Soldiers help their former Afghan interpreter settle into new life
By RYAN BAKKEN | The Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald | Published: April 12, 2014
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Mohammad Hussain took care of the soldiers from the Grand Forks-based National Guard unit when they deployed to Afghanistan for a year, serving as their interpreter and guide to country’s culture.
Eight years later, they’re taking care of him.
Hussain and his wife, Raihana, are settling into a new, safer life in Grand Forks, mostly through the efforts of Capt. Dawn Holm, a 44-year-old Hallock, Minn., resident who was a volunteer medic with the 188th Air Defense Artillery Regiment in Afghanistan.
“He was hired as an interpreter, but he also helped us at the clinic,” Holm said. “He took time out of his day to teach us medics the local customs, culture, language and faith.
“He also taught us the medical treatments that would be acceptable to the culture. The man made my deployment a positive, rewarding, educational experience.”
Holm has reciprocated that kindness since the Hussains arrived in Grand Forks on March 12. She makes the two-hour round trip from Hallock to Grand Forks five days a week. Four weekly visits are for helping the immigrants adjust to life here, such as taking them to doctor and eye exam appointments, grocery shopping, balancing their checkbook and teaching them the workings of the local bus system.
The Sunday visits are for social reasons, as she is accompanied by husband Gary and four of their six children.
“They treat us like we’re family members,” said Hussain, who speaks fluent English. “That’s the way the North Dakota soldiers treated me (in Afghanistan), too.”
According to other Guard members, the Holm family has been generous in donating money, along with the time, to the Hussains. But Dawn deflects all questions regarding their philanthropy.
“It’s not just us,” she said. “Donations have come from other Guard sources, too.”
Lutheran Social Services workers also are helping the couple make the adjustment to America.
Coming to N.D.
When the Guard soldiers came home in 2007, they made repeated unsuccessful attempts to bring the Hussains here because they knew the Taliban and other insurgents often punished interpreters for helping Americans.
That’s exactly what happened in September 2010. Mohammad was beaten, leading a Navy doctor to start the paperwork to get the Hussains a visa. Typical of the red tape involved for such a move, it took more than three years for it to happen.
Holm said she didn’t play a role in the issuance of the visa. But she concedes that she made the pitch for them being located in Grand Forks.
“North Dakotan soldiers were different from other American soldiers there in how they treated the Afghan people,” she said. “And I thought Grand Forks would offer the most support because of the military contacts that had been made here.
“I also knew the North Dakota economy was strong, so there would be no problem finding Mohammad a job.”
Another reason for the relocation in Grand Forks is that Raihana would be close to a sister and her family in Winnipeg. The Hussains have an adult son who moved to Denmark before they moved here.
“They call us New Americans here; they don’t call us refugees,” Hussain said. “That makes me feel good.”
A team effort
As Holm anticipated, others from the 188th in Afghanistan have pitched in to help.
Greg Kaiser of East Grand Forks, now retired from the Guard, provides transportation for Mohammad’s classes at Northland Community & Technical College, where he is taking a month-long course to become a certified nursing assistant.
“We came back and fell back into our old lives, but Dawn was the one who really kept pushing,” Kaiser said. “Regardless of how he got here, his friends here are going to make sure he’s well taken care of and enjoys his life.”
Advice is among Kaiser’s contributions.
“I’ve told him not to be afraid of the police,” he said. “Over here, they’re the good guys and you don’t have to pay them off. Afghan cops are totally opposite.”
Mark Nelson, a member of the 188th and a captain with the Grand Forks Police Department, helped the couple find an apartment building that is located across the street from his home, making him readily available if needed.
“(Mohammad) is a very dedicated, humble person and the epitome of service,” Nelson said. “He revitalizes that American dream that we take for granted.
“With all the sacrifices he and his family made for us over there, he’s more than paid it forward.”