In April 2008, Matt Zeller found himself in the middle of a Taliban ambush in eastern Afghanistan, when his Afghan interpreter, Janis Shinwari, saved his life. The translator shot and killed two insurgents sneaking up on Zeller before they could kill him.
“Simply put, I shouldn’t be alive today,” the former U.S. Army intelligence officer said, recounting the story to Task & Purpose. At the end of his deployment, Zeller promised Shinwari that if he could ever repay that life debt, he would. All Shinwari had to do was ask.
That request came in 2011 when Shinwari asked Zeller to sponsor his Special Immigrant Visa, so he could move to the United States. Special Immigrant Visas are distributed to nationals who have worked for the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan, but now face direct threats on their life as a result of that work. While the visa programs offer interpreters a chance at a new life in the United States, the vetting process is extensive and can take years to approve, if they get approved at all.
Pictured: Then Army intelligence officer Matt Zeller (left) and his interpreter Janis Shinwari (right) in Afghanistan.Courtesy photo
By 2013, Shinwari still had not received his visa, and the United States was aggressively transitioning military bases over to Afghan national security forces. The Afghan National Army didn’t want Shinwari or other translators on base anymore, thinking they were American spies. He found himself out of a job. Furthermore, the Taliban had placed a bounty on his head and it was only a matter of time before they tracked him down and killed him.
“You’ve got until October to make good on that promise or I’m a dead man,” Shinwari told Zeller.
Zeller quickly put together an advocacy campaign, pressuring the government to grant his translator’s visa. Thanks to this effort, Shinwari landed in the United States on Oct. 29, 2013. This was the day that the conception for Zeller’s nonprofit organization, No One Left Behind, was born.
Three years later, No One Left Behind has become a national advocacy group for interpreters who served with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Founded by Zeller and Shinwari, the organization provides assistance to those newly arrived in America with housing, employment, and cultural adjustment.
More recently, No One Left Behind has paired up with other organizations as Iraqis and Afghans face greater obstacles obtaining Special Immigrant Visas. And, as of Friday, any Iraqis who had not arrived in the United States are now barred entry, according to President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. The order, titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” suspends entry by all refugees to the United States for 120 days, bars Syrian refugees indefinitely, and bans visa holders of seven predominantly Muslim nations — Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — from entering the country for 90 days. During this period, the secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with the secretary of State and the director of national intelligence, are expected assess the current vetting processes for refugees and visa applicants and make recommendations to enhance screening procedures.
The order took immediate effect on Friday, and 109 immigrants around the country landing at international airports were detained or shipped back to their country of origin, as Customs officials tried to navigate the terms of the new executive order.
In response to what many are calling a “Muslim ban,” thousands of people showed up at airports to protest. In addition, lawyers and other legal experts remain camped out at airports to offer their services to detained individuals and fight for their release. Starting late Saturday night, rulings from federal judges granted emergency stays that prevented people who landed arrived in the United States after the executive order was signed from being detained or deported. While the Department of Homeland Security reasserted that the judicial orders would not override the executive order, many people who were initially detained have since been released.
At least one Iraqi who was detained on Friday held a Special Immigrant Visa. Hameed Khalid Darweesh worked as an interpreter for the United States during the Iraq War, and according to reports, was released Saturday afternoon and will be allowed to stay in the country. However, the future of at least 800 Iraqis whose visas are pending remains uncertain.
Task & Purpose spoke with Zeller, who, over the weekend, protested both in front of the White House and at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, asking the Trump administration to rescind the executive order, or at the very least, make an exemption for interpreters who have served with American troops in conflict zones. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation with him.
Explain what Trump’s current executive order says.
So, what it says is that if you’re an Iraqi, you can’t come to this country. Period, the end. It doesn’t matter if you were trying to come here as a refugee. It doesn’t matter if you were trying to come here as a student. It doesn’t matter if you were trying to come here and visit a relative of yours who lives here. It doesn’t matter if you have business here. And it certainly — and this is what we are outraged about — it doesn’t matter if you were promised a visa in exchange for the critical service that you provided us during our war effort. That’s ultimately the big “so what” here. If we don’t keep this promise, that’s going to be our legacy going forward. That’s going to be the prevailing narrative of the United States — that we’re a nation that just takes advantage of people when we need them and then throws them away when we’re done. And if that becomes how people view our country, why should we ever expect to have allies in anything?
And if we want to get really serious, I’m not supposed to be here today. What if Janis hadn’t saved my life? What if 12 years ago when he was first recruited to be a translator, he thought the Americans were actually liars and didn’t keep their word. I don’t think he would’ve signed up to work with us, especially if he had known the profound danger he’d be placing his family in. And so, if he had turned down the offer, I wouldn’t be here. So I start thinking about that and the next thing I realize, well what about our brothers and sisters that we’ll end up sending off to the conflict. God forbid, maybe it’s Syria even. Why would we ever expect anyone to stand with them and if we don’t have those local allies, how many Americans are going to needlessly die who could’ve been saved by their local national that was working with them if we’d simply been able to recruit enough. See what I’m saying?
Janis Shinwari (left) and Matt Zeller (right) in the United States in 2014.Courtesy photo
The executive order places a 90-day ban on people entering the United States from seven countries. So what happens after 90 days? What are you expecting to happen?
We don’t know, and that’s the crazy thing about this. It says that the secretary of Homeland Security has to go on to basically verify that we’ve instituted extreme vetting, but there’s no obligation to restart the program. What if they say at 90 days, “You know what, we’re still not done with the review of the extreme vetting. We gotta take it another 90 days, and another 90 days, and another 90 days.” What if it never happens again? What if they decide after 90 days, they just decide, “Upon further review, we just don’t think it’s possible to properly vet these people. We’re going to have to issue a permanent ban. Sorry, folks.” There’s seems to be no thought for the ramifications of these decision.
In 2011, the Obama administration halted Iraqi refugees from entering the country for six months. So why are people more enraged this time than in 2011? Is this different from 2011?
I think it’s substantially different. First off, as I understood it, the halt was due to the withdrawal from the war effort. And a discussion within the administration — forgive me, I’m speculating here — about whether or not the visa program needed to be continued considering there were no more U.S. troops in Iraq. Well, let’s just flash forward now, there are 5,000 U.S. uniformed military personnel in Iraq right now; there’s another 7,800 contractors. Let’s just bump it up to 8,000. That’s 13,000 people. That’s a division. They don’t all speak Arabic and Kurdish. So they’re likely relying on the use of those local nationals. We’ve got Special Forces teams in Syria right now, you think they’re rolling around speaking the local dialect? No, they’re working with the locals there. This could already have immediate impact on our military operations if our allies suddenly realize that we’re going to practically abandon them. I think that’s what so different about this. Back in 2011, there wasn’t a war effort going on. We weren’t fighting alongside these people.
Are interpreters applying for special immigration visas go through a different vetting process compared to refugees and others who have applied and received visas?
Let’s start out with the fact that they’re vetted from the first point of hire. It wasn’t like they walked up to an American base and yelled at the wall, “Hey, I speak English.” And someone was like, “Ya, here’s a gun, go on patrol.” Just to be on the base, they had to be polygraphed at least once. Their phone calls were likely monitored. Their emails were likely read. They had no rights to privacy. The extensive interviews that they had to undergo, security checks just to be able to give them the privileged access to American military personnel, was substantial.
On top of that, they have to get a recommendation. They have to get nominated for this thing by either a uniformed member of the military or a civilian member of our government. Either way, it has to be a U.S. government official. Somebody has to put on U.S. government letterhead, “I nominate this person for a visa, and here’s why.” And here’s the criteria they’d have to meet to earn that. They have to at least serve a year with our military or our civilian agencies in support of the war effort. That service would be have to be deemed both honorably and valuable. If they clear that hurdle, they then have to prove they are in duress, that someone is actively trying to harm them. And if they clear that hurdle, they then have to undergo the most extreme form of vetting that our national security apparatus can muster. It literally involves an independent investigation. The intelligence community, the military, and the Department of Homeland Security all have to run their own investigations of each applicant. … The decision to let them in must be unanimous, and if it’s not, not only are they barred entry for life, they’re also put on the no-fly list forever. Simply put, if I am a bad guy, if I am al Qaeda or ISIS, this is not the visa program through which I’m trying to sneak people in.
What solutions would you recommend to the current administration?
Rescind the executive order.
The entire order?
Yeah. We’re just a niche. We’re one component of this. There are a myriad of other topics I’m sure probably having an equally detrimental effect. They are only in their ninth day. I don’t think they’ve had a chance to properly think this through or understand the ramifications. So maybe it would be best to just got back to how things were before, and then meet with a number of the organizations that are concerned on these issues and discuss them.
… When it comes to this particular program, if they’re not going to be able to rescind the executive order, at the very least, when it comes to the people who fought with our military, carve out an exemption for them. You know, if there’s anybody who’s earned and deserved the spot to be here, it’s them. And I’ll take this a step further, ya, I’m a veteran, but what makes me any different than Janis. What makes Janis any different than me? If Janis had been born here, we’d celebrate him as an eight-tour combat veteran. But he didn’t win the birth lottery, so therefore, he’s not a veteran?
… This is the critical thing, when these people get these visas, they’re not coming here illegally. They’re not crossing over our southern or northern border illegally. They‘re not coming as tourists or students and overstaying their visa. They’re doing this the right way. They’ve gone and jumped through every hurdle we could possibly put in front of them. We’ve finally said, “Okay, you’ve done everything proper. You’ve earned your visa. Here is it, this is your legal ticket to the U.S.” And then they go to take that ticket and in so doing, they they’re going to be leaving their country of origin forever. So they sell everything. They sell the house, they sell of the items. … Imagine doing all of that and only to get as far as a neighboring country and be turned around. Where are they going to go live? What are they going to do?
How is this executive order going to impact U.S. national security in your opinion?
I think it’s already degraded our national security. Minute by minute, heartbeat by heartbeat, we are losing credibility with our allies and with our friends. We have ongoing military operations in Iraq. The executive order was signed that day, and members of the Iraqi military commented on how it suddenly changed their opinions on working with Americans. … Furthermore, though, it’s going to impact how people view us in future conflicts and humanitarian efforts. And any type of diplomatic interaction, there’s going to be a sense of “Can we really trust the Americans to keep their word on this?” And that’s not what we stand for.
I also think the other negative impact on this is going to be one that is not a national security impact, but should be that concerns us as equally, and that’s the one that concerns the veteran community. I’ve talked with countless Vietnam vets who are interested in supporting our work and to a person when I start telling them why I got involved in this and what I’m doing, they end up telling me about their Vietnamese counterpart who was important to them in their life in a meaningful way when they served in that conflict. Then they tell me about the half century of moral injury that they have lived with due to the fact that they don’t know what ever happened to that person and they’ve had to live with that guilt, knowing that something bad might’ve happened, and that we could’ve done more. That haunts them. That’s going to be the moral injury that this executive order bestows on our generation of Iraq and Afghan War vets if it’s not immediately rescinded.
After more than six years, U.S. soldier Robert Ham finally welcomes friend and former interpreter Saifullah Haqmal to San Antonio, Feb. 16, 2016.DoD Photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Robert Ham
What can people do to help support efforts to protect interpreters?
Three things people can do. First off, they can go to nooneleft.org/saveourterps, that’ll allow you to send a message directly to your members of Congress letting them know how you feel about this. We need to get the word out. What we’ve seen over the weekend has been amazing, but we need to keep up this momentum over the work week.
… Second thing, there are two other amazing organizations that totally are deserving of people’s volunteer hours and support if they can provide it and those are International Refugee Assistance Project, they are all of the attorneys that you see camped out of the airports. I am currently sitting with about 50 of them right now at Dulles. They have a whole office set up. … The other group is Vets for American Ideals. They have done an amazing job of trying to corral all veterans in this country behind this issue, try to corral them to get Congress to listen to a unified veterans voice.
… The day I took my uniform, my commander pulled me aside and he said “Do you know what your responsibility is now that you’ve taken off the uniform.” I didn’t know. I thought it was to relax and have fun. He goes, “No, it’s to take care of soldiers. You’ve gotta leave this better than you found it.” And what I realized is that if we don’t fight this fight right now as veterans, we’re going to be screwing our battle buddies in future conflicts. We’re going to be making sure they don’t have the locals that we were privileged enough and lucky enough to have standing with us. This is our obligation.