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Afghan Translator Credited With Saving Soldier Arrives In U.S.


Let's get an update now on a story we brought you last month. An Army Captain named Matt Zeller waged a one-man campaign to get an American visa for his Afghan translator. A special program does allocate visas for Iraqis and Afghans who have put their lives in danger helping U.S. forces. In the eyes of some of their countrymen, they are tainted forever by their association with America.

Here's what Zeller's translator said about his situation.

JANIS SHINWARI: I was involved in the detaining of over 200 Taliban, and in that time I didn't cover my face. They all knew me by name, and I was getting a lot of phone calls from the Taliban that the one who is working for the American, they are a traitor of Islam.

MONTAGNE: There are visas available, but only a fraction intended for Afghans and Iraqis who worked with Americans have been issued. Captain Zeller's translator waited two years for his visa, all the while getting those threats both to him and his family. Last night, finally, happily, he arrived in the U.S. NPR's Quil Lawrence, who reported this story, joins us to talk about that. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Well, let's start with why Captain Zeller was so determined to get his translator out.

LAWRENCE: Well, for all these translators in Iraq and Afghanistan, Zeller says that the U.S. military made them a promise that has to be honored. But in his case, his interpreter, Janis Shinwari, saved his life in Eastern Afghanistan. And I'm not talking about some figurative saved his life. This is how the two men described it to us.

CAPTAIN MATT ZELLER: It was the worst firefight in my life. I ran out of grenades. I was literally counting my bullets. And I remember thinking, okay, this is it. We might not make it out of this one alive.

SHINWARI: First thing I did, I grabbed my weapon and I start shooting back at the Taliban and I went close to Zeller.

ZELLER: And at that point somebody yelled Zeller and I turned and I saw Janis shoot a guy. There was a guy rushing up to attack me and Janis shot him, saving my life.

SHINWARI: From that time, Zeller became one of my best, best friend that even we call each other brother.

LAWRENCE: So after years of working for Americans, Janis Shinwari has gotten death threats from the Taliban. He can no longer visit his home town. Zeller told me that he simply had to repay this debt. He has to save the life of the man who saved his.

MONTAGNE: And though there were complications with this case, right?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. I mean none of these cases seem to go smoothly. Some Iraqis and Afghans have been waiting for years. But with this case, the visa was issued and then suddenly rescinded last month. Zeller pushed and got several lawmakers to intervene and call the embassy in Kabul. It's a dilemma. Most of these translators have glowing recommendation letters from the U.S. military officers they work with, but then at State Department and Homeland Security they're very risk-averse.

I mean no one wants to be the one who signed off on a visa for someone who ends up being a threat.

MONTAGNE: And what is the status of the special visa programs for Iraq and for Afghanistan?

LAWRENCE: Well, the good news, and it's almost miraculous news, is that during the government shutdown, the Senate and the House managed to renew the Iraq special visa program which was set to expire. And it goes to show how effective these military veterans are at lobbying for this program. The Afghan visa program expires next year and the bad news is that the system is still terribly slow and only a fraction of the allotted visas have been issued.

MONTAGNE: Well, now that Shinwari and his family are actually in the country, in the U.S., what are they planning to do now?

LAWRENCE: Well, they got in last night. They were exhausted from many legs - it was the first time that all of them had been on an airplane - Janis Shinwari, his wife and his two kids. They'll get a small sum of money to help them get started and Matt Zeller has been raising money to get them set up in an apartment in Virginia.

Shinwari told me that he wants his son and his daughter to get a good education in a safe environment and that's why he was so anxious to come here. But they're young, so that might have to wait until next year.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, Quil, not every translator can or has jumped into a firefight to save an American soldier. Give us a thumbnail of what the common cases look like.

LAWRENCE: Right. I mean American troops and diplomats relied on these men and women to be their eyes and ears throughout both of these military engagements. So it's no exaggeration to say that pretty much everything the Americans did over there was thanks to a translator. And it doesn't have to be the case where the translator was out seen arresting insurgents.

In particular, in Iraq guilt by association is enough. Working with any foreigner there has probably marked these people for life. And there are cases that have been documented where someone was waiting, their case still said pending, and they were killed in Bagdad.

MONTAGNE: We've been speaking with NPR's Quil Lawrence. Thanks very much. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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