The Interpreters We Left Behind

Mj 618_348_the friends we left behind
Courtesy Matt Zeller

Update: A presidential order signed by Donald Trump on Friday, January 27 prohibits citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the United States (while Afghanistan did not make the list, the president noted that its citizens would face "extreme vetting".) There are no exceptions for anyone, including the interpreters who aided American troops in the Iraq War. Here, from a 2014 feature that ran in the March issue of Men's Journal is an intimate look at the interpreters who helped save American lives yet we, once again, are failing to make good on our promises to protect.

They fanned out, facing the ridge, and waited to get shot. The eight National Guardsmen lay as flat as they could in the open creek while the dirt beside them jumped with machine-gun rounds. There were 45 Taliban blazing away above them, firing from two emplacements on the hill in Wahgez, a lawless, black-route district in southern Afghanistan. Still dazed by the rocket that pierced his "bomb resistant" truck and launched this hour-old ambush, First Lieutenant Matt Zeller was low on ammo and dropping in and out of consciousness. Twice he'd been rocked by mortar strikes while shooting at a gunner on the hill. The last one had knocked him back behind a grave, where he braced for the round that would cut him in half. "April 28, 2008," he thought. "This is the day that I die."

Suddenly, he saw a convoy roar up to a halt. The cavalry – a Quick Reaction Force from his base – began sawing open the tree line with high explosives. Zeller took to returning fire when the crack! of a rifle went off past his ear. He looked up to find Janis Shinwari, an Afghan interpreter assigned to Zeller's National Guard unit, crouched beside him, shooting in the other direction. "Two Taliban had rounded a corner and were right behind me; another second and they'd have shot me in the back," says Zeller. But Shinwari, who'd arrived with the QRF squad, calmly emptied his clip, killing them both, then dragged Zeller from the kill zone to the trucks.

Mj 390_294_afghan interpreters struggle to find a home in the u s

UPDATE: Afghan Interpreters Struggle to Find a Home in the U.S.

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Hours later, having towed the vehicles back to base and gotten medical care for his wounded, Zeller sat up drinking chai with Shinwari, a tall, sloe-eyed Pashtun with heraldic cheekbones and a deep-well air of calm. Though they shared the same quarters in Forward Operating Base Vulcan, they'd barely been introduced during Zeller's fortnight in-country, and now Zeller needed to know this man who'd saved his life. "Why," asked Zeller, "are you on our side and not theirs?"

"Because you are my guest here," said Shinwari. "You come so many miles to help my family; I am honor-bound to protect you, brother."

There was more to it, of course, but that was plenty for Zeller. The lead intel officer on the tiny base, he pulled rank the next day and had Shinwari assigned to his team of tactical advisers. For the next seven months, they were inseparable, riding shotgun with the Afghan army through explosions and ambushed missions. Shinwari, who'd taught himself English as a teen by watching Arnold Schwarzenegger mangle his lines in Terminator and Commando, wasn't just the smartest linguist on base – he was also the best marksman. "He could shoot the cap off a pen at 800 meters," says Zeller. "He saved at least five American lives there, not just mine." That December, when his hitch was up, Zeller gave Shinwari a powerful hug and an open-ended offer to bring him to America if things got too hot for him and his family. "Thanks, but I'm staying," said Shinwari. "I don't scare from the Taliban; they scare from me."

A couple of years passed; the two men kept in touch via Skype and Facebook chats. Then, in February 2011, Shinwari texted Zeller to redeem his offer of help. After five years of Taliban death threats, he'd been marked for death in a plot U.S. intelligence officers had intercepted. He stashed his wife and two kids with in-laws and went to live on-base while still working as an interpreter, but then word leaked that Allied forces were leaving, closing bases and laying off the many thousands who'd helped them – Afghan linguists and drivers and political fixers, all of whom had risked their lives for the vision marketed by U.S. leaders of a free and decent Afghanistan. Zeller knew what this augured for the collaborators left behind; he'd seen the severed limbs of captured allies left in burlap at the gate of his base, wrapped in warnings to repent before Allah.

Zeller, by then a captain in the Army Reserve and running for Congress in upstate New York, launched an all-points drive to bring Shinwari over on a special immigrant visa (SIV). He compiled 50 letters of recommendation from officers who'd served with Shinwari, documented and validated every death threat texted to Shinwari or slipped under his door, and followed up with letters and calls to the embassy in Kabul. "I figured he'd sail through in six to nine months," says Zeller. "He'd been vetted by the CIA since '06, and oh, by the way, he's a hero."

But the months turned to years of brick-wall delays, with no word from the State Department or Homeland Security. Zeller, like Shinwari, began to panic. He wrote an anguished op-ed for the Huffington Post, then another for the Guardian online. That fetched him a slew of follow-up coverage, and suddenly congressmen called the embassy, threatening to hold hearings. Meanwhile, Shinwari lived in mounting terror, moving himself and his family every few days to outflank the men with knives and beards who pounded on his in-laws' door.

Finally, after a 30-month, one-man barrage, Zeller's pressure won Shinwari a visa. He quit his job as an interpreter, sold his worldly goods, and hid out with his wife and kids while the final arrangements were made for them to come to the U.S. Then, a few days before their tickets came through, he was told over the phone – without a word of explanation – to hand back his hard-won visa. Heartsick, he called Zeller, who called the embassy in Kabul. Nothing; all hope extinguished. And with that, the two learned what political exiles have known since our withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973: When it comes to keeping a promise to wartime allies, America's word is flimsy at best.In each of our foreign conflicts over the past half-century, America has staged withdrawals of its troops, tanks, and spies from bases of operation overseas but disastrously failed to plan for the dangers its abandoned allies would face after we left. In Saigon and Laos, we'd no sooner departed than the horrors began. Hundreds of thousands dead in South Vietnam, either killed in work camps or on the South China Sea aboard leaky refugee boats. In Laos, Hmong tribesmen who'd stood with us were slaughtered by the many thousands at the hands of Vietcong invaders. Eventually, the mass drownings and the sheer number of Amerasian offspring forced Congress to enter the fray, ordering airlifts of Indochinese exiles to resettlement camps in Guam, and passing laws conferring special immigrant status on the Vietnamese progeny of U.S. soldiers. "We took in more than 200,000 people with Amerasian visas – there was a strong sense of moral obligation," says Becca Heller, the 30-year-old director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a group of young, influential lawyers who intervene on behalf of political exiles, most of them from Iraq and Afghanistan. "That created a path for people who can't get regular visas but to whom we felt a humanitarian duty."

Our collective sense of shame, however late, redressed a grievous wrong in Vietnam. But you can't feel shame for wars you have little stake in, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, we've waged armed conflict largely out of sight of the American public. Nightly coverage from the theater has dwindled close to zero, troops have been mustered from a sliver of the working poor, and the pain has been localized to those who fought there, their spouses, and their parents. "These wars will be the millennials' Korea – they'll go down as a joint footnote in school textbooks," says Kirk Johnson, the founding director of the List Project, which, like the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Program, has used its shoestring budget to rescue at-risk exiles, many of them interpreters, from Iraq. An ex-Fulbright scholar and civilian aide in Fallujah whose harrowing memoir, To Be a Friend Is Fatal, was published to acclaim last summer, Johnson began the List Project after an Iraqi co-worker was targeted for assassination by Al Qaeda. Johnson wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, urging that steps be taken to protect his friend; almost instantly, he was inundated with frantic emails from Iraqis in similar straits.

Johnson built a spreadsheet of their names and stories and delivered it to the U.S. State Department. Wider attention followed, and soon the pleas of Iraqis were joined by those from U.S. soldiers, begging him to save their beloved interpreters. "It's impossible to overstate the bond you form in combat; it's the strongest kind of friendship you'll ever make," says Marc Chretien, a veteran diplomat who, until recently, was the chief U.S. civilian adviser to the commanding general in Afghanistan; for two years, he traveled the mined roads of Helmand Province with the Marines and their Afghan guides. "Your interpreter and your driver become your foxhole buddies, as close as – or even closer than – your siblings."

Quickly, Johnson's List grew to thousands of names, and his campaign lit a fire under Congress. At the height of the Iraq surge in 2007, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon, authored a bill to reboot the Amerasian exception. It proposed 5,000 SIV slots a year for Iraqis who'd risked their lives to aid Americans and could prove it to, first, our consular officers in Baghdad, then to security-clearance clerks in the intelligence community. "A veteran in my district was trying to get his interpreter out, and told me it would've been easier for his family to adopt the guy than get him cleared by the State Department," says Blumenauer. His legislation, which passed with wide support in 2008, required the administration to admit 25,000 Iraqis over the five-year life of the program, as well as their wives, children, and extended families. The following year, the Afghan measure passed, creating 8,750 visas over five years, though it restricted eligibility to just the refugees' spouses and their school-age children.

Both bills were imperfect, if born of best intentions. There was no help for Iraqis who had risked their lives assisting U.S. media or relief agencies like USAID. And in Afghanistan, which became the more lethal war by early 2008, it sorely undercounted the number of allies who landed on Taliban death lists. Still, the laws were progress on, of all things, immigration in the most isolationist Congress in modern memory. Moreover, they were a matter of national security. As the wars slogged on and America eyed the exits, it became harder to recruit bilingual locals without a legal means to extract them later.

But someone forgot to impress that upon the officers at our embassies and their counterparts in the defense establishment. They grudgingly passed through a trickle of cases, and either slow-walked the others for months or years or dismissed them out of hand for spurious reasons. Just 15 percent of the Iraqi slots were granted in the first four years, or about 3,000 of the 25,000 open. In Afghanistan, the figure was unfathomably low: Only a handful of visas a year came through between 2008 and 2012. Applicants who'd served with honor for years – picking up rifles against the Taliban and running crucial interrogations – were treated like terrorists by consul hacks who rarely left the embassy grounds and had no sense of just how dire such work was. That bias, however common in the halls at State, is furiously rebuked by other staffers. "These little 30-something fucks, who are only in-country a year, spend three months looking for soft assignments and their last month filling out a claim for PTSD because they once heard a bomb go off a mile away," says a disgusted State hand who spoke on condition that he not be named. "There'll be a flood of murders when we leave Afghanistan, starting with the people who helped us fight. It's a huge point of friction between the Pentagon and State, but nothing ever changes because no one cares."

To be sure, there are other factors as well. "Every foreign service officer has to do a rotation as a visa stamper, and none of them wants to be the guy who lets a hijacker in," says the State Department vet. "The lower the number of visas, the lower the odds of career suicide," says Johnson. "I had a senior State guy tell me to my face that it was really bad for national security to let a bunch of Muslims in."

In Afghanistan, that intransigence came from the top. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who had served two tours in-country, ordered his staff to deny all applicants whether or not there was "clear and convincing evidence of serious threat." Griping that it was hard to replace good help in a country "with a 28-percent literacy rate," he warned that granting visas would damage U.S. morale, draining off "our partners, the Afghan employees." He neglected to say whether morale declined when interpreters turned up dead in a ditch, their head and hands cut off, or if job performance suffered when their family members were kidnapped, maimed, and killed."My translator, Mohammad, got death threats for weeks, then the Taliban took his father," says Adrian Kinsella, a captain on active duty in the U.S. Marines who was willing to go public about his translator's plight. "They tortured him, shot him, and mutilated his body, then dumped the corpse in Wadi." Later, they came for Mohammad's brother, a three-year-old boy who was lured from his doorstep by the promise of candy. Mohammad, then 22 and the sole supporter of his mother and seven much younger siblings, withdrew his life savings and delivered the ransom as the boy's captors had instructed: to the grave of his murdered father. The Taliban eventually gave the boy back but warned Mohammad not to tempt fate twice. So he quit his post at Camp Leatherneck, forsaking the salary that fed his family, and went into a long and anguished period of hiding as he waited for his visa to process.

"We were told it would take a while, but it's been more than three years, and we can't even get an update on his status," says Kinsella, a Cornell grad who's now at Berkeley Law School, preparing to become a Marine judge advocate. He decided to be a lawyer after his 2010 Afghan tour, at least partly to guide Mohammad and others like him through the visa process, which he describes as Kafkaesque. "First, 'terps need a mentor, an officer they work for, to go out and spend months getting letters of recommendation, and logging every death threat they get," Kinsella says. Then, if the officer is still in-country when the application is completed, they need him to bird-dog its progress at the embassy, lest it languish on someone's desk or be dismissed by one of the clerks. If it passes muster there, it goes to Washington, D.C., for a months-long crawl at the National Visa Center, then an endless and redundant series of background checks by the CIA, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security, any of which can, and do, spike the application for a misspelled name or wrong date. When, or if, it finally runs the gauntlet there, it bounces back to Kabul for further review, including cross-examinations of the applicant and his family. "It's completely insane – these guys get constantly vetted while they're working for us," says Kinsella. "They're given counter-intelligence tests every few months to keep their security clearance. Also, they've had years to kill Americans on base, and not one of them ever has."

Steering Mohammad's case from his stateside billet, Kinsella got it through the National Visa Center, then into the hands of the CIA and FBI. Once there, it stalled until August 2012, when it was cleared and sent to Kabul for final approval. Having gotten this far, the file suddenly went missing at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, then surfaced again in February 2013 at the National Visa Center. Meanwhile, Mohammad – so prized by Kinsella's troops that they dubbed him an honorary Marine – camped in a stifling two-room safe house with his siblings and extended family. He can't work or walk the streets for fear of being spotted, and has sold off everything he owns of value to meet his basic expenses. "We Skype or text when he can get a signal," says Kinsella. "He tries to sound cheerful when we talk, but I can tell this is eating him up."

Last spring, Kinsella reached his limit. He got in touch with Katherine Reisner, the director of national policy at the Iraq Refugee Assistance Project. Reisner, who's 29 but already a dynamo in Washington, where she's driving legislation to extend the SIV program, hooked him up with the Chicago Tribune, which ran a stirring feature about Kinsella and Mohammad. Kinsella sent the article to 19 members of Congress; nine of them launched inquiries into the case. As before, though, nothing budged for Kinsella. He couldn't get the State Department to answer his posts, and calls to the Afghan embassy dumped to voice mail. "Forty months now," says Kinsella, who's been bruised and disillusioned by the experience. "At this point, I'd be better off marrying the guy, or smuggling him into Cuba. I mean, this is America, the greatest nation on Earth. We can do anything we want – or so I thought."

His sentiments notwithstanding, there have been recent signs that someone in power is listening. Recruited by a wave of similar stories, a caucus on Capitol Hill has taken up the issue. With the support of Jim Moran (VA) and Jim McDermott (WA) in the House, and by John McCain (AZ), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), and Tim Kaine (VA) in the Senate, Rep. Blumenauer (OR) and others wrote a letter to President Obama, urging him to break the logjam. Another went jointly to John Kerry, the secretary of state, and to Chuck Hagel, the secretary of defense, asking for a thorough investigation of the process. Suddenly, cases started going forward – but mostly from Iraq, not Afghanistan. In 2013, the State Department granted visas for some 3,000 Iraqis. In Afghanistan, an uptick brought the number last year to roughly 1,500.

Recently, Congress passed brief extensions of the Iraq and Afghanistan legislation; visas will be processed only until September 30, 2015. (The deadline for applications is September 30,2014.) "But at current rates of approval," says Johnson, "it'll take 17 years for the Iraq backlog to clear, and seven for the Afghan exiles." Without a media-savvy soldier to back them, he adds, "the vast majority of them are screwed beyond all hope."

At least 5,000 more wait on years-long lines, though, and each day, the calendar works against them. The six-year program will expire unless Congress can agree on an extension by this October. Given the snarl on Capitol Hill these days, that seems about as likely as a ticker-tape parade for the 2 million troops who fought these thankless wars, and the tens of thousands of Afghans who risked life and limb to send them home to their families safely.In the closet of his apartment in Pentagon City, Matt Zeller keeps the talismans of his tribe. There is the uniform worn by his great-grandfather, a cavalry officer in World War I and a Rough Rider who chased down Pancho Villa with General Pershing's army. There are the Civil War blues of his great-great-great-great-great grandfather, and the Naval uniform of his grandfather, who fought in the South Pacific in World War II. Zeller tracks his forebears to the War for Independence – to a colonel who reported to George Washington directly and was later appointed a judge by the Founding Father. This is another way of saying that the State Department picked the wrong family to disgruntle. "We're nine generations of fighting Scotsmen," says Zeller. "We've never taken an insult lying down."

A broad-beamed, crew-cut man with a mind, and a motor, that never stops, Zeller is the guy to have your back in a bar brawl – though the odds are fairly good that he provoked it. Funny and profane, he's also serious enough to have published his combat memoir (Watches Without Time) and made a near-miss bid for Congress by the age of 30. Raised in Rochester, New York, with big-town ambitions, he graduated magna cum laude from Hamilton College, earned two master's degrees from Syracuse University, and taught himself Arabic in the course of a summer, all while a second lieutenant in the New York Guard. "I signed up a week after 9/11 and was ready to quit college to be a grunt," he says. The Army, however, had better ideas and bumped him to its ROTC program. He finished grad school in 2006, joined the CIA, and was a fast-track hire in its intelligence directorate when his National Guard unit was called up. He could have stayed behind – counterterrorism trumps the front line – but Afghanistan was the fight he sorely wanted. "The Taliban protected bin Laden; Iraq was just a dumb-shit war of choice," says Zeller.

He believed in the mission, even after he went over and found a boondoggle financed on the cheap. "The expression in Iraq was 'We do what we must'; in Afghanistan, it was 'We do what we can,'" he says. "We'd wait months for resupplies, and we stole food from other bases; our wireless was provided not by KBR but by some local guy named Baktash – and it was dial-up." Assigned to help stand up Afghan troops while assessing the state of the National Police, he saw penniless cops selling their guns and ammo for bus fare to go back home and U.S.-built precincts, costing millions of dollars, surrendered to insurgents without ever being occupied by Afghan police. Meanwhile, the enemy controlled the towns, choosing when and where to engage. Once, after a firefight, Zeller sat with a Taliban captive. He was grossly underfed, and his rifle had no firing pin. Zeller brought him something to eat and drink, then asked him why he thought he could defeat an army that came with tanks and planes. The man eyed the Seiko on Zeller's wrist. "You Americans have all the watches," he said, "but we have all the time."

Still, Zeller discerned something decent to fight for: the villagers in the sectors he patrolled. "These people are so poor, living on lentils and bread, but go sit in their house and they'll serve you anything they have," he says. "The best thing we've done there in 10-plus years is teach 3 million women how to read and write. That's 3 million women who are brave enough to think – and who won't raise Taliban for sons."

That rough-hewn resolve was embodied by Shinwari, the linguist who saved Zeller's life. Like most interpreters, he hid his occupation from all but immediate family and took pains to avoid being seen in the street, lest the Taliban track his movements. He proudly took position during firefights, though, dropping Taliban at distance with no laser scope, using just the sights on his AK. The bookish son of a fighter pilot in the Afghan air force, he was born in Jalalabad, a bustling city near the rivers of the northeast border, around the time of the Soviet invasion. His family later moved to Kabul. Shinwari has lived all his 35 years at war or in refugee camps, having fled to Pakistan with his family in the 1990s, just as the Taliban were about to storm the city. He returned after coalition troops freed Kabul, but the house in which his parents raised five children had been stripped to the bricks by insurgents. In exile, he'd burned to become an engineer; now, with his proud family ruined financially, he trained for the best-paying work he could get: a $980-a-month job as a combat linguist.

In 2006, he took a slot with the U.S. Army in the ungovernable province of Paktika. Months later, he jumped to FOB Vulcan in Ghazni, which was where he met Zeller, in 2008. Studiously Muslim, Shinwari never cursed or touched a drink; Zeller was about as chaste as a strip club barker, albeit one who'd read Cervantes and von Clausewitz. The two men became, of course, instant friends and, over seven months, something like brothers. Shinwari taught him Pashto and Afghan manners. Zeller taught him about Zeppelin and Arcade Fire, and sweated bullets when, once a month, Shinwari took the bus back to Kabul. "There's no electronic banking, so he'd have to go home to hand off the money he made," says Zeller. "Meantime, the Taliban were stopping buses and checking cellphones for names. If you had American contacts, they pulled you off the bus and beheaded you by the side of the road."

Zeller, who held himself liable for Shinwari's safety, used his pull to send him home by convoy or, on rare occasions, by chopper, to Kabul. He felt no less responsible five years later, when he learned that Shinwari's visa had been pulled. "I did what I always do: I got good and pissed off, and then I got after it," he says. He called an acquaintance at the State Department, who tacitly acknowledged what Zeller had instantly suspected: that the Taliban had seen the news stories about Shinwari and phoned a lie to an anonymous-tip line that he worked for them. "There's nothing I can do," said the guy at State. "You need your people in Congress to call the right people here; it's your only shot."

Zeller, who'd landed a plum job at a D.C. consulting firm, took time off from work to strafe the Hill with urgent cries for help. Senator Tim Kaine responded, calling over to State. So did Rep. Jim McDermott (WA), who got a State Department higher-up on the phone. But the official grew testy and McDermott rang off, threatening to hold hearings. More calls were placed, including one from Rep. Louise Slaughter (NY) to Patrick Kennedy, an undersecretary of state. "He said, 'I've just been made aware of this and promise to fix it,'" says Zeller. "Two weeks later, Janis [Shinwari] was at the embassy, getting polygraphed by the CIA."

It was, to say the least, a tense encounter. "They keep telling me, 'You are bad guy; you are terrorist,'" says Shinwari, still stung by the charges months later. "I say, 'How can you say that when I work for seven years and never do one wrong thing?'" Unflappable, he passed with flying colors and was called back for a second round of polygraphs three days later. "He's on every Taliban's hit list, his wife starts wailing when he leaves the house, but we drag him out of hiding for this shit," says Zeller, who was a sleep-deprived wreck for two months. He blamed himself for the media glare that cost Shinwari a visa, and for his powerlessness to protect a friend from the government they'd both served. "I called my mom crying about what a failure I was. She said the right things, but I didn't hear a word. I was going to be the one to get him killed."

Or save his life. Two days after the second interrogation, Shinwari spoke with the embassy in Kabul; on the line was the consul general herself. "She say, 'Your name is clear; you can keep your visa,'" he recalls. Zeller got the news, via Facebook, from Shinwari at 7 am, October 17. He knelt and praised God, but he refused to believe it fully until Shinwari came through customs at Kennedy International Airport. "I'd had my heart broken once already, and if they turned him around in Hamburg or Dubai – well, God help me and whoever pulled that stunt," he says.

On the evening of October 28, Shinwari; his wife, Frozan; and their small son and daughter embarked on a four-leg, 40-hour passage from Kabul to Washington, D.C. A small army awaited them when they came down the runway a night later at Ronald Reagan: Zeller and his then girlfriend, Megan Elkins; two congressmen, Reps. Blumenauer and Dan Maffei (NY); a camera crew and a reporter from CBS; and representatives from several nonprofit groups who'd taken up Shinwari's cause. Zeller, who'd fretted over a proper greeting, forgot himself and swept up his friend in a hug, then touched his face to make sure he wasn't dreaming. With 50 people watching, including a crowd that had drifted over from the only snack stand still open, they traded jokes and salutations in Pashto and English, clinging to each other an extra beat.

For the first couple of weeks after his family's salvation, Shinwari was dazed but euphoric. Reporters came calling, seeking his take on foreign policy and the cultural significance of Miley Cyrus. There were senators to meet and briefings to give; he was everyone's feel-good story in D.C. Zeller found him an apartment, raised some money to tide him over, and urged him to take it easy for a month. But Shinwari, who'd been working seven-day weeks since he dropped out of school to support his siblings, began to feel stymied by his freedom. He had no car or the means to get one and was trapped indoors by a northeast winter. He got an offer from Senator Kaine to help him land a job, and hoped, in time, to support both of his families – the one he brought from Kabul and the mother, nieces, and nephews he left behind: "They're in very big danger because of me; the Taliban will kill them if they can."

His deliverance, in short, has been bittersweet, but Shinwari is built to soldier on. "I'll work in grocery or gas station while I learn computers; I'm not ashamed to start there," he says. If the experience of his fellow émigrés is any guide, Shinwari will eventually hit his stride. Last summer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a senior correspondent for The Washington Post, caught up with eight or so Iraqi allies who'd served, and sometimes saved, him during the Shiite insurgency and who'd been lucky enough to secure a U.S. visa. They'd all rapidly made their way here, most without a dime of public assistance. Among them was Muhammed al-Kusairy, a former officer in Saddam's army who runs the security staff at a Phoenix hospital and volunteers weekends with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, patrolling the Mexican border for illegals; and Naseer Nouri, an interpreter in Baghdad who's become a night mechanic at Ronald Reagan. That's right: Nouri is repairing the planes that you and I fly on, and there isn't a single reason why he shouldn't. In the six years since the passage of Blumenauer's legislation, there's not been even a whiff of a subversive act by any of the 13,000 exiles from Iraq and Afghanistan. They work, pay taxes, take night-class English: the great immigrant story writ new. But thousands more wait without a Zeller to save them, hiding in Kuwait or an in-law's basement, their prospects dimming by the month.

"They have two options: America or die, because the people there, they think we are traitors," says Shinwari, who worked with hundreds of 'terps, only five of whom won visas and got out. Their plight eats at him but devours Zeller, who lies awake brooding about the country he fought for – and the one that sent him there to fight. "In Afghanistan, we learned a phrase – nana watai – which means 'I seek asylum' in Pashto," says Zeller. "If you say that to an Afghan, he's duty-bound to protect you. You'd think we'd be big enough to return the favor."

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