An Air Force reservist with personal ties to Iraq is rallying to ensure no Iraqi or Afghan interpreter who helped the U.S. military gets left behind.
Maj. Alea Nadeem spent the first 12 years of her life in Mosul, Iraq. Her father was Iraqi, her mother American. She eventually moved to Ohio, got degrees in criminology and social work in New Mexico and California, joined the Air Force Reserve and began working as a congressional and budget liaison at the Pentagon.
Nadeem was an all-American success story, “one of the lucky ones,” she said, to escape the Saddam Hussein regime. So as the war on terrorism slogged on, Nadeem zeroed in on a very specific group of people to help: interpreters who worked for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 18 years. She felt a kinship with them, she explains.
“I want Americans to realize what these people did to work with us. They didn’t just work for a paycheck,” Nadeem said. “They worked for us and with us because they believed in American values and principles.”
“Because of that, they have been and are being slaughtered. The terrorists are literally beheading interpreters.”
Serving the SIVs
Nadeem is a board member and volunteer with No One Left Behind (NOLB), the world’s only nonprofit dedicated to serving Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who worked for the U.S. military. NOLB helps interpreters and their families escape the retaliatory violence of their home countries through special U.S. visas called SIVs (Special Immigrant Visa). They also greet the men and women at the airport, help them find housing and transportation, and do whatever else necessary for integration into their new country.
“We try to meet them where they’re at,” said Nadeem. “We know that if you can get off on the right footing, you’ll be a great member of society.”
Each interpreter’s situation is different. Sometimes they already have family or friends in the U.S. and a temporary place to stay, Nadeem said, but another might need an apartment and transportation to job interviews. NOLB has purchased groceries, used cars, furniture, and household items for their clients — spending anywhere from $100 up to $10,000.
Before that photogenic airport arrival, Nadeem and her NOLB colleagues help the interpreters navigate the arduous task of obtaining a SIV. The process can take years — but President Biden’s announcement of an American exit from Afghanistan has accelerated the urgency of NOLB’s mission. The charity, based in Washington, D.C., estimates there are still 18,000 interpreters especially vulnerable to terrorist violence once American forces completely withdraw.
“These folks have a bullseye on them,” Nadeem said. “Not only is helping them after they helped us the moral and right thing to do, but from a humanitarian perspective, how do you look away from that?”
Visit GoFundMe to donate to the No One Left Behind Resettlement Aid for SIVs
The happy & hard
Since joining NOLB in 2019, Nadeem has spent about 10 hours a week working on approximately 20 cases. She loves greeting families at airports, especially when they have young children in tow.
“There was a family from Afghanistan with a young daughter, and she was holding the American flag,” Nadeem remembered. “It was just this moment, like, ‘Little girl, your life is going to be better, and you’re going to make it.’”
Nadeem occasionally keeps in contact with interpreters she has helped, such as a man who now goes by Mike. Their Iraqi hometowns are only 45 minutes apart, and Mike could not contain his excitement at a shared dinner over being in the states. Within a year, Mike joined the Marine Corps, and Nadeem attended his boot camp graduation at Parris Island.
“I’m just so proud of him!” Nadeem said. “He has done something most Americans don’t do, and it’s so humbling.”
Those are the happy endings Nadeem cherishes. But there are other cases — not just numbers, but real, human lives — that stick with her. In 2020 alone, NOLB assisted 636 SIV families in 93 cities across 20 states at a cost of $430,000. But Nadeem estimates that thousands of interpreters and their relatives have been murdered before NOLB could help them.
“The hardest moment is feeling like I’m not doing enough and not being to help everybody, because I know there is someone falling through the cracks,” she said.
NOLB hopes to someday cease operations — because there will be no more interpreters left to help.
“These people opened their doors to us when we were in their countries,” Nadeem said. “The least we can do is reciprocate.”