When Ajmal Faqiri arrived at San Francisco International Airport from Afghanistan nearly two years ago with his wife, two young children and only as much personal belongings as they could fit in their suitcases, no one was there to meet them, and they had no idea where to go.
Like many other Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who have served alongside U.S. troops fighting the Taliban, Faqiri and his family were in danger if they remained in their native country.
To help the interpreters resettle, the U.S. has expanded a special immigrant visa program. A provision included in the 2016 defense authorization bill, now awaiting President Obama's signature, would further expand the number of special immigrant visas for Afghan interpreters to 7,000 a year, up from 4,000, to address the backlog of those seeking refuge.
The U.S. government's expectation is that these immigrants will be self-sufficient within three months, even though they arrive with little money, according to the organization No One Left Behind, founded to help such immigrants land on their feet financially.
But some have struggled to feed their families, and some have found themselves homeless. No One Left Behind is the only nonprofit helping these interpreters and their families as they resettle in the U.S., according to the organization.
Faqiri had served for nine years as an interpreter with coalition forces fighting the Taliban, including fighting right alongside those forces. At one point, he also served as interpreter for then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he visited Afghanistan.
On a short timeline because his visa was set to expire just two days after he received it on Dec. 29, 2013, Faqiri scrambled to get himself and his family on the only available flight to the U.S., which was going to San Francisco. He had to borrow $16,000 to pay for the flights because of the short notice.
When they arrived, he realized there was no one to help them, much less meet them in their new country. He finally found an Afghan family who took them to their home. But he also soon learned that he couldn't get a job without a Social Security number, a green card and other requirements.
He considered taking his wife and children back to Afghanistan, telling family back home, "If I die, I die. I don't want to be homeless."
Then on Facebook he found his friend Janis Shinwari, who had arrived in the U.S. a few months before, with the help of Matt Zeller, an Army captain now in the Reserve. Zeller had fought for five years to get Shinwari to America and to raise awareness of the plight of these interpreters left behind and in danger. Shinwari served as Zeller's interpreter in Afghanistan in 2008, and Zeller credits Shinwari with saving his life in a firefight.
Zeller said he considers these interpreters to be his brothers and fellow veterans, but the treatment they receive when coming to the U.S. is sadly different from other veterans.
The interpreters have different expectations when they arrive, said Shinwari, who co-founded No One Left Behind with Zeller. "They think because they served, someone will meet them at the airport, welcome them and take them to their new home where everything is waiting," Shinwari said at a recent fundraising event for No One Left Behind in northern Virginia, attended by members of various churches, mosques and synagogues. The vast majority of the interpreters resettle in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.
The organization paid for Faqiri's family's flights to Virginia, where they stayed with Shinwari's family for two months. No One Left Behind gave him money for a car and for rent.
Faqiri, now working for an auto dealership, said he is so grateful for the help he has received that he volunteers one day a week for the organization, to help other interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan who are resettling here.
"If you have anything to give for the new arrivals, you'll see my face with the truck when I arrive," he said at the fundraising event. "I'm happy to take it and deliver it to new arrivals."
Zeller said that to date, No One Left Behind has helped about 700 people, including family members, resettle here. But the organization doesn't have the resources to fully support the families, he said.
Estimates are that by the end of 2014, about 30,000 Afghan and Iraqi interpreters and family members were resettled in the U.S. Zeller said his organization estimates that about 10,000 need some level of basic assistance, with No One Left Behind coming in direct contact with about 1,500 confirmed cases in need of basic assistance.
By the end of this year, he expects the organization, which has tax-exempt status, to have raised about $480,000 since its founding in October 2013. In addition, they expect to have received about $55,000 in in-kind donations, mostly in the form of furniture and household items, as well as a few cars. By the end of this year, they expect to have provided $280,000 in assistance to families.
More interpreters and their families are coming, Zeller said, estimating that another 14,000 had submitted applications.
"Our goal is to be out of business in 10 years," Zeller said, noting that when the need is no longer there to help resettled families, the organization will put whatever money is left into a fund for scholarships for the interpreters' children.
Shinwari said that when he arrived with his family and their few belongings, Zeller met him at the airport and took them to a hotel, after they realized there was no other assistance. On the third day, Zeller co-signed for him on an apartment lease. He sent some emails about Shinwari's family's plight — no furniture, no mattresses, no dishes or utensils.
Zeller left to buy some food. By the time he returned a couple of hours later, so many people had come to the door with donations, that Shinwari told Zeller "the apartment is fully furnished, and they're still coming. Dishes, everything. We don't have enough room for everything."
When Zeller tried to give him $35,000 that had been donated, Shinwari refused to take it.
"I said, let's start a nonprofit organization to help others who don't have a Matt Zeller to help them," Shinwari said.
The organization also has launched efforts to welcome the interpreters and their families to the U.S. when they arrive at airports, Zeller said. He showed a film clip of some of these arrivals, and one interpreter arriving in California who was taken to see the ocean.
As the sun was setting over the ocean, he asked, "So I don't have to carry my weapon anymore?"
More information about No One Left Behind is available at www.nooneleft.org.