“No One Left Behind” working to reinstate immigrant visa program to help save lives

Aziz Ullah-Naimi was the first Afghan interpreter Ellen Smith helped bring to the U.S. through No One Left Behind. Now, she's trying to reinstate a Special Immigrant Visa program that was cut from the budget. (WHAM photo)

Rochester, N.Y. (WHAM) - The defense spending bill signed by President Trump at Fort Drum this week was missing something - the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. It was cut from the budget.

The program helped protect the Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who risk their lives to serve with American troops.

Aziz Ullah-Naimi came to the U.S. from Afghanistan in 2014 after serving as an interpreter for American soldiers and NATO for a decade.

Ullah-Naimi risked his life to help another country and bring peace to his own.

"We had helmets, body armor, and we were going out to the convoys, military operations, everything that the soldiers were doing," said Ullah Naimi.

It took four years before his Special Immigrant Visa, allowing him to move to America, was approved.

”We came just with our suitcases,” Ullah-Naimi said. “We didn’t have anything.”

While waiting for that visa, Ullah-Naimi’s life was at risk from Taliban retribution. His family was also in danger.

Ellen Smith is the president of the local chapter of No One Left Behind, an organization founded by Army veteran and Rochester native Matt Zeller.

“An interpreter or support personnel, one is killed every 36 hours,” she said.

Since 2014, Smith’s helped bring more than 250 people - interpreters and their families - to live in Rochester.

“They are the ones who find out where the bombs are, where the Taliban has been, who you can trust, who you can’t trust, so they do more than just interpret,” Smith said.

Smith said saving the program could save lives.

“They are there in Afghanistan, in Iraq, shoulder to shoulder with our troops,” she said. “We need to realize they have been fighting the Taliban - most of them their entire lives. They’ve wanted the freedoms they see here in America.”

With the program cut from the budget, that lifeline is also cut.

“It's a national embarrassment that we would leave these translators and support personnel behind,” Smith said. “We know what will happen to them. We know that they will be captured; we know they will be tortured. We know their wives can be turned into sex slaves and their little girls, and we know the little boys will be turned into killers.”

In a statement, US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said she's doing everything she can to fight for the program in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sen. Gillibrand said it was cut from the NDAA this year due to Republican opposition.

“It’s not only about the interpreters, it's about their families,” said Ullah-Naimi. “Interpreters, they put their life in danger, but their families are innocent.”

There are an estimated 10,000 people in Afghanistan seeking Special Immigrant Visas.

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