Someone You Should Know: Ellen Smith

(WHAM photo)

Mendon, N.Y. -- There's a welcome sign and an American flag outside Ellen Smith's farmhouse in Mendon, appropriate for someone who has made it her mission to welcome people to America.

Smith has helped bring more than 100 families to the United States since 2014, families at risk of being killed in their native lands because someone they loved served as an interpreter for American troops.

“The United Nations estimates that one interpreter or support person is killed every 36 hours,” Smith says. “And it's not just interpreters who get killed by the Taliban or ISIL. If they can't find the interpreter, they'll kill a family member. These are real and present dangers.”

Ellen runs the local chapter of No One Left Behind, an organization founded by Army veteran and Rochester native Matt Zeller. Zeller’s life was saved by his Afghan interpreter in 2008. The group’s mission includes getting those interpreters and their families here, helping them get started with a place to live, and helping them find a job.

One man who is receiving help is Munther Alaskry. Getting to Rochester was a long journey for the chemical engineer who worked alongside American soldiers for several years. After a seven-year long effort to get a visa, Munther, his wife and children were finally on their way when the U.S. travel restrictions took effect in January. They were pulled off a plane in Turkey and sent back to Baghdad at their expense.

Having sold everything, and with no place to live in Iraq, the situation seemed hopeless. Days later, Alaskry was put in touch with No One Left Behind, and the wheels were in motion again for the family’s trip to the United States. They arrived in Rochester in February.

Now Alasrky’s hoping to work alongside Americans again, as he did with U.S. troops. He's been looking for a job since arriving in Rochester.

“I have strong belief in American values,” Alaskry says. “That's why I joined them. My mission was to build bridges between Iraqi people and American people.”

While Alaskry says he’s been made to feel welcome, Smith says she has to work, at times, to overcome anti-Muslim sentiment among some potential employers.

“We are saying these guys have been in a religious war their entire lives,” Smith says. “They know exactly what we are up against as a country because they have been fighting against this almost their entire lives.”

Smith has her own fights to fight, such as cutting through red tape to get the next family here, finding housing, and sorting through donations. Her home is filled with beds, bedding, and other household items given to help families get settled. No One Left Behind is also in need of used cars, host families, and, of course, money. It’s a lot to take on, but she is reminded of something she learned early in life, from her mother.

“My mom always said to put yourself in someone else's shoes,” Smith says. “And if my son ever had to leave the U.S. because he couldn't stay here anymore, I would hope that there is a mom like me who would take my son and take care of him.”

On the day we interviewed Ellen Smith, Munther Alaskry was visiting and helping to sort through donations. When asked to describe her, Alaskry thought for a moment.

“She is Rochester’s Mother Theresa. The Mother Theresa of Rochester," he said.

For more information on the work of No One Left Behind, click here or visit the local group’s Facebook page.

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