What’s happening in Afghanistan looks familiar to Tony Razul. Born and raised in Karbala City, Iraq, he knew early on in his life that he wanted to leave Iraq for a better chance at education and a better life. He taught himself English and, not long after U.S. and allied troops arrived in Iraq in 2003, started working as a translator for the U.S. Army.
In 2006, a few years after Razul began his very dangerous, highly specialized work with the U.S. Army, Congress established a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for eligible Iraqis like him who’d risked their own lives to help U.S. and allied troops to resettle safely in the United States. Since then, Congress has established several more SIV programs for Iraqis, as well as Afghans, including two current programs for Afghans (and their dependents) who have either aided U.S. troops or who have worked as translators.
Other Afghans can be admitted as refugees, but that is typically a more arduous process.
Razul’s journey to the U.S. was treacherous and long. He obtained an SIV and resettled in Charlottesville in 2009, and that began another — less dangerous, but still difficult — chapter in his story. He owns his own company, works in real estate and does freelance translation. He’s made many friends and has started a family of his own.
Every person who has immigrated to the United States has a unique story to tell. Razul’s story is his own. And though he is Iraqi, not Afghan, he wanted to share his story so that as Afghan refugees and SIVs — some of whom are translators — resettle in our community, we can perhaps better understand what they and their loved ones have gone through and therefore be better, more welcoming neighbors to them.
This is the first installment of a multi-part series, in Razul’s own words, as told to Erin O’Hare.
This article was lightly edited for clarity.
I was born and raised in Iraq, in a province called Karbala, in Karbala City. Since I was a child, I learned how to speak the language, from school, learning the basics. And I went further, started to teach myself English, which is the hardest part.
It was pretty painful! Since nobody around me speak the language, it took me about 11 years to learn the big basics, and a little more years to learn the ins and out and how to get the accent, especially the American accent, and how to get all of the angles covered. That, in addition to school. But the school system in Iraq is pretty weak, especially when teaching a new language. They teach you the basics, and then they just leave you alone because the teachers themselves don’t speak the language, just, “Hi, how are you doing?” “This is a car. This is a house.” They cannot really construct an entire paragraph.
I mostly learned from an old dictionary that our neighbor gifted to me. I was choosing five to eight, 10, words a day and keep repeating them to myself every day throughout the day until I have them copied in my memory, and so on and so forth. The only problem about this dictionary is, the letters A, B, and C are missing. So, you’ll find, when I start talking, that I don’t use many words that start with an A, B, and C.
I love history, I love geography, and I wanted to leave the country for one of the west countries for a better life for myself. Eventually, I decided to come to the U.S., so I had to learn about the U.S. history, the U.S. geography, the U.S. language. Once you are past that point of understanding the language, history and [culture], everything else will be easy for you to find a new life in the U.S. Because the language barrier is a problem, especially in the U.S., it will set you back for many years, if not decades.
I was a little bit selfish. I was born in an environment, I was raised in an environment, where it was harsh for me. I came from a very poor family in Iraq. Education was fine — it was public — but, at the same time, none of our family went to the top, and I wanted to finish my education, I wanted to learn more things. I wanted to open my own business, but you have to have financial help, you have to have the system that sets that in place, where it can actually help you to advance your life. In Iraq, these things are not available, unfortunately. You’ve got high unemployment, you have a very broken financial system. You have a lot of other things that prevent you from growing and reaching your full potential. Versus in the U.S., here … I mean, it’s kind of hard to make yourself up here, but there’s still a chance. If there’s a 1% chance of doing it, then I will take that 1%, rather than zero.
Getting to the U.S. was a very long process. When the U.S. troops came into Iraq in 2003, they started to look for people who speak the language to work as translators. At the time, I was working as a police officer. I still worked as a police officer until 2004, or 2005, I’m not really sure. And then in 2006, I started working for the U.S. Army.
At the time, we had a U.S. Army intelligence company that came into the police station, and they were conducting joint operations. Unfortunately, their translator was missing a lot of key words and a lot of things that I was like, “you’re gonna hurt these people unintentionally, so let me translate them for you.” And, from there, the officer liked me, and was like, “You’re my buddy,” so, I helped that office at the time. Then I transferred to a different location, once my contract was in effect, because they needed me in a more strategic spot rather than a small little office in the police station.
You have to live a double life, mostly. When I was working for the U.S., I did not even tell my family. To them, I was still a police officer, still reported to work, all of that. I trust my family, but I’m afraid if my family will tell somebody who tells somebody, and it’s just a chain, and then it reaches the bad guys. The bad guys are not merciful. They will kill you, regardless of what you do or what happens.
As far as my family, I told them that me, as a police officer, I had been transferred to a different spot in Iraq, so I’m not going to see them often. That’s when I basically left the police force and started working for a U.S. company called L3 Communications.
When I first started [with L3], I was working in a prison on an American Army base. I cannot tell the name of that prison, but we had a high profile. We had about 20,000 detainees at that time, some became ISIS leaders. My mission was collecting intelligence and reading communications among the detainees. To analyze information. And to be a translator. See, the translator job is not just to translate everything between Arabic-English, English-Arabic; many things go into translation. Especially when it comes to the intelligence, or, when it comes to high-profile U.S. Army units. They don’t just hire you for translation, they hire you for “translation-plus,” and that depends on what “plus” means.
That’s why mostly, either ISIS or Al-Qaeda, or even Taliban, are looking for translators [who have worked with the U.S Army and its allies]. They don’t care about translators — they care about information that these translators hold.
In the prison, you have a bunch of sections. You’ve got section A, section B, C, whatever the prison lays out. And you have detainees here in A, detainees here in B, detainees in C. Now, these detainees, they know each other, but they don’t know who is where. For example, if this person’s brother [is in A], he [in B] don’t know about it. But the translators do. Because the translator is the one that is connecting all the dots.
So, when the U.S. Army units are asking you to translate some intel [from section A], you do, and some names come up here and there and some leaders’ ranks, etc. Then that same translator goes to [section B], and does the same job and then would go, “oh, this guy’s brother is in there.”
Why is this important? Because if these leaders understood who is there, they will start to communicate with each other, and they start to form a group, which, when they get released — sooner or later they get released — they will know where, which person went to where. They will be like, “Hey, by the way, do you know this-and-this guy?” “Oh yeah, I know him. He works for IEDs.” “Well, we want him.” “Oh, I know where’s his house.” Everything is connected. The translators, they translate all the communications in and out. they connecting all the dots. They are providing the Army intelligence with all the information needed to prevent this from happening. It’s a very critical job.
And when these ISIS or Taliban or Al-Qaeda, when they capture a translator alive, they don’t kill them right away. They have to squeeze the information out of them.
It’s extremely dangerous to be a translator. How many times did I think that I would soon or later going to be losing my life? I wished it to be a quick death. It’s like, where you are coming to the edge and you’d be like, “I know I’m going to die, I just want it to be quick, so I don’t feel the pain much.” And these guys, they don’t kill you quick. They want to squeeze every single information in your head.
I did all of the translation of the prison between 2006 and 2008, 2½ years, really. While I was working in the prison, I had pretty good connections with high-profile U.S. Army officers.
Then I was transferred to U.S. Army company headquarters in Baghdad. More information, more critical. These guys, they know you, that you are credible, and they know your job. So they ask you, like, “Hey, we have even better job for you if you are willing to relocate.” And that was a pretty good opportunity for me to change jobs. The prison was a pretty isolated place, and a lot of us get killed, because to get to there, you have to get there like civilians, and you know that some ISIS will be waiting for you somewhere. How many translators got killed and beheaded on the way in and out?
I lost a lot of friends. I mean, that’s life. I even had a friend of mine who was supposed to be getting married the next month, and he was laughing and joking with us, and we had dinner, and he was like, “Yeah, I’m just going to invite you all,” and everything else. Then he went to his family, and we were waiting for him to come back, and he didn’t. We called [him], and his father had the phone, and he was like, “They came in, they just shot him in front of us. They said if we raise a question or anything, they’d shoot us, too. They wanted him, not us, but they said if we made their job to be us, they’d kill all of us. They pulled my son out of my house, into the street, and just killed him.”
That was a pretty painful moment for me, because he was very close to me.
Most likely, that is what’s happening in Afghanistan right now. It’s just a different location, a different environment.
Then I was transferred to U.S. company headquarters in Baghdad, in the Green Zone. More information, more critical. My job at the time was doing testing for the new translators, doing a background check on them and assign them to a different positions in the different locations. I was there for one year.
After that, we had an urgent call from U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command north of Baghdad, in a place called Karkush, which is right next to the borders with Iran. They lost almost all of their translators there. They were killed in action. And they really needed somebody up there to do anything. They were very desperate, so I volunteered to go there.