Afghan interpreter finds refuge at Marine's home
By BARBARA BROTMAN | Chicago Tribune | Published: December 26, 2014
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (Tribune News Service) -- Every morning, Dinar sits in a folding chair in a second floor bedroom of a house in this university town and Skypes with his family a world away.
This is likely as close as he will ever be to them again.
Dinar, a 30-year-old Afghan man, was an interpreter for the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan and his service on behalf of the U.S. has cost him dearly.
He was targeted by death threats. He had to cut all visible ties to his family to protect them; for the same reason, he asked that his last name not be used here. And, in the end, he had to leave his country.
He is now starting over in an unfamiliar land. But he is not making the journey alone.
At his back -- and often downstairs at breakfast while Dinar is Skyping -- is Maj. Christopher Bourbeau, head of the Marine Corps subdivision of the Navy ROTC program at the University of Illinois.
In 2012-13, when Bourbeau was second in command of a Marine unit advising the Afghan national army, Dinar was one of his interpreters.
In gratitude for Dinar's decision to risk his life working with the Marines, Bourbeau has stepped forward to help him build a new one.
When Dinar got a special immigrant visa for Afghans and Iraqis whose service to the U.S. put them in danger in their homelands, Bourbeau volunteered to take him into his home and be his guide to America.
Working with Heartland Alliance, the Chicago resettlement agency that brought Dinar to the U.S., Bourbeau picked up Dinar at O'Hare International Airport on Sept. 17.
He drove Dinar to Champaign, where he and his wife, Katie, set up Dinar in a bedroom in their home in a quiet neighborhood.
Bourbeau helped Dinar through the paperwork of applying for a Social Security card and for temporary government assistance.
He took him to the secretary of state's facility to start the process of getting a driver's license.
He bought Dinar $900 worth of clothes for job interviews -- a suit, shirts and a tie, socks and dress shoes. He is trying to help Dinar get a civil service job at the university, which would offer educational benefits that could lead to an American college degree.
Bourbeau sees his actions as paying back a debt.
"He's done more for this country than a lot of people that live in this country," he said. "He's as much a Marine as I am."
Dinar sees Bourbeau's help as a crucial introduction to a new life.
"To find a person that guides you in a country where you know nobody ... that was quite helpful," he said.
The Bourbeaus are teaching him how to live in America, he said.
"They help me out about culture and people and society," he said. "They're, right now, everyone to me."
It is not uncommon for U.S. military personnel to step forward to help their former interpreters in some way when they come to this country, said Darwensi Clark, associate director of refugee family services at Heartland Alliance. About 30 percent of holders of special immigrant visas move into the house or the community of someone they knew in the U.S. military, he said.
But most people aren't able to take refugees into their homes and commit the substantial amount of time involved in resettling them.
"I find it so admirable that Chris is able to make that sacrifice," Clark said. "Immediately when I called him, it was very clear that ... he was going to be responsible for anything that was necessary or anything that was asked of him. And that is very rare."
Indeed, Bourbeau's offer was unconditional.
"It's a completely open-ended invitation, without any stipulations whatever -- whatever it takes to help him to get on his feet," Bourbeau said. "I'm prepared that he could live with us for years."
Dinar spent five years with the Marines, working, eating and living with them in his role as interpreter with the U.S.-led coalition.
He believed in its mission, he said. His father, an engineer for a software company in Germany, was killed by the Taliban on one of his visits home, Dinar said. The family, including Dinar, fled to Pakistan.
When Dinar returned to Kabul 11 years later, he found it much improved by the coalition forces. "Females were going to school; people could live normally," he said. "So I wanted to be part of the changes."
Raised in a well-educated family -- his mother is a university professor -- Dinar spoke seven languages, had completed teachers training and a culture and linguistics program at the Pakistan American Cultural Center, and had taught English to Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
He became one of the Marines' top interpreters.
"His linguistic capabilities and 24/7 attitude proved to be one of the underlying factors leading to Afghan national security forces' development in Helmand province," wrote a commanding officer in 2010.
"Dinar was one of the best that I've seen," as well as one of the bravest, said Bourbeau, an attack-helicopter pilot who did five tours of duty in direct support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He routinely volunteered for dangerous missions "outside the wire," as going off base is called, Bourbeau said.
"A lot of (interpreters) didn't want to do it. They were afraid. They didn't want to get hurt or killed," he said. "Dinar was always willing to go."
Bourbeau and Dinar rode together in armored vehicles along roads studded with improvised explosive devices. Dinar was Bourbeau's interpreter in his conversations with Afghan commanders, when Bourbeau monitored Afghan army battle operations and when he sat on the ground in tribal villages drinking tea with elders.
He translated more than just the languages.
"He was responsible for reading the emotions and the situation of whoever we were meeting with," Bourbeau said. "We put a lot of trust in him."
The work put Dinar in grave danger.
The Taliban target interpreters working for the U.S., said Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which resettles Afghan and Iraqi interpreters.
"We have numerous clients who have been shot, kidnapped and tortured," she wrote in an email. "A number of clients have had a parent or relative killed in retaliation for their work with the U.S. We have female clients who have been threatened with rape."
And Dinar was highly visible. He was often called upon to work for visiting dignitaries, including then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Photos and videos of him with Panetta and other American officials were widely disseminated in news media.
"I was exposed," he said.
He got death threats in letters tossed over the base fence overnight -- the much-feared "night letters" in which the Taliban mark someone they considered a traitor.
"At that point I decided there's no more future in Afghanistan. I must leave," he said.
A U.S. commander started a special immigrant visa application for Dinar as soon as he started working as an interpreter, but Dinar had not taken the prospect seriously. Now, however, he initiated another application, and pursued it with rigor.
Marine commanders gave their support. One wrote a letter describing how Dinar was in his vehicle when it was hit by a 200-pound IED and, despite sustaining some injuries, helped the Marines recover the vehicle and stayed to complete the dangerous mission.
Bourbeau added his voice:
"I have been witness to ongoing death threats directed at Dinar and his family," he wrote. "We as a nation and a U.S. Military owe a debt of gratitude to Dinar and must take responsibility for the current dire situation he now faces."
Five years after filing the first application, Dinar's visa was approved.
Meanwhile, Bourbeau began to consider doing more to help.
"I just felt like Dinar was very trustworthy. He was hardworking. His values are very similar to my values," he said in an interview at his home. "I wouldn't have any issue doing everything I could to help him out."
Bourbeau didn't make the decision lightly. He talked it over with Katie, a former Marine who now works as a project manager.
"I met Dinar on FaceTime," she said. "The next day Chris said, 'I'm thinking of asking him to live with us.'"
"How do you say no to giving someone a chance?" she said.
Dinar arrived at their home with a backpack, one bag -- and a new name
Because the way names are written on Afghan passports does not match U.S. consular guidelines, many visa holders find that their visas turn their first names into their last names and omit their real last names.
Dinar's first name, like that of a number of other interpreters, is, officially anyway, Fnu -- for First Name Unknown.
There have been other bumps in the road. On his first full day in America, Dinar boarded a bus near the Bourbeaus' home and ended up at a terminal where he told a clerk he wanted to go downtown, meaning Champaign.
He was put on a bus to Chicago instead.
"I was like, 'Man, I'm the worst sponsor on earth. I've lost my immigrant in one day,'" Bourbeau said.
Dinar, who did not yet have a cellphone, simply waited for three hours for the next bus back to Champaign.
In an effort to acclimate him culturally, the Bourbeaus take Dinar to sporting events and shows. On one of his first nights in America, they took him to see a Led Zeppelin tribute band.
"It was absolute sensory overload," Chris Bourbeau grinned.
"It was good, sir," said Dinar, whose speech is still peppered with Marine formalities.
"It was not good," said Katie, rolling her eyes.
Dinar and the Bourbeaus have settled into a warm friendship. Chris Bourbeau's high-energy social ease counters Dinar's quiet reserve. Katie Bourbeau's affection has led her to cook Dinar an Afghan meal, which Dinar praised.
"From the day he came here, he was just amazing," she said. "He's just such a gentle soul -- very chivalrous and kind. I haven't met a gentleman like that since I lived in the South."
"Dinar's been nothing but a great addition to the household," Chris Bourbeau said.
Dinar returns the affection, and adds gratitude. Still, he grieves what he has lost.
They include his planned marriage. When his fiance's family found out Dinar was an interpreter, he said, they told him it was too dangerous for her to marry him and returned the engagement ring.
He has nieces and nephews he has never met. His mother is relieved that he is safe, but on the phone one recent morning, she was crying.
"She said, 'I didn't know you would be disappearing, to be a vampire,'" he said.
Still, he has no regrets. The coalition he served brought stability to his country, he said.
And he is safe.
"I can sleep well," he said. "If I get lost at night, I'm not worried that someone is going to kill me."
Most people who encounter Dinar with the Bourbeaus know little about the quiet man in the Marines sweatshirt. But a few find out.
At a recent sled hockey exhibition game at the university -- where Dinar broke into uncharacteristic laughter as he and Chris strapped themselves into sleds used in the Paralympic sport and alternately raced and fell onto their sides -- they ended up talking with Patrick Byrne, who helps coach the RIC Blackhawks and who played on this day.
Bourbeau told Byrne what Dinar had done for the U.S. and how he had come here for sanctuary.
They sat on their sleds on the ice and Byrne listened, looking at Dinar.
"Welcome to the United States," he said. "And thank you."
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