Before Afghan immigrant Noorulhaq Fazly came to Pittsburgh a little more than one year ago, he only knew one other person in the city. So, two months ago, when his wife went into labor at 2 a.m., and he needed someone to watch his other two children, he could’ve panicked.
Thankfully, he had the people involved in No One Left Behind to turn to. The national nonprofit organization helps immigrants like Fazly, who have worked with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fazly reached out to a volunteer with the organization, and the volunteer drove more than an hour to help.
“It means a lot to us, and we will never forget what she did for us,” Fazly says. “This is the kind of thing this organization is providing. We are very grateful for these people.”
This summer, No One Left Behind launched a branch in Pittsburgh. The veteran-run organization serves combat interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan, who decided to leave their native countries after being threatened for working with the United States.
“I worked with interpreters in Iraq when I was there and have seen the sacrifices they make,” says Matt Landis, director of NOLB’s Pittsburgh chapter. “Outside of what they were doing with us, they were facing an entirely separate danger. At the end of the day, we all went behind guarded walls where we had marines at the gate and barbed-wire fences, and they would leave and go home every night and have to face the enemy.”
Interpreters like Fazly and others who have worked with the United States in the Middle East are eligible for special immigrant visas. But the process is long and arduous and applicants are often living under constant threat while they wait. Nationally, NOLB works to make that process run more smoothly, while in branches around the country, it works to ensure these immigrant families feel welcome upon arrival.
Prior to launching in August, local NOLB organizers began working with other resettlement agencies in the city to help interpreters and their families acclimate to Pittsburgh. On Sept. 13, the chapter will officially welcome its first family.
“We don’t just bring them in, drop them off and say, ‘Thank you, welcome, see ya,’” says Sean Cercone, NOLB’s airport operations coordinator. “We make sure they realize they are friends, they are brothers in arms, and they are now a part of our Pittsburgh community.”
In 2012, Fazly began working as an interpreter with the United States in Afghanistan. In addition to working as an interpreter, he also provided security analysis, focusing on counter-terrorism efforts.
“Most of our job was to interpret, to translate and to act as a culture adviser,” Fazly says. “But we did more than interpretation. Our role was kind of a bridge between community, [local] government, and U.S. government and military. We were in the middle.”
But Fazly says early on in his position, part of him regretted his decision to work with the United States. Soon after he began working, he and his family started to receive threats.
“People, friends and neighbors stopped seeing me as a friend,” says Fazly. “What I was doing was for the good of the nation and the country. I wanted to help my community by removing the bad guys and bringing peace. But then there were people in the community who didn’t like me anymore.
“After one year, I found myself and my family in danger. I continued because I knew I was helping my people and helping the peace process. We were fighting against corruption, injustice, fighting for women’s rights, children’s rights. I thought, if I want to help my country, this is the best way.”
Then the consulate Fazly was working at was attacked, and 12 people were killed. Fazly was on his way to the consulate when it happened.
“We couldn’t find their dead bodies,” Fazly says. “They were in pieces. Twelve people disappeared.”
In 2013, Fazly began the process of applying for a special immigrant visa. But he and his family remained in danger for an additional three years while the visa was being processed, and he continued working with the U.S.
“Unfortunately, there are some people, they are against government, they are against humanity,” Fazly says. “I could not live there anymore. I was too exposed. I received threats, people were following me. A part of me really wanted to stay and work, but my family’s lives were under threat.”
And Fazly wasn’t just under threat from terrorist organizations like the Taliban. He and others working with the United States were targeted by thieves, and his car was stolen.
“If they knew you were working for the U.S. government, there was a very wrong perspective that you were rich,” Fazly says. “So, they’ll kidnap your son, they’ll steal your car, they’ll break into your house. We were afraid to tell people we were working with the U.S. government. And then you have the other bad guys who are against the presence of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. A lot of people were against us. That’s why I decided to leave.”
Fazly says he chose Pittsburgh as his family’s new home based on internet research and advice from a friend who had moved to the city a few years earlier. He was actually attracted to the city because it doesn’t have a large Afghan community, and he thought it would be easier for his wife and children to assimilate if they weren’t insulated from the larger Pittsburgh community.