Lost in translation

On Friday, the American Enterprise Institute hosted “Lost in Translation: The Unsung War Heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan”. The evening kicked off with a discussion between Paul Wolfowitz of AEI, and General David Petraeus, partner, KKR and Chairman KKR Global Institute. Following this was a panel discussion featuring former Iraqi translator Salwan Al Toki, former Afghan translator Janis Shinwari, and Matthew Zeller, founder of No One Left Behind.

Wolfowitz noted the timeliness of this event given the recent Trump administration immigration restrictions, though the purpose of the gathering was not to criticize the executive order but to recognize the important role of foreign translators. Petraeus recalled his own experience working with translators from all over the world. He said that the translator’s job goes beyond interpretation; the translater is an adviser to senior US leadership with incredible responsibility. He recalled the bond of those who serve together and the risk these men and women take to put themselves in line of danger.

The US armed forces are veterans in every way except legal status, Petraeus said. He remarked that he is happy to see General Mattis immediately taking on the task of setting up exceptions to the immigration ban. Taking care of those who serve US interests abroad is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do. Next time we enter into a foreign conflict, we want individuals on the ground to support us.

Al Toki asked the audience how many of them had stood in front of foreign soldiers while their countrymen stood on the opposing side. Remembering the day American soldiers approached him and asked if he would get involved, he was hesitant, unclear of US intentions in Iraq and wanted to speak to their general. After getting involved he helped build schools, train police, and worked to form a solid governance strategy for Iraq. After the military, he worked for USAID and established a chamber of commerce, along with centers for women and children. He said that the US service members in Iraq were his guests, and now he is the guest in the US. He served the US loyally and to the best of his ability. He is not afraid of death but he is afraid of someone being left behind.

Shinwari became a translator because he wanted to help his own country and to support his family, not because he wanted to come to America. As one of the most trusted translators he was at every conflict and afforded the privilege of a weapon. When recounting the tale of how he saved the life of fellow panel member Matt Zeller, he echoed Salwan’s sentiment that the Americans were guests in his country and that he felt a need to protect them, putting his own life in danger. Though he never planned on going to the US, in 2009 he was informed that the Taliban had his name, face, and information. He started receiving phone calls threatening his life and that of his family. After waiting many years for his visa to come through, he left Afghanistan for a new life in the US.

Matt Zeller recounted the day he met Shinwari at the airport and welcomed him and his family to the United States. They arrived with four small suitcases, and no idea where they were to live. Zeller realized that he needed to do something and started a “go fund me” page to raise money. Within days he got the family set up in a two-bedroom apartment, furnished with donations, and offered Shinwari a check for $35,000 from the American people. Shinwari refused the money, instead suggesting that they start an organization to help bring over other interpreters.

There was no existing organization to step up and meet this need, and thus No One Left Behind was created. The goal of the non-profit is to help former translators get a visa, welcome them at the airport with a proper reception, and find them a home for at least 90 days furnished at no cost to them. Then the group aims to buy them a car, find them a first job and a first American friend or mentor. Zeller remarked he would eventually like the Defense Department to take on these responsibilities and take care of the people who help us abroad. He recalled the honorary veteran status extended to Philippine soldiers during WWII, and suggested a similar recognition be granted to those who served with the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Watch the full event here:

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