No One Left Behind gets combat interpreters out of harm’s way in the Middle East | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

No One Left Behind gets combat interpreters out of harm’s way in the Middle East

“I worked with interpreters in Iraq when I was there and have seen the sacrifices they make.”

No One Left Behind gets combat interpreters out of harm’s way in the Middle East
CP photo by Jake Mysliwczyk
No One Left Behind Pittsburgh Director Matt Landis

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.

“I wanted to be in a community with less Afghans because I wanted my wife to learn English and my children,” Fazly says. “I wanted them to learn a new culture.”

When Fazly, who has a background in legal and political research analysis, first arrived, he and his family lived in Oakland, and he worked for the University of Pittsburgh. Today the family lives in Squirrel Hill, and Fazly is a manager for American Transportation, which transports students. 

“My impression of Pittsburgh has been positive. The community is very welcoming,” Fazly says. “One of the things I like about this city is women can do things. They can study, they can do work.”

Fazly and his family were resettled in Pittsburgh through the Northern Area Multi-service Center. Later NOLB began working with the family and he says they have been an invaluable asset since.

“They provide a lot of support. There are a lot of different organizations around Pittsburgh, but No One Left Behind is different because they know what we did in Afghanistan. They understand us. They received help from us. We feel like a family,” Fazly says. “I feel much more comfortable than before. If something happens … you have friends to help you. Anytime, it doesn’t matter when.”

NOLB provides a number of services to families like Fazly’s. Together with volunteers, they help get the new immigrant families housing and also furnish the homes. Additionally, they help the families find employment and English classes, enroll children in school, and connect them to medical services. 

“We welcome them home the same way we welcome our own veterans, because they are our own veterans,” says Landis, a veteran who served from 1999-2009 as a helicopter pilot. “We greet them with a hero’s welcome.”

But perhaps most importantly, NOLB also provides each family with a mentor to serve as their “first friend.”

“If they’re trying to navigate the public-transportation system, or they need to know where to go to get a driver’s license, or they have questions about legal things, or where’s the best place to find halal food in the city, we have people who will be assigned to them,” says Landis. “What we’ve seen in other cities that have done this for a longer time is those first friends end up being friends for a long time.”

In addition to the regional services NOLB provides, the national organization also lobbies in Washington, D.C., to help bring more families to the United States. Right now, NOLB is working on a bill that would declare Iraqi and Afghan interpreters as honorary veterans.

“It’s the right thing to do,” says Cercone, an aircraft mechanic with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. “I may never, due to my job in the military, have an interpreter or meet one, but a lot of my friends, my fellow soldiers, who have had interpreters while deployed, I empathize with the experience they’ve had with their interpreters, and I share their frustration in the fact that it seems like we’re forgetting and leaving people behind.”

On average, the process of applying for a special immigrant visa takes between three and four years. As of Dec. 31, 2016, 9,562 Afghans and 248 Iraqis had pending applications. But while the lengthy process of applying for a visa has frustrated organizations like NOLB, many see it as a necessity. 

“It’s an important thing. It’s tough for it to be that long,” Landis says. “That’s a long time for guys to remain in danger. But at the same time, if we bring one bad apple here, the whole program could go away, so we very badly need to ensure we’re bringing guys who need to be here.”

And NOLB’s work has faced additional hurdles in recent months due to confusion around President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which restricted immigration from several countries, including, for a time, Iraq. When the travel ban was first launched in January, a few NOLB families had their travel plans delayed. 

“It’s scary. I understand the concern the families might have, not being able to speak the language and going into a country where it appears, because of the national rhetoric, that it’s not going to be welcoming to people of their appearance,” Cercone says. “But we want to let them know there are people who are here to help them, who are here to build relationships with them.”

But despite the controversy surrounding the ban, Cercone says he doesn’t anticipate any problems when the Pittsburgh NOLB welcomes its first official family this week on Sept. 13.

“It hasn’t been as challenging as I first thought, but it has been something to bear in mind,” Cercone says. “We’re ready to welcome them to the city.”

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
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By Mars Johnson