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Afghan Interpreters Who Worked For U.S. Military Find New Home, Challenges

By Linze Rice | December 28, 2016 6:21am
 After being interpreters for the U.S. military, many Afghan and Iraqi families fled as they were hunted by the Taliban.
After being interpreters for the U.S. military, many Afghan and Iraqi families fled as they were hunted by the Taliban.
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Facebook/No One Left Behind

ROGERS PARK — When Evan Zemil first volunteered to help a refugee family resettle in Chicago through the No One Left Behind organization, he had no idea how much the experience would change his life just 1½ years later. 

The group works with Iraqi and Afghan nationals who formerly worked as interpreters and linguists for U.S. Special Forces find a new life in America using a Special Immigrant Visa. Because of their affiliation with the U.S. government, they become active targets of terrorist groups like the Taliban.

After briefly jumping on as director of the Chicago chapter before spinning off into his own army of one, Zemil now says the countless hours of help he dedicates to these new residents is something he couldn't imagine giving up. 

"It just happened, I can't explain it," Zemil said. "I helped one family, and then one became three and three became five, and the next thing I know Refugee One sent me 12 families all at once and I just started knocking on doors as a refugee agency."

He now is looking for bikes for two men who need them to get to work. 

Interpreters and translators working for U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq provide more than just language help to soldiers — the job requires them to be alongside those who need translation services and provide other critical information, like insight on local terrain, when and wherever it might be needed. 

Zemil said many of the families he helps resettle have family members who have been killed or captured because of their relationship with the U.S. military.

It was estimated an interpreter in Afghanistan is killed every 36 hours, according to a 2014 report from the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.

If they are approved for a special visa, they are given some cash assistance and eventually receive food stamps, but the money they are given to buy typical things needed for rebuilding a life is often absorbed by refugee resettlement organizations who in turn use the money to help pay for the first few initial months of rent. 

It's not enough, Zemil said, especially for those who have yet to find employment and need to support family members in the United States and abroad. 

Zemil said he no longer receives many requests from refugee organizations, but rather is overwhelmed with calls for assistance from refugees in the community themselves. 

When he hears a family is in need of basic items like mattresses and blankets, food, clothing, dishes and bikes for transportation, he puts a call out to online groups or helps connect them with someone who can help. 

Most of the time he retrieves the items and delivers them.

Simultaneously, Zemil, who lives on the North Side but owns properties across the South Side, runs his own business. He could use some help, he said. 

The items go toward helping people like Sharifullan Khair Khwa, who arrived in Rogers Park in early November with his wife to start his life over through the Special Immigrant Visa program after working as a linguist for the U.S. military in Afghanistan for three years.

"My life was at a serious risk," Khair Khwa said.

His brother, also an interpreter, had come two years earlier and connected him with Zemil when he had nothing, he said. Zemil helped him get shoes, furniture, carpet, food, clothes and more.

"When I came here, my hands were empty," Khair Khwa said. "But now I got a house, I got a beautiful life. ... I'm very happy."

Khair Khwa said he feared including his picture in this story because of how it could potentially affect his family in Afghanistan or here in the United States.

Khair Khwa said though it has been difficult to readjust in the United States, he is thankful for the assistance he's received and the kindness he's been shown so far — in particular from Zemil. 

"I hope him the best luck in life, we're very thankful," he said.

Zemil said he is moved from the gratitude of the families he's helped, something he views as an act of his own appreciation for serving the U.S. military.

Despite anti-Muslim rhetoric in America over the last year, Zemil, who is Jewish, said he doesn't care what others think of what he's doing, unless they're offering to help. 

"It's very moving to me, sometimes I break down and cry, how can you not?" Zemil said. "I'm Jewish, which is strange because these are all Muslims. But it really comes down to being a human being.

"If anybody says anything to me I tell them, 'Look, these people stood up for us. I don't care that they're Muslim.'"

Since meeting and becoming friends with dozens of Afghan and Iraqi families, Zemil said his life has "changed for the better."

Zemil said he is currently seeking laptops and central processing units, mattresses, blankets, portable heaters, dishes and cutlery, bicycles and other gently-used household items still in good condition. 

He can be reached by email at EvanZemil@gmail.com.

"People can rise to the occasion, people can do what they want to do," Zemil said. "I think life gets in the way of a lot of people helping, even though they may want to help. And I don't mean writing a check, I don't mean buying a gift card. As Americans we're busy living our lives ... I'm trying to get more people who want to volunteer, to donate."

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