Khaleel Yasir – a proud American citizen and Californian – watched the recent airlifts of refugees from Kabul, Afghanistan, with a greater understanding than perhaps the rest of us. He once had been in the same position himself—a refugee and an interpreter whose family would have remained in grave danger, and possibly faced death had they stayed in their homeland of Iraq.
He knows what this new wave of refugees will need as they settle here not only because he’s been through it himself, but also because he once worked for a resettlement agency in Sacramento, helping a previous influx of Afghans acclimate to American life.
The 42-year-old Iraqi native spent several years working as an interpreter for American forces at Camp Adder, an air base near An-Nasiriyah, mining information from locals about where explosives and other dangers might lie ahead.
Like other interpreters from both wars, he built trust with the American boots on the ground. He developed a camaraderie and loyalty that ultimately helped him come to America where he, too, could become an American. That happened in 2012 when five years of patience, perseverance, and paperwork – with a hefty dose of doubt and delays mixed in – finally translated to travel visas for Yasir, wife Zuhal, and young sons Mustafa and Zain.
When Yasir became a U.S. citizen in 2017, Josh Fjelstad – the American soldier who helped him through the immigration process – was there to congratulate him at the naturalization ceremony. They are forever bonded by war and fate; they remain friends here in California, more than 7,500 miles from where they first met.
Their story began in April 2006, when Army Infantry Lieutenant Fjelstad served in Nasiriyah, where one of the most vicious battles of the Iraq War had taken place three years earlier.
College educated and a teacher, in 2003 Yasir approached the Americans and offered to work with them. He was hired by a contractor that employed Iraqi teachers and students as interpreters.
“We appreciated the U.S. Army,” Yasir said. “They left their families behind to help us. So, I had to help them.”
Fjelstad and his unit had worked with other interpreters there and understood their value to the success of any mission. But Fjelstad recognized very quickly that Yasir possessed some special qualities that made him their favorite.
“I think it helped that he was our age (mid-20s in 2006),” said Fjelstad, 41. “We could talk about a lot of things – even pop culture. He had a cocky attitude – there are a lot of adrenaline junkies and testosterone punks in the infantry – so he fit right in. He brought a certain dynamic to our team.”
Most important, Fjelstad said, Yasir understood that he merely needed to convey the intent of the message accurately – not parrot a word-for-word translation.
“You could say it to him and he understood what we intended to do,” Fjelstad said. Especially when the message involved information about improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other security threats to the troops and locals alike.
Over the 15 months they worked together, Fjelstad and Yasir indeed developed a trust and friendship. When Yasir told Fjelstad he wanted to go to America and become an American citizen, Fjelstad promised to help him.
In 2007, Fjelstad started assembling the paperwork for a Special Immigration Visa (SIV) for Yasir, who qualified by virtue of having worked with the American military for over a year.
“The SIV was supposed to be a fast track, but it still took about five and one-half years,” Fjelstad said. It actually helped when Fjelstad’s unit had their deployment extended by about four months. It gave him more time to obtain written recommendations from high commanders. Still, Fjelstad left for home with a bad feeling in July 2007.
“The last day I saw Khaleel, I assumed that was the last time I’d ever see him,” Fjelstad said. “If I couldn’t (push through the visa) by that time, I had no faith it would happen by anyone after me.”
“Josh was worried about me when he left Iraq,” Yasir said.
They stayed in touch as much as possible, and Fjelstad kept working from his end. But it dragged on for years. Meanwhile, as the Islamic State (ISIS) ramped up its reign of terror in the region, Yasir knew he had to get his family (wife and son at the time) out of there. Just as in Afghanistan, anyone who had helped the Americans would be a target.
“We didn’t know what we were doing – where we’d be going,” Yasir said. “We just decided to leave Iraq to keep our children safe. We didn’t want our children to see and live in the fighting in Iraq.”
In 2011, Yasir received an email instructing him to bring all his documentation to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. He had to bring proof that he had never been in jail and had no criminal record. He had to provide medical records for he, his wife, and one child at the time. During the wait, their second son arrived, and that meant he had to produce an ID for the baby as well.
He also had to show that he had someone in the United States willing to serve in a sponsor’s role, which was Fjelstad. But after returning to the U.S. and leaving the military, Fjelstad moved from his native Minnesota to Sacramento. Yasir listed the Minnesota address, then learned he’d be going to California instead and had to correct that information, which caused yet another delay.
“It makes me angry to remember all the processes to get them here,” Fjelstad said.
Yasir finally received their visas in February 2012 and arrived in New York that June.
They soon met with Fjeldstad, his wife, and his sister-in-law, Joy, who works at World Relief, a faith-based refugee settlement non-profit.
“I considered him as a brother,” Yasir said. “They came to dinner, and my wife said, ‘Now I feel good. They are a really good family.’”
Yasir and his family settled in with Fjelstad’s help. Zuhal began learning to speak English. After Yasir worked at various jobs for three years, Joy helped him join the World Relief staff.
The Sacramento area was in the midst of welcoming roughly 12,000 Afghans to the area in a program that began in 2011. World Relief needed more employees to help with resettlement and he understood the process. Over the next three years, he helped refugees find housing, get into English language courses, and access other available benefits.
Meanwhile, he and Zuhal immersed themselves in American culture and began pursuing the American dream. They studied for the U.S. Citizenship exam, which they passed in late 2017. When they took the oath of citizenship in Sacramento on February 22 – George Washington’s birthday – 2018, their young sons shared the moment as well and became citizens by default.
“I got to sit with his kids at the naturalization ceremony,” Fjelstad said. “They stood on their chairs, raised their right hands, and took the same oath.”
Their daughter, Tala, was born here and is a citizen by birthright. And Khaleel?
“I was born again as an American,” he said.
When the Trump Administration reduced the numbers of Muslim immigrants by 91 percent over a two-year period, Yasir was among those at World Relief and other resettlement organizations to experience layoffs. He now works for a telecommunications company.
“Coming here, he started at the bottom,” Fjelstad said. “Green Card. A college degree from (Iraq) means nothing here. It was a rough start – from nothing to trying to launch his kids to be the next generation of U.S. kids. They’ll be the next soccer stars of Sacramento. (Khaleel and Zuhal) are homeowners.”
Indeed, they are refugees from a different country and different war, but great examples for those coming here from Afghanistan any way you interpret it.