Written by Jessica R. Towhey
Noorullah Aziz was 12 years old when his childhood came to an abrupt end. Armed Taliban fighters came to his village in Afghanistan and demanded his family turn over any weapons they had. Since the family had no weapons, the Taliban demanded money. They took the family’s life savings.
Still a child but forced to grow up fast, Noorullah began working to help feed his family. They needed about 15 pounds of wheat a day to make their meals.
“Instead of going to school, me and my siblings were working from 4 am to 4 pm,” Noorullah said.
That was in 1996, long before most people in the United States ever heard of the Taliban. In Afghanistan, though, the terrorists were at war with the Northern Alliance. Noorullah’s two older brothers fought for the Alliance. His father was arrested twice by the Taliban – the second occurring just two weeks after the first. After the second arrest, the family fled to Pakistan where they stayed until after the 9/11 attacks when they returned home.
Their country, though, was still being torn apart from the inside. And in time, the U.S. military and allies arrived.
Noorullah, now 17, decided it was time to join the fight. He went to school to learn English, and then was hired as an interpreter working with coalition forces to help train the Afghan National Security Forces.
“I wanted to help our people,” Noorullah said.
Once the new security forces were trained, Noorullah accompanied them as they deployed alongside coalition troops. From 2005 to 20089, he worked with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units also, often standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them in combat situations during which he sustained injuries.
During an operation in the Spera District of Khost Province, the team he was with came under attack from a Taliban ambush. Two men in the unit were killed and eight injured, including a U.S. Army sergeant who took a bullet to the neck. Noorullah was standing next to the sergeant when he was shot. A U.S. officer helped Noorullah and another interpreter find safety behind a boulder, despite being shot in the leg.
“We managed to stop the Lieutenant’s bleeding with toilet paper,” Noorullah said.
Every day out in the field, he feared an attack by the Taliban. Then the threats of attack came off the battlefield.
Noorullah had to be prepared 24/7 to conduct training operations or go out on patrol. During down time, he played cards in the military camp rec room or worked out in the gym. When he did get a rare day off and managed to go home, he remained on high alert. The Taliban had eyes and ears everywhere. Even a taxi ride could be fraught with danger since many drivers were affiliated with the insurgency.
Eventually, the Taliban began a campaign targeting U.S. military interpreters, including convincing locals that civilian casualties were the fault of interpreters, who were really spies or traitors. Noorullah wound up on their list, and he knew he had two choices: leave Afghanistan or be killed. He essentially went into hiding for the two years it took to get a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) and immigrated to the U.S.
In 2016, he settled in San Diego, CA. Despite being in the U.S. and being safe, Noorullah’s struggles were far from over. San Diego is an expensive area, and he didn’t know anyone.
“I had no job, my family was 10,000 miles away… if something happened to me only God would know,” he said. “The most difficult thing is living along and in poverty.”
A friend still living in Afghanistan suggested he contact No One Left Behind, a group that advocates for the SIV program and helps interpreters when they reach the U.S. He reached out via Facebook, and NOLB volunteers responded by helping him create a resume and search for jobs online – a new experience. NOLB hosts Job Skills Workshops that are free and open to interpreters. They made sure Noorullah knew about the next one scheduled.
He was hired part-time as a security guard for a major hotel in downtown San Diego. He also delivers packages for Amazon. He’s made friends and is beginning to feel like a success.
Before the war, Noorullah smiled easily. Today, his smile is still slow to come as he worries about his family still living in Afghanistan. He hopes they will someday join him here.
“I used to smile a lot, but now I hear about more and more of my people being killed back there,” Noorullah said. “Afghanistan is one of the most beautiful countries in the world but so much of it is chaos. The best thing about my neighborhood here in the U.S. is that it’s quiet – nice and calm.”