Afghan translator immigrates to Idaho

TWIN FALLS — Even as a young boy, Fathe Noori could see the darkness the Taliban spread across his country.

For a while, these radical insurgents made nice. But they changed face and brought a wave of terror that shaped Afghanistan’s future and Noori’s life forever.

As a 10-year-old boy, he lived in fear, forced to watch the Taliban behead and stone villagers of his native city, Herat.

Noori’s father, NoorGull, a doctor who treated the Mujahideen forces during the war that expelled Russians from his country, knew the Taliban would come for him. Tears pooled in Noori’s eyes when he described the six months his father was tortured.

“During the night, they put him in the pool with the full water - especially during the winter - and chained his hands, naked. In the morning, they took him out and beat him with big cables, bigger than this one,” he said grabbing the electrical cord of the air conditioning unit in his stark Twin Falls apartment.

Noori’s uncles pleaded and bargained with the insurgents, who agreed to release the doctor for a large ransom. The family sold everything they owned - from their land to the carpet in their house. Under the cover of night, they carried his father’s limp body in a blanket into Iran where he spent eight months recovering in a hospital.

“He was almost gone,” Noori said wiping tears from his eyes. “He couldn’t speak.”

Two decades later, Noori fled to the United States. Had he not, he would suffer the same fate as his father, or worse. The Taliban threatened Noori’s life daily because of his service to the Afghan National Army and his later role as an interpreter for the United States and Coalition Forces.

Noori has been lucky so far - escaping firefights unscathed and evading the death that found many of his friends. But with American forces withdrawing from Afghanistan each day, Noori wondered if his luck would run out.

A Foreign Land

Noori is one of the thousands of Iraqi and Afghani translators who immigrated to the United States, a country they’d risked their lives for.

Since 2007, 496 Afghan translators and 618 of their dependents have immigrated on a Special Immigrant Visa, according to the U.S. Department of State. Noori came to Twin Falls on April 10 with his wife, Afsana, and 3-year-old son, Mobbasher.

In getting his visa, Noori was lucky. According to the New York Times, more than 5,000 Afghans under Taliban threat are competing for fewer than 2,300 visas. Hundreds more start the application process each month.

If Congress does not act, the special visa program will expire by October, making it nearly impossible for them to come to America through other visas, especially without American relatives, a State Department official told the Times-News.

But pressure has mounted - specifically from enlisted men and women who worked with the interpreters - to force the State Department to prioritize and streamline the program, the New York Times reported.

Many of those soldiers, like Major Jeff Marsteller, say they owe their lives to the interpreters they worked with.

“It can get life-threatening if he translates wrong,” said Marsteller, Brigade Logistics Support Team Chief for the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade.

Translators like Noori also bridged the cultural gap between America and the Middle East - a critical task for America to help stabilize the country so its forces could fight the Taliban independently.

Andrew Schmidt, who served as a Major with Noori when he was called up in the West Virginia Air National Guard, said he became extremely connected to the translators he lived with. The 41-year-old Virginia resident said he has worked tirelessly since 2010 to bring his two other translators to America.

“They are in extreme danger and are just sitting in the system,” he said. “These guys kept me alive. I’m not at all afraid of bringing those guys over here to make this a better place, because I know they will.”

Marsteller said he owes his life to Noori. They are brothers, he said, and the feeling is mutual.

“If the war happens here, I will fight for this country, too,” Noori said, sipping tea. “If somebody helps the Afghans, they will never forget that … I will do anything for Americans.”

The Taliban Flood

After the Taliban invaded Afghanistan, they killed most of Noori’s teachers and burned all the English books.

The Taliban instructors gave “all religious” exams - if you failed, your feet were cuffed and you were beaten. If the Taliban saw Afghanis wearing Western attire, Noori said gesturing to his own nicely pressed shirt, “They beat you, or it was possible to kill you.”

Noori, a Sunni Muslim, said he recognized the hypocrisy of the insurgents’ interpretation of the faith immediately. His religion says nothing about clothes or facial hair - “It was their rules and they make it (to be) from the religion.”

Afghans were ordered to obey the Taliban’s strict religious dogma, and required to pray five times a day. If the Taliban spotted him walking toward a mosque, he was forced to pray, even if he had just done so.

“I know a lot of people that prayed 10 times a day,” he said.

Women lived under house arrest. The boys were told to come straight home from school as the Taliban were fond of kidnapping them.

“They took them to Pakistan to become their soldiers or they abused them sexually,” he said.

In the Taliban’s final years, this stopped many children from leaving the house altogether, he said.

“That time was the darkest in Afghanistan.”

Joining the Fight

“I remember the last day of the Taliban,” he said. “Their punishment, their darkness every day was getting darker.”

Noori - who was born under a bridge with Mujahideen and Russian rockets thundering in the distance - said he remembers watching American forces shell Taliban strongholds in 2001 after 9/11. The radicals fled back to Pakistan where they came from, he said.

Like many of the American soldiers he would later work with, he and his two best friends joined the Afghan National Army after graduating high school.

“I was a young guy and I told my father, ‘I have to go,’” he said.

Because of his education and command of English - rare for the country at the time - Noori was assigned to the Ministry of Defense’s public affairs department. His two friends were sent to the front lines.

In the Ministry of Defense, Noori learned how to work with computers, report on military news and layout the Ministry’s newspaper and magazine under the guidance of American mentors. After two years, he was transferred from Kabul back to Herat - closer to his family and closer to the fight.

There, in the 207th Corps, Noori started the first Corps-based newspaper in Afghanistan, providing local news left out of the Ministry’s national reporting. He became the Corps’ chief of public affairs, working with the local media, preparing press releases and working closely with the Corps’ commander.

Because of his education and background, Noori was often in contact with high-ranking military officials in both the American and Afghan armies.

“He had the highest level access of pretty much anywhere in the country,” Schmidt said. “… Fathe is legit.”

Escaping Death

By 2009, both of Noori’s friends had been killed in combat.

Mohammad Unis was sent to the Paktia Province and was killed by an RPG. Before his death, Unis had captured more than 20 Taliban alive - his marksmanship allowed him to injure them so they could be interrogated. Noori said capturing Taliban alive was rare as their mission was to die doing battle.

“They said he was very brave,” Noori said. “He served at the front always when they fight the Taliban.”

The other friend - Amer Mohammad - was killed by an IED in the Bala Buluk district in 2009.

“His mother passed out when she saw the body of her son,” Noori said. “He was the only son for the family.”

In both cases, Noori found out about their deaths through his reporting. Each time, he could not go to work for days because of the grief.

To think that because Noori was safer as a public affairs officer would be a mistake, Schmidt said. Noori traveled all across the western part of the country in “hot” areas where many troops had been killed before, Schmidt said.

Over the course of several hours of being interviewed by the Times-News, Noori described several firefights with the Taliban. In one, the insurgents opened fire from a mountain with heavy artillery. Several in his group were killed.

“The bullets came like rain,” he said.

In the winter of 2009, Noori was to fly with the Corps’ commander, who he was always with. For some reason, he was relegated to the second helicopter this day.

The first chopper flew off into the cloudy day despite the protests of air traffic control. Communication was lost. Another pilot landed and reported what he saw from a nearby mountain peak - blue smoke, the kind born of helicopter fuel.

All 13 were killed, including Gen. Fazaludin Sayar, who was one of the Afghan army’s four regional commanders in charge of the country’s west. Noori helped pull the bodies from the helicopter, which hit the mountain top and tumbled down the other side. No one could recognize their faces.

“I believe to luck, always to that,” Noori said. “God has a reason for everything. I was in a bad situation, every day going to war, to fight. I’m lucky.”

Facing the Enemy

Part of Noori’s job in the Ministry of Defense was interviewing the Taliban with Afghan intelligence officers. With permission, he would publish the insurgents’ comments in the newspaper. He faced his former oppressors, wholly unafraid, and showed them footage of the people they killed.

“Most of the time I interviewed them asking them why they came to the fight,” Noori said. “But their answers were not always clear and most of them said they are coming to fight for jihad, to bring Islam to the country.”

He pointed out their hypocrisy - in Pakistan they show “sexy movies,” have brothels and prostitutes, and places to consume liquor, which is against Islamic faith. Afghanistan does not have those things, he said.

The independent Afghan media wrote about these hypocrisies daily, but journalists there were “always getting killed or kidnapped by the insurgents,” Noori said.

“Several times I asked them, ‘Why are you not fighting for jihad in your country?’” he said. “We are not the door of heaven.”

These fighters were brainwashed in the Taliban’s madrasas - holy schools - where they would watch pornstars wearing American Army fatigues, Noori said. This was to convince them all Americans raped women and therefore deserved to die.

“They were using pictures of flowers for heaven - ‘If you kill the Afghan people you will go here, straight to heaven,’” Noori said.

Their proof? From a desktop inkjet printer, the Taliban made their trainees a certificate ensuring they would ascend to God’s arms if they killed 10 Afghans or Americans - “this is something that no one can believe,” Noori said laughing.

During these interviews, Noori would take that certificate and shred it in front of them. Then he showed them pictures of the schools and hospitals American and Coalition Forces built.

The Taliban had no answer.

A Valued Interpreter

After five years in the Army, Noori left to become an interpreter for the Americans.

Schmidt said Noori is a skilled interpreter because he is extremely observant and understands both societies intuitively. Sometimes, interpreters served best by simply being aware of all that was happening, Schmidt said.

“I had my interpreter say to me, ‘You need to chamber a round immediately because the two guys over there are talking about killing you and taking your clothes,’” he said. “That kind of thing - they are there to intuitively know what is going on around you and keep you from doing something stupid. Fathe excelled at that.”

As a translator, Noori did more than just change the language. He would put what needed to be communicated into right cultural framework, Marsteller said.

This came in handy for smaller things, such as in meetings between commanders.

“Americans we just start talking - OK here’s the issue, three points we want to get to and let’s move on,” Marsteller said. “When you go to a meeting there, you sit down with tea, nuts and raisins. You talk about their family, what’s going on in their life … and then you weave some business and then you come into the personal world.”

Knowing the culture was critical on more serious topics, such as religious restrictions. Once, when Noori was still in the Army, an interpreter led an Air Force Sergeant with a video camera into a mosque, where non-Muslims are not allowed to enter.

“He was lucky that I was there,” he said. “I saw a lot of soldiers are walking to him. I took his hand and said, ‘If you want to be alive just come with me.’”

‘They Said Idaho’

As the war trudges on, Noori said many Afghans are starting to see that American forces are there to support the country, not to occupy it or to change its religion and culture as the Taliban allege.

But the goodwill Noori helped foster for Americans meant becoming a public face - his image in photos and on television. Already from a prominent, well-educated family, this put him in danger.

Soon, men began following him home. Holy men would detain him and demand he stop working with the Americans. These mullahs were “sure the Taliban would come back and they will put you in their court and you will have to answer one day.”

He put in for his visa, supported by several American officers. They asked him where he wanted to go.

“Any place you want to send me is OK,” he said. “They said Idaho.”

Noori is still adjusting to American life. It is hard for him to get around without public transportation. He is thousands of dollars in debt and is still waiting for his green card to start working.

Marsteller said he speaks with Noori at least twice a week and has helped him craft a resume. He said he worries about his friend considering Americans’ stereotypes of Muslims. But Noori “will counter that stereotype,” he said.

“I worry deeply about him because I can see the expression on his face on Facebook,” Schmidt said. “He’s dreamed of getting to America and I’m sure he is so overwhelmed with the difference of culture just like I was when I was living in Afghanistan.”

When they first arrived, Noori said his wife, who is pregnant with their second child - was sad. His son is indifferent - he loves to play in the park nearby.

“I feel great,” he said. “Most of the time I tell my wife I feel like I’m on vacation after a long time of fighting every day and 28 years of hearing bad news of killing. It’s been about almost a month that I can feel I’m living, that I’m alive.”

In that way, Noori said he knows he is unlike many Americans men and women who struggle to readjust to life at home after fighting. Schmidt isn’t as convinced - Afghanistan is “an entire society with PTSD.”

Will the Taliban Win?

Educated people are now fleeing Afghanistan, Noori said. With dwindling American support, “They are the first targets.” His brother, Hamed, who studied law and politics, told only a few people before he fled, seeking asylum in Vienna, Austria.

Is this giving the Taliban what they want? Does the country get weaker as the younger, more educated people aware of the insurgents’ hypocrisy leave?

Perhaps, Noori said. But they only have two options - seek help from corrupt government officials, many who are helping Pakistan, Iran and the Taliban covertly, or be killed by the insurgents directly, he said.

Peace for Afghanistan will only come if America stays longer, he said. Pulling out now would just send a wave of Taliban across the border from Pakistan and Iran. Those two countries, Noori said, are Afghanistan’s biggest enemies.

Having been in the military and seen the evolution of the Taliban, Noori said he is convinced the Taliban are Pakistani Army dressed differently. “A civilian can’t train like that, only an army.”

Afghans are not scared of fighting, but the war can’t be won without America addressing Pakistan, he said.

American forces must stay longer, not so that they can win the fight with the Taliban, but to allow a new generation to be educated and the economy stabilized. That will take the ammunition behind the Taliban’s influence, he said.

In America, Noori wants to go to college for business and eventually start his own. He hopes to save enough money to build a school in Herat, where children must now walk more than three miles to school each way.

In that way, Noori is playing the long game against the Taliban, hoping to shine a light where the radicals push darkness. He hopes to follow his father’s footsteps.

Since returning from Iran, NoorGull built a clinic, started training young medics and is now the village’s elder. From his earnings, his father buys medicine for the poor. He cares for many, especially families whose fathers and sons were killed in the war. Many call his father their father, Noori said proudly.

Soon, Afghans will no longer hear the all-to-familiar sounds of the IED or the RPG echoing through the mountains and valleys. Women will go to college. Freedom will come, he said.

“I believe this - one day we will have peace in Afghanistan,” Noori said.