James Smith says he wouldn’t be alive without his interpreter.
The Afghanistan combat veteran was walking in the open when his Afghan interpreter, standing 400 feet away, overheard a Taliban marksman on the radio asking for permission to open fire.
“He heard them describing me,” said Smith, a Columbia lawyer and legislator. “I heard the warning: ‘They’ve got eyes on you.’ I took two steps to get cover before a 45-minute barrage of small-arms and RPG fire opened up.”
Smith paid back his interpreter, who he asked not be identified out of concern for his safety, by sponsoring his immigration to the United States.
Now, however, Smith is concerned other interpreters — Iraqis — who served with U.S. service members in that war-torn country may not receive the same reward.
The Trump Administration could issue a new executive order this week that would keep citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iraq, out of the United States, at least temporarily.
The Iraqi interpreters have been left in limbo since Trump’s original order was issued Jan. 27. They face the prospect of being barred from the United States even if it is no longer safe for them in Iraq.
The administration has maintained the temporary ban is necessary to protect Americans from the threat of terrorists entering the country, citing the unstable history of the affected nations – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
However, even before the ban was stayed by a federal judge, the Trump Administration signaled it would allow Iraqi interpreters on special visas to continue to enter the United States. The Pentagon lobbied for the change, citing fears that to do otherwise would hinder the joint U.S.-Iraqi effort to battle Islamic State.
Even though Afghanistan wasn’t covered by Trump’s initial order, both the Americans and Afghans who served there can identify with the plight of Iraqi interpreters.
Kenneth Braddock, a retired colonel who deployed to Afghanistan with the S.C. National Guard, knows how crucial those interpreters can be.
“They were able to give us great insight into the society and the people we had to deal with,” said Braddock of Columbia. “We often didn’t know what were walking into, and they would give us a heads up about someone’s reputation or whether this was a good area to be in because they knew the area.”
‘I didn’t feel safe’
Noor Amiri served alongside U.S. troops in his native Afghanistan before he moved his family to Columbia on a special immigration visa. Those visas are reserved for foreign nationals who worked with the U.S. military in the Iraq and Afghan wars.
“It was not my dream to come here,” Amiri said earlier this week. “But because of my job, my kids, my wife ... people come here seeking a better life.”
In his native country, Amiri initially worked with U.S. personnel who were training Afghan security forces, acting as a conduit between his countrymen and the English-speaking trainers.
Later, he worked as a translator with a Special Forces unit that met with Afghan provincial officials, sometimes in tense situations.
“The interpreters are playing a very important role,” Amiri said. “They have to be sure everybody’s on the same page because, if not, both sides have their guns.”
After six years of working with the Americans, Amiri felt he couldn’t stay in his home country much longer.
trust that the people know what they’re doing.
Afghan interpreter Noor Amiri, on the vetting process
“I started to think my face would be recognized,” he said. “I personally didn’t feel safe. They could follow you, ambush you, find your house, find your relatives.”
Braddock, the S.C. National Guard veteran, worked with the Afghan army and police while deployed twice between 2007 and 2010.
Since most Afghans did not speak English, Braddock said his interpreter was invaluable and not just for his language skills. “They knew when we needed to be on our toes.”
During his 2007-08 Afghan tour with the S.C. National Guard, Smith marveled at the skills of his tajiman – the local Dari word for an interpreter.
“The things he could tell just by looking at a place, by hearing the dialects,” Smith said.
The interpreters also shared the dangers. And, Braddock added, “It put a target on them and their families.”
Braddock appreciates the concerns that some Americans have about immigrants entering the United States but says those fears are misplaced when it comes to the former interpreters.
“They’re very heavily vetted,” Braddock said. “It’s not just a ticket you get. Some interpreters could not get approved because of something in their background. ... The Taliban and other factions actively try to get people into the interpreter program to feed them intel.”
Similarly, the process to immigrate to the United States is strict.
When Amiri first applied to immigrate, he was turned down. Amiri and the colonel that he worked with during the application process had missed some paperwork, delaying his arrival in the United States by three months.
However, he knows others seeking refuge who have waited for years.
“You have to do several interviews, you get fingerprinted,” Amiri said. “Most people who think immigrants are not safe, I think talk without knowing the reality.”
It put a target on them and their families.
Col. Kenneth Braddock (Ret.)
Once he won approval, Amiri was moved to the Columbia area with his wife and two young sons.
Today, Amiri works at a car-detail shop. While he has found a small community of fellow Afghan refugees here, he still misses his family in Kabul, including a brother in the Afghan army and another who is a U.S.-trained fighter pilot.
Still, Amiri hopes his counterparts from Iraq will have the same opportunities in America that he found.
“I understand people’s concerns,” Amiri said. “But they should trust the government, the process and trust that the people know what they’re doing.”
Smith, a Richland Democrat in the S.C. House, says helping the interpreters, including the one that he calls his “brother,” is “important to our credibility and to who we are as a people.”
“What makes us safe is having strong relationships across cultures,” he said. “If there ever is any terrorism in Columbia, you’re not going to hear about it at the tailgate during a Carolina game.”