthropic couple and the California-based Tides Foundation – enough for seven more months.