Father and son begin new life in Rochester

"We are only looking for a safe place. Not for a luxury life." And, he adds, "To be a good American."

A father and son from Afghanistan ate their first dinner in the U.S. Thursday night. Mujtaba Haidir, and 10-year old Ray, arrived at the Rochester Airport Thursday morning, after fleeing their native country, knowing they'd be killed if they didn't leave. The journey itself also proved deadly, but not for them.

The danger of remaining in Afghanistan stems from Haidir's service as an interpreter for the American military there. Thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis have chosen to work with the U.S. because they believe in their mission. But that choice to help the Americans also marks them for death. In Afghanistan, the Taliban tortures and kills interpreters, known as terps, and their families.

Applying for a Special Immigrant Visa for resettling in the U.S. requires filling out hundreds of forms, and documenting up to 25 years of one's life. Even after the paperwork is complete, approval of the S.I.V. takes several years. That's time many of these interpreters feel they do not have, because of the very real threat under which they live.

It's that danger that prompted Haidir to pay smugglers to get him, his wife and three children out of Afghanistan sooner. They got to Turkey, and then onto a boat carrying other refugees to Greece. But the boat never made it there. It flipped over in a storm on the Aegean Sea, and Haidir's wife and two of his children died. He and his son were rescued.

A new documentary, The Interpreters, tells the story of Mujtaba and Ray's journey.

It is the plight of these interpreters and their families that prompted Army veteran and Rochester native Matt Zeller to start No One Left Behind, a national organization dedicated to helping the people who served alongside U.S. soldiers.

"I wouldn't be here talking to you right now if it had not been for my Afghan interpreter," Zeller says. "He saved my life, literally, in a battle. He killed two Taliban fighters who were about to kill me."

Zeller, and local chapter coordinator Ellen Smith of Mendon, have successfully resettled 259 interpreters and family members in Rochester. Nationwide, the number tops eight thousand.

"He'll get help from us," says Smith, referring to Haidir. "We're paying his first month's rent and security. We will help him find a job. He's already sent jobs to us off (an employment search site) saying 'I can do this job.'"

The refugees are required to volunteer for the organization in order to earn an inexpensive used car, so they can get to work once they land a job.

For Mujtaba Haidir, now living in a country he had served but never seen, hard work will not be anything new.

"Not only me, all migrants," he says. "We are only looking for a safe place. Not for a luxury life." And, he adds, "To be a good American."

Volunteers from the local chapter of No One Left Behind were at the airport this morning to give a rousing welcome to Haidir and his son. Zeller himself handed Haidir an American flag, saying, "This is your flag now, this is your country. We are so proud and honored that you are here."

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