‘I’d do it all over again.’ Former Iraqi translator talks about his desire to continue serving the United States now that he’s here

This is the fourth installment of a multi-part series, in Razul’s own words, as told to Erin O’Hare. Catch up on the first, second, and third parts.

Tony Razul has done well for himself since arriving in the United States — and in Charlottesville — in 2009. As he noted in the previous installment of his story, though, as a single man fluent in English and well-versed in American culture, he had it easier than most people who escape situations similar to the one he left behind in Iraq. And still, he struggled.

In this last part of his story so far, Razul talks about his own experiences trying to find work and a place to live, further his education, and gives some advice as to how we as a community can better appreciate what some of our new neighbors have gone through to get here, and what they’ll continue to experience and accomplish after they arrive.

He also talks about how he wishes he could continue to help the U.S. via intelligence work, and the bureaucracy and fear that prevents it.

Those of us who grew up in the U.S. and other Western countries can’t pretend to understand what our new neighbors from Iraq and Afghanistan have gone through, but, says Razul, listening and keeping an open heart and mind can go a long way.

Despite everything he’s been through — or maybe because of everything he’s been through — Razul maintains hope for the future.

I found my way here. Instead of working, for example, for 12 hours so I can pay my rent and other expenses, I started my business. I advanced my business, I saw some opportunities and I made it. But for other people like me, they’re still tangled in that system of showing up to work for 12 hours, getting off from work and then pay your expenses, show up to work again. They’re still tangled in that. They do have a lot of potential, but they’re not using this potential [because the system won’t allow them to], and it’s very frustrating. It is very frustrating.

It feels like a bus just hit you when you hear about the reality. Because you’re expecting that, “Hey, I got everything checked! I need to have a good job, or a better job for myself, so that I can form a family, buy a house, and live an American Dream. And at the same time, serve the Americans that I’ve already served overseas.” When they did not even ask me to serve them, I did that. Obviously, my goal is not just financial. My goal is to help the Americans. That’s what I wanted.

But the bureaucracy. This is what it looks like: “We need bachelor’s degree.” I have it. “From the U.S.” I have it. “We need you to be a citizen.” I have citizenship. “We want you to be experienced in war zone.” Right here. “Yeah, we need security clearance.” And that’s where it’ll be like, I did all of this work for nothing?

Folks who are getting SIVs from Afghanistan will end up as cashiers, as factory workers. They’ll be lucky if they have their own business, and it could be a very small business over the years. But as a startup, for the first five, six, maybe 10 years, they’ll be working as cashiers or as hospital cleaners.

You come in and you see a clean table, but you don’t think who cleaned it. An Afghan translator that has extensive experience in military and intelligence probably did, but you’re not going to think about that.

We’re up against a bureaucracy. And I think the problem is that this is a really critical moment in the intelligence community, and intelligence companies, to think outside the box and to think “Hey, if we really want to have our jobs being done, and we really want to be serious about fighting extremism and fighting ISIS or Taliban or other enemies — because now, from now on, we’re going to be looking at other enemies. We’re looking at small cells, we’re looking at small groups where they might form in here and attack us. We have to keep our eyes open. We can’t trust in, for example, Joe, who just finished high school and who isn’t experienced, to be our eyes and ears. We need eyes and ears from the experienced. So, we have to hire the experienced.”

We can’t just brush this under the rug and hope everything’s gonna work out. Because that’s what we did before 9/11, and see what happened. And right now, with Taliban taking over, they’re going to have more financial stability, they’re going to have more businesses going on. Their income is already more than $2 billion a year. They’re going to have a lot of fighters from different countries who — they’re going to move to Afghanistan, train there, and these fighters have easy access to the U.S. You’re going to have a lot of extremists, just like what we saw in Syria, a lot of extremists from Europe where they have easy access to the U.S., who — they’re going to happen to be traveling to Afghanistan, they’re going to do the training, and they’re going to have targets. And if someone has German citizenship, guess what? They can come over here in no time. Or French or Dutch or even Brits.

Even here, Americans. We’re lucky that not a lot of Americans are extremists; most extremism comes from Europe. But we do still have extremists, we do still have sleeping cells going on.

So how do we expect that, for example, an FBI is going to be tapping on somebody’s phone call from X, Y and Z guy to another guy, and they both speak in Afghans? OK, good, you tapped his phone, good for you. Now tell me, what did he said? Tell me, what if they said some codes, some coded message? They’re not going to say, “Oh yeah, I’m going to bomb this.” So, how are you going to know this? Even if you speak the language, you’re not from there. There are some social jokes that happen to be in there. There are a lot of other things that, even if you speak the Afghan language or Arabic language, you still don’t get them. We have American jokes here and some Americans don’t get them!

Here’s the golden rule about intelligence: Information is always does not mean what it is. There’s always coded messages.

And you have, right now, we are in a [dire] need for people like me. As I said, Taliban is only going to get bigger from now on, unfortunately. You have a lot of foreign fighters who they happen to be 10 times more extremist than Afghans themselves. They are just, like I said, just like Syria. The Syrians are kind of moderate, but you’ve got the foreign fighters, they come in, and they extremize the whole group. And you’ll be like, “You’re from Europe, you should be the moderate ones!”

So, unfortunately, we have to keep the lookout. We have to keep our eyes open. Just like when I’m asleep, I’m still awake. 

Tony Razul received American citizenship in 2014, after years of service and dedication to the country. Here, he receives a certificate of appreciation. Credit: Credit: Courtesy of Tony Razul

Now I do real estate. I’m way far from intelligence right now. Because it’s like beating on a dead horse — you’re never going to get hired. It’s just the way it is.

I think there is untrust [of Afghans and Iraqis, even the vetted ones who have worked for U.S. troops and are allowed entry to the U.S.], and it comes from that fear of, “What if we hired that person and that person turned out to be the bad guy?”

In Iraq, there aren’t many people who are willing to work for the U.S. because they know it’s almost 80% chance of death. Once you are signing that contract, you are signing the contract of death. You know you’re going to die; you just don’t know when and how. That’s the chances you have to take. The U.S. was in need of people like me back then because we are in a war zone. So they have to trust you, or otherwise, there’s nobody else to trust.

The U.S. Army job would be like, “OK, you’re good, so we want you to do this and this and this for us. Thank you so much, we’re leaving, you’re staying.” Until, finally, you find the officer that finally accepts you to go to the U.S. Because most of the units, like I said, are revolver units. They come in, they serve 12 months, and by the end of 12 months, they’re leaving, you’re staying. And when the new units come in, you have to establish a whole new friendship with them, so on and so forth. And they go, “you’re staying.”

But when you come over here, it’s a whole different system. It’s not the U.S. Army anymore, it’s different entities you’re working with. You’ve got the FBI, the NSA, the CIA. Other small organizations who — they have their own system, and they have their own requirements, and they have their own pick and choose which one.

Even then, I’d do it all over again. I’m not here to care for the bureaucracy as much as I’m here to help care for Americans. If you work for HR and you don’t hire me, I don’t care, because I’m not here for you, I’m here for the American people. I care for the Americans, for their families and children. I care about the people across the street, even if they don’t like me for who I am, I do like them. You may want to say, “Oh yeah, I hate you.” Well, I don’t hate you! And I’m ready to sacrifice my life for you, even if I don’t know your name, because that’s who I am. That’s the person who I am.

I know this is hard to believe! But this is who I am, this is the person I am. And even if, for example, if I died overseas, I still wouldn’t regret it. Because at least, if my death will save somebody’s life, I’ll definitely do it, without question.

Throughout my life, I learned something that stuck in my head, all the way since I was a child, that the world does not revolve around me. It’s not always about me. It’s always about people, and I just happen to be in there. I have to do whatever it takes so I can make sure that the world revolves around people, not me. Even if that means that I have to do sacrifices, and even if that means I have to stay away from my family, friends, etc., even if that means I have to get shot or if I die. That’s OK. So, it’s not always about me getting the stuff and getting here and there, no.

I have not seen my family in 11 years. I haven’t seen them for 11 years. Right now, I am in touch with them through Facebook, through Viper, WhatsApp. But before all of that technology advanced in here, we, I didn’t have that tools. We did not have smartphones. So, I had to buy the card, and the card disconnect the phones and the phone calls and everything else, but I kept in touch with them, with my family, my friends, everybody else. But that’s a sacrifice I was ready to take, and I took it. It’s a tradeoff.

I got my U.S. citizenship in late 2014.

Now I have my own family. And all Americans are my family. I’ve got a lot of things to look [forward] to.

I hope that people can actually have knowledge about what some translators from overseas are facing and how are they going to make it here in the U.S., in Charlottesville and how they got here, and how can they navigate their lives through this and advance their lives and serving the communities around them.

A lot of people have in mind that translator is just some tool that you use when you need, and it’s OK if you just leave behind, because no one cares. It might be a tool, yeah, you’re using, but, at the same time that tool is very smart and very knowledgeable, valuable. That tool is a human being.

Right now, I’m calling on everybody that has a kind of financial stability, if they’re a businessman or something, do what you can do [for SIVs and refugees].

The IRC have very limited resources. You can either donate to the IRC, or other offices where they happen to take care of refugees. Or you can sponsor an Afghan family that comes from overseas. You can set them in your house, if your house is big enough, and they can stay with you for like, a month or two until they stand up on their feet. This way, you will take the pressure of the IRC so that they can direct those resources to other families. At the same time, it’s a good experience for your family, for your life and all, because these people, when they come over here, they’ve already been pre-screened overseas, either in Germany or in other countries, so, you know they’re not going to be dangerous people. You can house them there. You can have a really good relationship with them. Your family will be socializing with them.

It’s like an exchange students kind of a program.

If you don’t want to do that, you can always have some donations to the IRC, or other organizations where they’re helping these people in need. Because keep in mind, these people, when they come to this country, they only have the clothes they have on. They don’t have the money; they don’t have the language. They don’t have the experience. Some of them do, some of them don’t. It would be great help if the community chip in and help people who are going to come over here. And we will see a lot of Afghans when they come over here, and they have no place to go, or the IRC can’t really take care of that vast amount of people at the same time.

There’s also an organization called No One Left Behind. That organization will care for the translators who worked for the U.S., Iraqis and Afghan translators. That organization also help Afghan families and Afghan translators to resettle them here. They’re trying to help as much as they could. If, for example, a businessman or a financially stable person, can contact with them and see how they can help, I’m pretty sure they’ll have all the answers to the questions.

The most important thing you can do is to learn the culture of that person. You can’t just grab that person and start talking to them like they’re your friends. It has to be step by step. “Hi, how are you doing?” See where they are from, what their culture looks like, if they allow another person to communicate with them. And from there, you start to be like, “Hey, how about if you guys come to us, for dinner, or a small little party?” And then start a friendship, and from there you can teach them language, the traditions, the culture, everything else. And they might be open-minded to it and ask you to learn some new things.

I lived a very harsh life. But I hope my child will have a good life. I hope he has more opportunities than me. It’s always hardest for the first generation of immigrants. Immigrants may not have good lives, but their children can. Their children can change the world — look at Steve Jobs, child of a Syrian immigrant — and sometimes, so do the immigrants themselves.