Posted by Sabrin Qadi on June 30, 2015 in Blog

left_behind_1.jpegWhat ever happened to the Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who signed up and served proudly alongside U.S. soldiers overseas? They were left behind.

Matt Zeller, founder of the non-profit organization, No One Left Behind, has dedicated the next decade of his life to bringing every interpreter who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan war, and their family, to the United States. Zeller was a service member in Afghanistan, a wounded combat veteran who did a one time tour. His zealous advocacy in support of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters comes from the fact that his Afghan interpreter, Janis Shinwari, came to his aid during a nearly fatal ambush. In 2008, Zeller found himself running low on ammunition and grenades while encountering the worst firefight of his life surrounded by forty-five Taliban fighters. They had been fighting nonstop for an hour. A mortar round sent Zeller flying into a ditch where he said a little prayer and waited for a bullet or mortar to hit him again; they were too close and accurate to miss him. The sounds of an AK-47 went off and two Taliban fighters were laid dead. Zeller looked up to see his interpreter Shinwari looking down at him with a rifle (interpreters are armed only in Afghanistan under specific circumstances, but not Iraq). Shinwari saved Zeller's life. His heroic act to save Zeller's life made him a prime target for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

As soon as Zeller returned to the U.S., he endured a long and tedious process of trying to secure Shinwari and his family safe passage to the U.S. He was only successful after involving a dozen members of Congress and carrying out a national media campaign. In October 2013, Janis and his family migrated to the United States. Zeller successfully raised $30,000 to help them resettle comfortably. When he went to give him the money, Janis asked if they could use that money to help resettle other Afghan and Iraqi translators. In that moment the two war veterans, bound by their experiences on the battlefield, collaborated to start the organization, No One Left Behind.

The organization assists combat interpreters in receiving their Special Immigration Visa (SIV) for resettlement in the United States. When the interpreters first step onto American ground, they come with nothing more than a suitcase full of clothes and the dream of building a new life. They are disconnected from family and friends—as they can be viewed as “traitors” to some within their country—have little or no money, and are under-prepared to find jobs.

No One Left Behind takes initiative and actively helps interpreters and their families by carrying out essential assistance programs. 'Operation Welcome Home' provides funding and assistance in locating, furnishing, and maintaining temporary housing and transportation in their city of residence. They assist each interpreter and their family in applying for government benefits and enrolling children in school. The wives of the interpreters are provided with free English classes in order to help them begin the first step in adapting to life in the United States.

'Operation Got Your Back' assists them through their initial job search. The program assists the interpreters with compiling resumes, learning interview etiquette and professional networking. 'Operation Lost in Translation' reunites the translators and the military members with whom they served to help with additional guidance in the SIV application process and the adaptation to their new lives.

No One Left Behind is filling in for the lack of efforts and investment into this issue from the State Department. According to an article in The New York Times, State Department officials stated there is no priority given to certain applications. The U.S. owes a debt to these individuals and needs to prioritize these translators first and foremost. It should not be considered favorability, but rather recognition, and appreciation of their faithful and valuable service to this country. A letter sent on March 5, 2013 to The White House and the State Department, signed by nineteen members of congress exposed the issue of how between the Fiscal Years of 2008 and 2012 only 5,500 out of 25,000 visas were issued to Iraqi SIV's, and 1,051 out of 8,500 were issued to Afghan SIV's. In October 2012, the Washington Post reported that over 5,000 documentarily complete Afghan SIV applications remained in a backlog.

These interpreters are not just people who translate, they should be considered war veterans for their service with this nation's military. The U.S. has an immense responsibility to honor its commitment to protecting and fulfilling its promise to them. They deserve more than to be listed on a backlog in an office. They should be entitled to the same respect and support as other veterans.

Sabrin Qadi is an intern with the Arab American Institute