by Gabriel Skoletsky
They were outnumbered 50-15 in a Taliban ambush. Their ranking officer commanded them to hold their ground around the $1.3 million remains of a $1.3 million armored truck, dismembered by an Improved Explosive Device. Now they were out of grenades and low on ammunition. Matt Zeller and his comrades were fighting for their lives.
When a mortar round landed only a few meters away from Zeller, he believed things were taking a turn for the worst. “I’m 26 years old. It was April the 28th, 2008. It was a Monday. I’m gonna die on the side of this damn hill.” The firefight had been occurring for over an hour. In a state of momentary distraction, Zeller was unaware of the two armed Taliban fighters creeping up behind him. An Afghan translator named Janis Shinwari was peering outside of a reinforcing Humvee when he saw those two fighters. Springing to action, he knocked Zeller to the ground, and fired his AK-47. Matt Zeller knew he had met his “guardian angel.”
Isis, the Taliban, Al Qaeda–they’ve taken a page out of the North Korean playbook. They don’t just punish the person that served as the translator; they collectively punish multiple generations of one’s family.
Shinwari saved the lives of several American soldiers during his eight years of service. But that heroism came with a cost. It landed him on the top of the Taliban death list. “It used to be the only people after you were the bad guys. ISIS, the Taliban, Al Qaeda– they’ve taken a page out of the North Korean playbook. They don’t just punish the person that served as the translator, they collectively punish multiple generations of one’s family,” Zeller explained.
While in many communities it was once a position of honor for a local to aid Americans, now many of these same communities view aiding an American as an act of selfishness. The climate of fear either prevents many from becoming translators in the first place, or they cannot return home to safety once their service in the American military is complete.
Translators are vital for determining the success of American missions abroad, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vast majority of American soldiers do not speak Dari or Pashto, the predominant languages of Afghanistan. As an Embedded Combat Officer, Matt Zeller needed to train the future Afghan security forces, so they could one day self-sufficiently defend their own country. Translators provide the means for many of these soldiers to contact the local populace as well as being a necessary bridge between Afghan or Iraqi culture. As far as Zeller was concerned, translators were just as critical for the success of an American mission as anyone else.
After completing his service to the American forces, Shinwari’s attempts to find security for himself and his family posed an enormous challenge. Until 2009, the United States government made no explicit promises to protect these local allies from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Afghan Allies Protection Act was the initial embodiment of this promise by providing a limited number of special visas to to Afghans and their families who aided the United States in the war. As Shinwari’s experience tells, navigating through the system to acquire these visas can be a bureaucratic nightmare. The backlog from the thousands of applicants attempting to claim these visas often requires years on a waitlist. “We have a running list of Afghan — particularly Afghan — but in some cases Iraqi visa applicants who died waiting for their visas,” Zeller told CNN, acknowledging that “it’s a pretty regular occurrence.” Shinwari himself spent five years trying to obtain his visa.
When Shinwari had his visa mysteriously revoked by American embassy in Kabul in September 2013, Matt Zeller refused to allow the man that gave him a second chance to miss out on the peaceful life he deserved. Zeller instigated an aggressive media campaign, lobbied Congress and the State Department to secure visas for Shinwari and his family. On October 28th of that year, Zeller succeeded in securing Shinwari’s safety.
Once the State Department finally cleared Shinwari and his family to the enter the United States, Zeller soon learned he was responsible for finding them a place to live, enrolling his kids in school, and registering Shinwari’s wife into English class. Zeller’s financial limitations prevented him from securing these needs on his own. Instead, he appealed to the CBS news crew that broadcasting their airport reunion nationally. The news crew advertised a GoFundMe campaign for Shinwari’s family. It raised over $35,000. To Zeller’s astonishment, Shinwari refused to take the money. “What about everyone else at the base? Can we use this money to do for them what you’ve done for me?” Shinwari inquired. From that moment, Zeller and Shiwari worked together to ensure that these often overlooked heroes and veterans are not left behind– both in their home countries and as expatriates.
In 2013, Zeller and Shiwari founded No One Left Behind, a nonprofit organization that not only aims to navigate the visa process, but to also ensure that these families thrive once they arrived in the United States. At the very least, this organization’s relocation efforts hope to provide the translator families with food, housing and a car, as well as aiding job searches, registering family members into English languages, and pairing each family with a host American family to ease the cultural transition. Since 2013, they have raised almost $1 million dollars, all donated from private individuals, and have helped 2782 people. They now have operations in ten cities all throughout the country.
Ajmal Faquiri is just one of many experiences where No One Left Behind’s resettlement efforts made a difference. Faquiri received a special visa, and at one point, was the translator of former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. While Faquiri escaped the Taliban’s execution threat of his wife and two children after waiting four years for his visa, he did not receive an immediate happy ending. When told he and his family could not stay at the San Francisco airport, they were homeless, begging on the street for basic sustenance. A stranger allowed Faquiri to contact a fellow translator in Afghanistan, who then connected him with No One Left Behind. The next day, they were on a plane to Washington DC for eventual resettlement in North Virginia. They also received a used car from which Faquiri performed delivery services.
Zeller finds it especially encouraging when volunteers help to ease the tumultuous transition of translator families. “People from all across the country can do many things to help,” he explains, “We appreciate it when crowds welcome families at the airport and thank them for their service and sacrifices. We also appreciate it when people take time out of their weekends to help furnish their new homes. Additionally, we search for volunteers to support Operation Lost in Translation, which aims to help translators abroad to find the people they served with.”
What did I do for this country? They put the cuffs on. You know how many soldiers I touch by this hand?
The year 2017 brought new challenges to No One Left Behind. On January 27th, 2017, the Trump Administration issued its so-called travel ban, which affected 60 of No One Left Behind’s clients by either barring them from flights, physically removing them from planes, or arresting them once they arrived on US soil. Hameed Darwish, an Iraqi translator, was detained for 17 hours. Once immigration lawyers managed to release Darwish, he told demonstrators and reporters, “What did I do for this country? They put the cuffs on. You know how many soldiers I touch by this hand?”
Veterans across the country, including Zeller, accused the United States government of forgetting its own. Criticising the White House’s rationale for excluding translators, Zeller told CNN, “To get these visas from Iraq and Afghanistan you had to have served with our forces in the war, gone through the most stringent independent background checks from more than five of our security agencies and have an American sponsor. They have already gone through extreme vetting.” Zeller concludes the massive demonstrations from veterans along with lobbying from the Iraqi government forced an eventual announcement on February 2nd by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to support the “brave soldiers fighting in close coordination with America’s men and women in uniform.”
When the State Department ran out of visas in March 2017, Zeller observed it had been “night and day compared to even four months ago. “We have a very hostile government who is going to continue to do whatever they can to scuttle this program. They have currently let the entire visa program in Afghanistan run out visas.” By May, however, the Consolidated Appropriations Act for FY 2017 allocated 2,500 additional visas for Afghans employed on behalf of the US government.
While both Afghanistan and Iraq nationals are exempt from the reimplemented travel ban, the uncertainties of Washington have brought another unexpected challenge to No One Left Behind by increasing the anxieties of both Afghan and Iraqi translators. Once their visa is approved, translators have a certain window until they choose to settle in the United States. Many waited until the US government provided them a loan, to repay over a four year period, that would cover their travel expenses. “Since the travel ban came into effect,” adds Zeller, “you have a huge volume of applicants attempting to enter the country at once. They were procuring any resources they had to get on the next available plane.” Because a higher volume of visa holders are arriving into the country at once, this places a strain on No One Left Behind’s resources. “All of a sudden, so these families don’t end up homeless in a park somewhere, we have 48 hours to prepare food and housing.”
If the country needs translators in future conflicts, why should they join us if we don’t keep our promises?
When you enter No One Left Behind’s website, 2,782 people helped and 35,000 left behind flash across the screen. It is a jarring reminder of the vulnerability of trusted allies. As exemplified in Shinwari’s story, many of these translators served as protectors, equals on the battlefield. “We are Afghans,” Janis Shinwari informed a Hamilton College audience, “We like our guests. We don’t want someone to kill our guests in front of our eyes. You [Zeller] left your beautiful country and family to come here and fight for my freedom. At least, I can do something for you and save your life—that’s it.”
Matt Zeller hopes to ensure the United States honors the promise they made to veterans from as early as 2009. To him, the country should not only keep this promise because it is the right thing to do, but also to practically maintain its credibility. If the country needs translators in future conflicts, why would they join us if we don’t keep our promises? After aiding the translator that saved his life, Matt could have moved on with his life, and allow the vulnerable to attend to their own fate. Instead, his own sense of duty to others informed him that No One Left Behind must exist until the United States government is “the solution to this problem,” not a non-profit.
* All Matt Zeller quotations are from an interview with the author unless otherwise noted. All photos are courtesy of Matt Zeller. You can find out how to help at http://nooneleft.org/make-a-difference/.