Guard wants immigrants to help translate, relate
August 31, 2005
WASHINGTON — Army Spc. Youssef Mandour has told his troops not to ask Iraqi soldiers about their wives and children, even if they’re trying to build up camaraderie with the foreign fighters.
“If I work with you in America every day, that would be something we could talk about,” he said. “But in Muslim culture, other men are not supposed to speak about your family at work. That might cause trouble, and might cause some of the Iraqi soldiers to feel uncomfortable and leave.”
Mandour, who recently finished a one-year tour in Iraq, has made negotiating those cultural differences his job. He emigrated from Morocco six years ago, and was among the first immigrants recruited by the service to act as both a translator and cultural adviser for Army forces in Iraq.
The experimental program signed up about 100 recruits in the program’s two-year run, which ended in March. But force officials said they added new depth to their translator corps, and now the Army National Guard has restarted the effort to find recruits with both language skills and social knowledge.
The program is active only in Michigan, Texas and California — the three largest centers of Arab-American immigrants in the U.S. — but will expand in the coming weeks to include communities in Florida, Virginia, New Jersey, New York and Ohio.
“Americans who are born here can spend 63 weeks learning how to translate documents and become a basic interpreter,” said Guard Capt. Bill Greer, national program manager for the translator effort. “But these people add another dimension. They understand cultural norms and taboos. They translate not only speech but behavior.
“They’re saving American troops’ lives over there.”
So far the Guard has recruited 16 immigrants in four months, and hopes to have nearly 100 trained and ready for work by next summer.
The program sends the new recruits through one year of boot camp and translator training, then requires they spend an additional year serving with U.S. forces overseas. Greer said about 9,000 translators are needed to support operations in Iraq, and a large portion of them currently are native Iraqis hired as contractors by the Army.
“But they may not always have the best interest of American troops in mind,” he said. “Here, we have Americans who know their culture and can build trust, but are soldiers that those units can rely on.”
Greer said he doesn’t expect the new program to eliminate the Guard’s translator needs, but said even a handful of the immigrant experts can add a critical depth to their entire translator force.
Mandour, who is now assisting with the Army National Guard’s translator program, said he was drawn to the Army because he wanted a chance to serve his adopted homeland.
“I also see this as a good chance for the U.S. in general to build a bridge with immigrants,” he said. “Sept. 11 created a gap with some communities, and this is a chance for the Army to fix that.”
The National Guard program is focused on 20 languages and dialects, most in the Middle East. Mandour said he developed an instant connection with Iraqis he dealt with because he is a native speaker.
“Being able to understand a language is one thing,” he said. “Speaking in a native tongue, and coming from a similar social background, is more valuable.”