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A new life for battlefield translators

By JEANETTE STEELE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 20, 2015

His name is "Jack."

In Afghanistan, he grew up tending cows and a goat on family land far from the provincial capital of Kandahar.

"Jack" learned English so he could work with U.S. troops in his homeland "because they are helping us," he recently said via email.

Today, he is set to arrive in San Diego to start his new life as a refugee. Then he can reveal his true name.

The 23-year-old Afghan native is one of nearly 30,000 foreign nationals who since 2007 have successfully parlayed working for the United States in Iraq or Afghanistan into a new American existence.

But it hasn't been an easy or certain road.

The special visa program for these people – 70 percent of whom worked as translators and interpreters for U.S. troops – has been criticized as being too cumbersome and taking too long to bring over qualified applicants.

While American soldiers are largely gone from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of the locals who stood with them are still there – and in danger, advocates said.

Matt Zeller was a 26-year-old Army first lieutenant when his interpreter, Janis Shinwari, saved his life in Afghanistan in 2008.

"Janis literally shot and killed two Taliban fighters who were about to kill me. After that, I made him the solemn promise if I could ever repay that debt, I would," said Zeller, a former Army intelligence officer and one-time congressional candidate.

Despite Zeller's help, it was a three-year odyssey for Shinwari to get his visa. When the interpreter and his family finally landed at Reagan National Airport in 2013, they were entering an iPhone culture after leaving a country where many people still don't have email access.

Zeller and Shinwari decided to assist others in similar circumstances navigate the system. In late 2013, they formed the charity No One Left Behind. The group has helped resettle 500 former interpreters and their families.

Zeller said the need for their kind of support is high. He described the situation as more than 14,000 people vying for the 2,500 special visas still available to Afghan interpreters.

In 2006, Congress first acted to approve special visas for Afghans and Iraqis who helped the United States. The criteria required at least a year of service and being able to pass a security test.

In the following years, Congress increased the number of visas available, but critics said the application process was unnecessarily difficult and often resulted in paperwork bottlenecks.

In response to media scrutiny and lobbying by advocates such as Zeller, Congress has increased the number of visas and the State Department has streamlined the process somewhat – although the average processing time for an Afghan application is still 13 months.

Security clearances are the biggest roadblock. While these interpreters have in theory already proven their allegiance, vigilance remains high.

The situation was not helped by the 2011 arrest of two Iraqi refugees in the U.S. on charges of terrorism. Then this May in Texas, an Iraqi immigrant who may have served as an interpreter was arrested for lying to the FBI about swearing allegiance to the jihadist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, according to news reports.

But people who have worked with interpreters see them as brothers in arms.

Robin Kimmelman was a U.S. legal adviser to the Afghan National Army from 2012 to 2014. "Jack" was her interpreter.

"I could not have done my job without him, and he definitely kept me safe while I was there," said Kimmelman, who helped the Afghan man wade through the visa process for more than two years. "I wanted to make sure we took care of him and got him to safety."

"Jack" is No One Left Behind's first transplant to San Diego County. Zeller said the group hopes to create a hub in this region because of its large post-9/11 veteran population.

A 51-year-old Iraqi immigrant who goes by the name "Johnny Walker" already knows the road ahead.

When you arrive at Walker's small house in eastern San Diego County, there's a U.S. flag hanging out front, accompanied by a Navy SEAL banner.

Walker, wearing dark sunglasses and drinking a Coors Light, is a tall man with military-cropped hair.

On his patio are the signposts of his distinctive history: There's a hookah pipe for smoking pungent Middle Eastern tobacco and there's a shiny, metal American BBQ grill.

A native of Mosul, Iraq, he arrived in the United States in 2009 after working as an interpreter for Navy SEALs, who gave him his nickname.

He claims as many as 1,000 missions during five years as a SEAL interpreter. (You can read about it in his 2014 biography, "Code Name: Johnny Walker," published by William Morrow.)

After the war ended, he wanted to remain in Iraq and continue fighting for his country. But it meant his family would stay on the run and in danger.

"I thought, 'If I'm leaving Iraq, who will stay in Iraq and fight for Iraqi freedom?' " he said in a recent interview.

The situation became unbearable when he traveled from Baghdad to Mosul to visit his family.

"When I had a vacation, don't think I was taking my family to Disneyland or Vegas – no!" Walker recalled. "I would just stay in my room and stand by with my AK-47 or grenade. If somebody attacked my house, I can protect my family. It was kind of torturing, and I have no option."

In the United States, the first thing he did was go to Target to buy an American-style shirt.

Walker was lucky. His Navy SEAL buddies stood by him, securing him an on-base job and a hand-me-down car.

The Iraqi will now try to do the same for "Jack," despite the differences in their cultural backgrounds. "Jack" will stay with Walker and his family until he gets acclimated.

In general, refugees – Afghan and Iraqi interpreters fall into this category – receive a modest financial welcome from the U.S. government.

In San Diego, they can receive a $1,125 initial stipend to get settled, according to people familiar with the process. Afterward, single adults and couples without children are eligible for up to eight months of cash assistance, food stamps and Medi-Cal coverage. The cash benefit is $350 for singles and $569 for couples.

Families with children can get more assistance over a longer period.

No One Left Behind offers its recipients a little more, including home furnishings and three months of living expenses.

Zeller said he has seen the former interpreters land work as landscapers, car salesmen, gas station attendants and retail clerks. If they can get a vehicle, they often parlay a pizza delivery job into a nicer car and then work as an Uber or Lyft driver.

"Jack," after he settles in, apparently wants to join the U.S. military.

He wrote in his recent email: "After six years of working, I faced my villagers with the American uniform. Oh my god, I was scared. ... Now I sleep during the day and I am awake during the night to protect myself from night attack."

The young Afghan concluded, "I want to come to America for high education. ... I am interested in music and studying. I hope it is all you need to know."

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(c)2015 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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