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The Muslim refugee who saved an American soldier

Understanding each other

Janis Shinwari, an Afghan interpreter for the US military, sought refuge in America after the Taliban put him on a hit list. His story turns the debate on Muslim refugees on its head.

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    Janis Shinwari, an Afghan interpreter for the US military, sits atop an armored Hummer in this file photo.
    Courtesy of Matt Zeller
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Knocked out by enemy mortar rounds, 1st Lt. Matt Zeller had just regained consciousness when the fire drew closer. As he got his bearings, he realized he was literally in an empty grave, dozens of Taliban militants firing down on him and his fellow soldiers from a ridgeline above.

“I thought, ‘I’m never going to get married, or have kids, and my parents are about to get the worst phone call of their lives,’ ” recalls Zeller, an intelligence officer with the US Army National Guard who had only been in Afghanistan for 10 days. “I freely admit to being terrified.”

And he didn’t even know that two enemy fighters were sneaking up behind him.

Suddenly, AK-47 gunfire rang out, hitting the two fighters.

An Afghan interpreter for US forces, Janis Shinwari, had just saved Zeller's life.

It was a moment that instantly bonded them together, and left the American feeling indebted forever.

“In times of tragedy you look for the helpers, and these are the people who actually run into the fire,” he says. “That’s what Janis and others like him did…. He is the embodiment of these selfless traits in service to our country.”

Matt Zeller and Janis Shinwari became like brothers during Capt. Zeller's tour of duty in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Matt Zeller

After Zeller and his unit returned to the US in 2009, Mr. Shinwari thought he would be safe simply relocating from the small outpost in Ghazni where they’d fought together to a larger base in Kabul.

Recommended: The Politics of US series: Muslim refugees and national security

He was wrong. The Taliban hit squad that began tracking him in 2009 caught up with him in Kabul in 2011.

Late one night, someone left a note on Shinwari’s door vowing that the Taliban was going to get him.

It’s a moment that no doubt echoes in the stories of more than 65 million refugees who, forced out by war and persecution, form the greatest wave of displaced people since World War II. Their stories resonate with many Americans, who – moved by compassion – want to open their country’s doors to war-wearied souls from the Middle East and beyond.

Others, though, grapple with fear that doing so could unwittingly usher in a fifth column that could launch attacks in the US, as did a Pakistani woman and her American-born husband in the December 2015 San Bernardino, Calif., shooting and the American-born son of an Afghan immigrant in Orlando, Fla., in June. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has fanned these fears on the campaign trail, asserting that the vetting system is not strong enough to keep out potential terrorists.

For Trump and many voters who support him, the calculus is simple: Foreign Muslims are a threat to US security.

Shinwari’s story challenges that equation. Far from being a threat, he was willing to lay down his own life to protect an American soldier.

“I guarantee you that if Trump had been to Afghanistan, to any Muslim country, had had a cup of tea – or even been to Muslim restaurants in the US – he wouldn’t say something bad,” says Shinwari. “I put my life in danger to save a non-Muslim guy,” he adds. “It shows we’re not bad people – we are not terrorists.”

To be sure, Shinwari’s story is unusual; less than 2 percent of the Afghan and Iraqi refugees who have come to America since 2008 were interpreters for the US military. But precisely because of that, his case serves as a powerful test of whether America is striking the right balance between security and liberty.

Zeller, whose family has fought in every American war since the Revolution, had no doubt about where he stood on that question. His Afghan friend deserved to be a US citizen. And he was not about to take no for an answer.

Taliban: 'Your day of judgment is coming'

Zeller’s desire to bring Shinwari to the US wasn’t just a personal quest to help a man who, over the course of his deployment, had become like a brother.

It was also a sense that the United States had a responsibility to translators like Shinwari – and that they had something to give in return.

“What’s made our country truly great is not just that we’ve been born with amazing people – we’ve imported them,” says Zeller, who for a time lived in New York and woke up with a view of the Statue of Liberty every morning. “We seek out the best and the brightest, and we recruit them to be on our team.”

In 2006, Congress established a program to help bring Afghan and Iraqi employees of the US government to America in recognition of the “extremely valuable services” they had provided – and the danger they put themselves in by being associated with the US.

In theory, it’s a faster channel; the median processing time is 374 days, compared with an average of 18 to 24 months. And in theory, these translators – already cleared to work with the US government – shouldn’t pose a threat.

But there is the warning case of Bilal Abood. An Iraqi translator for the US military, he got a Special Immigrant Visa in 2009, joined the US military, and became a citizen. But he later traveled to Syria to join the self-declared Islamic State and was sentenced to four years in jail for lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about it. Still, he represents just one of more than 1,400 translators admitted to the US.

Shinwari, who applied in early 2011, seemed to have a slam-dunk case. Yet months went by, then years.

In the summer of 2013, Shinwari found a note carved in the hood of his car: “Your day of judgment is coming.” The base he was working on was being handed over to the Afghan Army. He would likely be losing his job, even though at that point he managed all of the other 200 translators on base and did high-level VIP translations, including for visiting Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.

Shinwari was valued for his marksmanship as well as his interpreting. Courtesy of Matt Zeller

Zeller contacted every press outlet he could think of, and collected more than 100,000 signatures on a Change.org petition to grant Shinwari a visa. It finally came through – only to be revoked two weeks later with no explanation.

Zeller lit into the State Department’s head of consular affairs. She told him he was chasing a hopeless dream.

“I said, ‘OK, that was your final warning,’ ” Zeller recalls saying. “I’m going to war.’ ”

He rallied the press – again. He called his congressional representatives, and enlisted friends around the country to call theirs. More than half a dozen, from Senator McCain to Rep. Louise Slaughter (D) of New York, started pressing for answers.

“They say they have the most comprehensive system in the world …. If there was really a problem, how in five years did they not catch it?” asks Zeller, who had an active Central Intelligence Agency clearance at the time. “I think it’s not that they didn’t catch something – I think this system is designed to say no.”

But with pressure from congressmen, Shinwari’s visa was approved within weeks.

“I was ecstatic and nervous … thrilled we’d had done it but nervous that it would be rescinded or worse, that the Taliban would catch up with him before we could get him on a plane,” Zeller says.

And so Shinwari and his wife and two children changed locations every day. He also checked in twice daily with Zeller, Facebook messaging him the moment he woke up to confirm that they’d made it through the night, and again before they went to bed.

In November 2013, they finally landed in America with roughly $3,000 and all of their worldly possessions packed into one suitcase each. 

Gratitude leads to a job

But Shinwari’s son worried it was the Americans who didn’t have enough.

When they arrived at John F. Kennedy airport in New York amid a sea of tank tops and shorts, Shinwari says, “My son asked me, ‘Dad, why don’t these people wear clothes? Are they poor?”

“I said, ‘Son, they’re not poor people,’ ” he recalls. “It was something that was new for us – we didn’t see such a thing in our country in our whole lives.”

Shinwari did have some idea of what life in the United States would be like from conversations with US soldiers and Afghan friends who had arrived before him. When he’d asked, “Will the government help you?” they said, “No, just food stamps and a couple hundred [dollars] cash a month.” But he had no idea how hard it would be to stretch that to cover expenses.

Despite his dire financial situation, one of the first things Shinwari wanted to do was to personally thank every member of Congress who had helped him.

So he and Zeller headed up to Capitol Hill, where Representative Slaughter took them to lunch in the members-only dining room. Their last stop of the day was then-Rep. Jim Moran (D) of Virginia, Zeller’s local congressman at the time.

Representative Moran was so impressed with Shinwari he hired him on the spot, telling him that he had a job until he retired. (After Moran did indeed retire from Congress, he helped Shinwari to get a job with a firm that makes emergency transponder beacons.)

Zeller had raised $38,000 to help Shinwari get settled. But after Zeller’s friends brought an outpouring of household goods to furnish Shinwari’s apartment, he asked Zeller if they could keep it in an account to help other Afghan families.

So they created an organization, “No One Left Behind,” and set a goal of helping to resettle 120 Afghan and Iraqi translators and their families each year for the next decade, providing three months of housing assistance for each family when they arrived, as well as bedding, furniture, and cookware.

Less than three years later, the organization has raised $842,000 and helped to resettle more than 2,300 people, according to their website.

Spirit of generosity

Those people who have been helped, as well as other Muslim immigrants, face an increasingly distrustful American public – as reflected in Mr. Trump’s rhetoric.

After it was revealed that one of the San Bernadino attackers, who killed 14 people, was a Pakistani immigrant, and that her husband and co-conspirator was the son of Pakistani immigrants, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on.”

Though he has since backed down from that proposal, he is still advocating “extreme vetting,” including an ideological screening test to determine if immigrants “share our values.” Yet Trump has said, too, that he’s not sure such tests would be enough. “We don’t know if they have love or hate in their heart, and there’s no way to tell.”

But in Shinwari’s circles, there seems to be a lot of love – and a spirit of generosity, Zeller notes, even amid financial stresses. Though fears of discrimination sometimes keep them from integrating more fully into American society, they’re doing their best to adjust.

On a mid-September day, on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid, Shinwari is collecting sacks of potatoes donated by a local church, to bring to Afghan families trying to prepare a proper feast.

Shinwari delivers potatoes as part of his volunteer work for No One Left Behind, which he set up along with Zeller to help newly arrived Afghan refugees. Anna Mulrine Grobe

Mohammed Khan, another volunteer, shows up to take a load of potatoes back to his northern Virginia apartment complex, where some 30 other Afghan families live.

Mr. Khan and his wife, who arrived in January, pay $1,400 for a three-bedroom apartment that is roach-infested despite their best efforts. There is no furniture, only thin foam pads wrapped in fabric that he and his wife bought on sale at a local discount store.

Still, he is grateful that management let him move in with his wife and four children without a credit history or pay stubs.

He is grateful, too, for the free public schools and the subsidized health care his children receive. Still, money is tight. When his kids contracted lice earlier this year, he was unable to afford the prescription shampoo after two months of treatment. So he shaved his daughters’ long hair.

He’s working hard to improve his family’s circumstances. Khan submitted 64 job applications after he arrived in January, which he tracked on an Excel spreadsheet. By March, he had a job. It isn’t ideal, he says – he’s a low-level office worker with an hour-long commute on a good day. It’s nothing like the job he had as a budget officer with USAID, but he has hopes of advancement.

Finding a sense of dignity here is a common struggle for skilled Afghan and Iraqi workers and their families. In Afghanistan, they not only had highly paid jobs, but they also were doing work they believed in.

“They think they have a leg up,” when they arrive in America, says Nouf Bazaz, program director at the International Cultural Center, a community center in Maryland. “Instead, they don’t feel like they have respect – not red-carpet respect, but basic respect.”

By volunteering their weekend free time to collect and deliver donations, which help their fellow immigrants furnish their homes and put food on their tables, they work to claim this sort of respect.

As Khan arrives back at his apartment complex with the bags of potatoes, he heads straight to a playground where the other Afghan families congregate.

Kids balance the potato bags on their bicycle handlebars and pedal unsteadily home. One little girl pipes up and rattles off the furniture her family still needs – a coffee table, a dining room table, and some lamps.

But there are also new opportunities. Roqia Ali, an 8-year-old who arrived last winter speaking not a word of English, says, “I was so scared – I didn’t know anything.”

Now she’s fluent – and translates for her mother, too.

She’s most proud, however, of being selected as a safety patrol at her new school. And she likes the school buses and the corkscrew-shaped slides, neither of which she’d ever seen in Afghanistan.

Dealing with wariness of Muslims

Roqia is trying to find out whether her parents will let her go to school Monday, even though it’s Eid. She’d prefer to go, since it’s the day she gets to pick up her new safety patrol belt.

Some of the immigrants say that they have experienced tension between their religious beliefs and their new home. Though he is an observant Muslim, Khan says he does not attend mosque often. He’s heard about government surveillance, and doesn’t want to create trouble for himself or his family if a member of his mosque decided to do something dangerous.

Shinwari, for his part, understands why many Americans might have an unfavorable impression of Muslims. “You don’t really see any movies or documentaries that say something good about Muslims – it’s all about suicides, attacks, killing each other.”

But he says that he has been impressed by the number of mosques he has seen in the DC area, and adds that he wouldn’t have stayed in the country if he didn’t feel as though he could practice his religion freely.

“I’m a religious guy, and I respect all religions,” he says, adding that the handful of times he has prayed outside in public, “nobody has said anything.

“Maybe there are some people who don’t like Muslims, but I’m very thankful that most American people respect our religion,” he says, and then returns to loading potatoes into his minivan.

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