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Culture Beat / July 2, 2020

An American Story

The inspiring tale of a former Afghan combat translator who gained his U.S. citizenship.

This story is an American story. On Monday, Janis Shinwari officially became an American as he took his U.S. citizenship oath. Shinwari’s American journey began in the country of his birth, Afghanistan, he where lived up until his recent immigration to the U.S. Following the U.S. declaring war on the Taliban in 2001, Shinwari began working with American troops as a combat translator, a role he held for eight years. During that time he was constantly under threats from Taliban militants for his collaboration with Americans. Shinwari revealed, “I was always scared that if they caught me they would kill me.”

Beyond serving as a translator, Shinwari is also credited with saving the lives of five American soldiers in 2008 during an ambush in Ghanzi Province. Upon seeing two militants sneak up on the Americans, Shinwari rushed forward and opened fire, killing the two jihadis just as they were poised to attack. Acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli observed, “During his service, he saved the lives of five American soldiers. That is not something many people can say.”

Matt Zeller, one of the U.S. soldiers saved by Shinwari’s actions that day, called it “the worst firefight of my life. I ran out of grenades. I was literally counting my bullets, and I remember thinking we might not make it out of this one alive.” Zeller expressed his deep gratitude to his now-close friend Shinwari, noting, “He provided me the gift of life. I didn’t even know his name. … He’s the real veteran in the room — not me.”

In 2013, Shinwari along with his family moved to America, where he and Zeller set up a nonprofit, No One Left Behind, which seeks to help those interpreters, who helped U.S. troops, gain entry into the U.S. “This is our responsibility that we should keep our promise,” explained Shinwari. “We promise these gentlemen in Afghanistan that if you serve for two years, you are eligible for a U.S. visa.”

Commenting on his new American citizenship status, Shinwari stated, “The best part is you’re safe. You don’t have to worry. You can sleep well. Once you are here, you’re free.” Welcome to America!

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