Posted on June 30, 2017
The Essence of Good
How do you repay someone for the gift of life? What is it you wouldn’t do? I imagine you’d do anything.
Janis Shinwari, the Afghan translator who worked with my Army unit in Afghanistan, saved my life (check out the amazing story here), and those of four other American soldiers over his eight years of service with our military.
Janis saved my life in Afghanistan on April 28, 2008 during a battle. He shot and killed two Taliban fighters who were about to kill me. The Taliban placed him and his family on a death list – he was their number one target. Because of his service as a translator to American forces, he and his family were able to apply for a special visa to resettle in the U.S. but this process took more than four years, many of which they spent in hiding – often moving homes nightly. Thousands of others who supported our military forces are in the same situation, but sadly many will not make it to America before the Taliban find them.
Just days before Halloween 2013, I greeted Janis at the airport after four long years of waiting. He had left Afghanistan for good; he and his family can never go back. The story of our bond and efforts to get our country to honor its promise to him earned the attention of a CBS News crew who captured our long-awaited reunion.
As the camera crew packed up their gear I turned to Janis and said, “come on brother, let’s go to baggage claim and get the rest of your luggage and get you home.” He turned and pointed to four small suitcases, the size of carry-on bags – one for him, his wife, and his two children.
“Brother, this is all we were allowed to bring. Just one suitcase each. It had to fit in the overhead flight bin.”
I was shocked. If I can fly across the US with two bags for free, why was a hero coming to America forever only allowed to bring one bag? His whole life suddenly condensed into a 22 by 14 by 9 piece of tattered luggage filled with family heirlooms – the only tangible items of his heritage.
I turned to find the US government refugee resettlement representative I assumed was at the airport to help him begin his new life in America to express my dismay at such an absurd policy. That’s when I learned there is no such representative – that it was incumbent on me to help him find a place to live, furnish his home, find him a job, and help his family adapt to their new lives.
I realized I couldn’t do it alone. I needed help. I ran to the CBS crew and explained the situation and that I planned to launch a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help his family resettle safely here in the U.S. – a place to live, furniture and home furnishings, a car, the things that make his new home a home. They agreed to share this development in their story.
We found him a place to live and thanks to the generosity of my thoughtful friends, furnished his home in a matter of hours. Halloween night, I went to buy him some cookware and decided to go to the bank to check in on the GoFundMe campaign. I was shocked to find $35,000 in the account – most of it from complete strangers who had seen his story on CBS. The American people came together because they believed it was the right thing to do, after all he’d done for us.
I returned to Janis’ home excited to present him with a check from the American people. Janis, however, had been having a heck of a night. Having never seen our Halloween tradition, he thought everyone coming to the door in costume was a beggar, looking for help. I arrived to find Janis giving everyone who rang the bell money – three $1 bills – because that’s who he is. He was literally giving away all the money he had in this world to complete strangers after only being in America for a few hours. He kept telling me, “They need it more than I do….” I finally got the chance to explain Halloween and we had good laugh.
I pulled out the check for $35,000 and said, “Brother, don’t worry about the money. I have a gift for you. It’s from the American people. It’s in thanks and exchange for your eight years of frontline combat service and your family’s profound sacrifice. It’s not enough to repay our debt, but it will cover your rent and food for at least a year. So please, take this money, kick your feet up, relax, and enjoy your family. You’re finally safe now, no one will ever threaten you again.”
Janis thought about accepting the check for half of a heartbeat and said, “Brother, I cannot take this money.”
“Well what would you like me to do with it?”
He looked me directly in the eyes and said, “What about Ehsan, Latif, Jamshid, Maiwand, and Habib?” He had just named the translators from our base who remained on that outpost, still serving, still in danger. “Don’t they deserve to be here too?”
He had a point – they did. “Brother what would you have me do?”
“Can we use this money to start an organization to do for them what you’ve done for me – to help them get their visa, find a home, furnishings, and start their new lives in America?”
That was the birth of No One Left Behind. All this because Janis Shinwari – born into conflict and living his whole life in a country at war – just wasn’t done paying it forward.
To me Janis is a saint. He embodies pure kindness and goodness. He gave me my life, and countless others too. His actions that day in Afghanistan allow me to have a beautiful wife and daughter. His actions that Halloween continue to impact countless others – most of whom he will never meet. He just keeps giving so No One Left Behind will continue keeping our nation’s promise.
To date No One Left Behind has helped more than 3,400 Afghans and Iraqis apply for visas and helped resettle 4,000+ across the U.S. We’ve provided rental assistance to thousands and furnished over 800 homes for our wartime allies from Iraq and Afghanistan. In America’s current climate, our resources simply cannot meet demand. Join our fight today.