Written by Jessica R. Towhey
Ali Rasouly spent four years working as an interpreter for MARSOF U.S. Marine Raider Special Forces units. It took five years for him to be approved for a Special Immigrant Visa to move to the United States when it became too dangerous to continue living in Afghanistan.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Ali said. “They have to make sure I am a good person, and that I am safe for the country, and that’s OK – that’s how it should be. But I was living with the Marines. I was sleeping with them, eating with them. I was armed. If I was a bad person, I could have done something then. They trusted me with their lives; I trusted them with my life. The people making the laws – they don’t know anything about this. They live in a safe area and make a decision from their offices.”
Ali and his family are in the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa, a special program created for Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who worked with and supported the U.S. military in their countries.
Ali was born in Afghanistan, but his family fled to Iran when he was just six months old, escaping the war between the Russians and the mujahedeen. As he grew up, he was always reminded by Iranians that he wasn’t one of them. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he began to ask his parents about his home country, why they left and whether they would ever return. But after graduating from high school and taking a job doing embroidery, Ali began to think more about what was happening in his homeland.
In 2004, he decided to return to Afghanistan. He took a bus intending to cross into the border city of Herat but he didn’t have any documentation that would let him leave Iran. Authorities “captured him” and sent him to a refugee camp for four days before “releasing” him into Afghanistan. He said those are four days in his life that he will never forget.
After finally arriving in Herat, he met up with a former classmate who was already working as an interpreter for coalition forces. Ali’s love for American action movies and music from artists such as Celine Dion, Bob Marley and Madonna led him to private English lessons, which meant that his speaking skills were better than most. He was reluctant to get involved with the military, though, and took as an office assistant. But that didn’t feel like enough.
“I was alone and at the end of the day, I was thinking to myself about what my friend was doing and what I was doing,” he said. “And I thought, ‘You shouldn’t be a coward. The reason the military is here is they want to make this place safe.’ The Taliban was the reason I was away from my country for 23 years. So I said, ‘Ok, I am going to stop being a coward.’”
With his friend’s help, he applied to be a translator and began his first job with a Spanish Quick Reaction Force (QRF). For a year, he and two other interpreters worked alongside the soldiers as they moved about the Afghan countryside talking with villagers, sometimes encountering the Taliban and gathering intelligence. He gives a humorless laugh as he recalls that year, saying that he was unprepared to spend 20 days a month moving from village to village.
“You didn’t have good food. You didn’t have a shower or good place to sleep,” he recalled. “That was really tough. With those teams, we never stopped. We always tried to go inside the villages and talk to people about security. If it was a Taliban-friendly village, they would say to me that I am a spy. But those who suffered from the Taliban, they would say that I was doing a good job.”
“You Are Freaking Badasses!”
Over the next couple of years, Ali switched jobs between the Spanish teams and a U.S. Defense Department contractor. He also began volunteering at an English academy where he met his wife. She was taking his English class and he was a student in her class to learn Pashtu. Over time, the Taliban was forced out of the cities so the environment was safer – but not by much, he said, for women to attend school.
During a stint with Spanish coalition forces, he wound up translating during a meeting with a U.S. Marine Special Operations Team.
“After we were done, I said I really liked working with them,” Ali recalled. “I said to them, ‘You are freaking badasses!’”
A week later, another interpreter already working with the team asked Ali to interview for a job. He said the questions focused on the difficult and dangerous nature of the work. None of his previous jobs involved directly targeting Taliban forces. He was told Marines would be targeting and killing the Taliban.
“I went back to the main reason I started working with the military,” Ali said. “That was to get rid of the Taliban. I wanted (the Taliban) out of my country. Marines weren’t just protecting innocent people; they were taking the fight to them.”
From early 2009 to end of 2012, Ali worked with the US Marine Raiders. He fought with them. He celebrated their successes. He mourned their fallen brothers. He lost friends and teammates in ambushes, suicide bombings and other attacks. He carried a weapon for self-defense.
The work was taking a great toll on him. He would have to sneak into his own home at night or the early morning hours to make sure he wasn’t followed. He carried an AK-47 for safety. Although he never told his family the extend of the danger he faced day in and day out with the U.S. forces, he was told over and over that he needed to quit being an interpreter.
In 2012, the company through which he was hired lost its defense contract. A new company took over but reduced interpreters’ pay from $1,000 to $400. Now supporting his wife and his parents, who moved back to Afghanistan after he married, Ali couldn’t afford the pay cut. He said the Marines who had become brothers to him understood that he needed to take care of his family.
No Longer Safe At Home
He left and took a job as an accountant for a company that manufactured laundry detergent and other kinds of soap. But after seven years of traveling to different parts of the country, interpreting meetings with village leaders and other people for coalition forces, Ali remained on high alert. Despite the danger, he felt protected when he worked with the U.S. Marines. But now, not so much.
After a couple of customers told him they recognized him, he knew he would have to move his family.
“When they figure out that you’re not protected by the military anymore, they could come and try to hurt you,” he said. “They could say, ‘You were spying on us and helping foreigners, and you have to pay for that.’”
He became so scared that he quit the accounting job and hid at home for almost eight months. During that time, the coalition forces were moving out of Herat and the Taliban was making its way back. Ali moved his family to Kabul where he reasoned fewer people would know his face.
He eventually made the decision to apply for the SIV. The program, though, is limited in the number of visas that are awarded each year. There is also no guarantee that an interpreter who risked his life in service to the U.S. military will be awarded one.
“There are still thousands of interpreters in Afghanistan,” he said, adding that he knows of many who fled to Europe either because the visa was denied or took too long.
Building A New Life Halfway Across the Globe
Ali said when he opened the email telling him he got his visa, he didn’t believe it at first. But then the process moved quickly. Within four months, he, his wife and their two sons (now ages eight and three) had tickets to come to America.
They settled in San Diego. Although Ali said he was told that it was expensive there, he did not fully understand what that meant. Their plane tickets had been paid for by an NGO associated with the U.N. as a loan, and the family was passed off to another refugee group in San Diego that gave them around $1,000 per family member. That $4,000 quickly disappeared for rent, though. He got a job working for a local Chamber of Commerce and then began working as an interpreter for a company but the hours and pay were both low.
He connected with No One Left Behind through the group’s Facebook page and remains amazed at their commitment to interpreters. The group has helped him to create a resume and attend job skills workshops. The family has also gotten some furniture for their apartment as they make a new home here. Ali now works as a Human Services Specialist for his county government, another type of service in which he gives back to his neighbors and his community.
“I understand how hard it is to live here,” he said. “Still these people, many of them have full-time jobs but from 6 to 10 pm and most of the weekends, the volunteers are helping SIV holders to guide them to get a better job, to have a better life. As soon as we call them, they help us. That shows the kindness of the American people.”