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The Other Side of War

I learned Farsi to be an army spy — a decade later, it became my tool to help refugees

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How did I get here?

Sayed couldn’t lift his arms above his shoulder, so his friend helped him take his shirt off. What I saw didn’t surprise me anymore, but I still got just as nauseous: Sayed had grotesque stitch marks going around his shoulder, seemingly connecting his arm to his body. He told me those were from being hung by a bar shoved under his shoulders for a month. The long scar on his stomach looked like a stab wound, though he swore it was only from being beaten with a pipe when his captors got bored. Sayed’s bent forearm hadn’t set right after being broken. He didn’t want to talk about that. A once-healthy man with a comfortable life in Kabul now looked like an extra from a horror movie, forced to live in a cramped tent village on a Greek island.

Sayed’s crime was being a Hazara. The Hazaras are a predominantly Shi’a group in Afghanistan; they have East Asian features that make it hard to blend in. Aside from being religious and ethnic minorities, the Hazara are also known for fighting alongside the CIA and U.S. special forces in the months after 9/11. It goes without saying that the Sunni Taliban doesn’t care for them. This explained why Sayed looked like he had been stitched together from spare parts.

I met Sayed while translating at a medical clinic for refugees on Lesbos Island in Greece. Sayed’s reason for being here was simple: He was fleeing the Taliban.

But how did I, a white man with no medical training beyond CPR, end up at a refugee camp translating for him? That reason is more complicated.

During my freshman year of high school, my history teacher turned on CNN after a phone call interrupted his lecture. Two minutes later, we watched the north tower of the World Trade Center collapse. I was too young to understand that this would be the defining moment of my generation. I wouldn’t have guessed that this event, planned by men in caves in a country I had never heard of, would change my life.

Four years later, most of my close friends joined the military. I had already decided to join — fighting the Taliban seemed more worthwhile than college — but I hadn’t decided what field to go into. A family friend who had served in special forces asked me what I enjoyed doing. I told him that in my free time I liked to sneak around and blow things up. It probably wasn’t a great answer when looking for a job, but it was honest. He suggested I join either the cavalry or military intelligence. One of those sounded more interesting than the other.

Six months later I was in Arizona taking an Army HUMINT course. HUMINT, or human intelligence, is a boring term for a boring job, or so the course made us think. Our interrogations were mostly talking to grumpy actors in plastic sheds while writing everything they said on a laminated folder. When recruiters are trying to sell you on HUMINT, they don’t mention how many soldiers have to sniff hand sanitizer to stay awake during the course. The day I finished the course was a great day.

After the HUMINT course came the main reason I chose HUMINT over other intelligence fields: language school. I went to the Defense Language Institute, the Department of Defense’s main language school, to learn Farsi. Farsi is spoken in Iran but is mutually intelligible with Dari, Afghanistan’s predominant language. For a year, I went to class six hours a day, five days a week, studying Farsi and learning about Iran’s culture, history, and politics.

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After finishing the course, I was an expert on Iran. I knew the country’s language. Its political system. Its main religion. I could recite Iran’s proverbs and cook its food. Most of all, I could speak in Farsi about rockets, rifles, militias, and military units. I was ready for Iran. Thankfully, we weren’t fighting in Iran.

We were fighting in Afghanistan, though, and I spoke that country’s language. The stars were aligning. Six years after 9/11, I was about to join the war against fundamentalist murderers in Afghanistan. While war is a scary word to many, I wasn’t shaken. I was eager. I was a thrill seeker throughout my youth and joined the military out of a sense of duty, so to say I was ecstatic to free Afghans from theocratic warlords would be an understatement. What could be more thrilling than spying on the Taliban in the Graveyard of Empires?

Then I got sent to Iraq. I knew zero Arabic and little about its political system or religious conflicts. After a year of intense language training, which cost the government hundreds of thousands of dollars, I didn’t speak one word of Farsi in Iraq. Such is the wisdom of the U.S. Army.

My time in Iraq was alternately thrilling and disappointing. I loved my day-to-day job of recruiting and running spies. Some were government ministers, others used their illiteracy to outfox the infamous terrorist organizations they infiltrated, while still others were middle-class professionals who left our meetings with shoeboxes of unmarked bills. I watched a commander take credit for our work on CNN. I read about one of our investigations in the New York Times a few years later. It was like something out of a John Le Carré story.

Except John le Carré never used interpreters. Our interpreters were professional, charismatic, and nearly perfect for the job, but I still resented that I was in Iraq and not Afghanistan, and that I couldn’t do my job independently.

More important, John le Carré’s characters weren’t ambiguous. While I don’t regret participating in the war in Iraq, I knew we shouldn’t have invaded. I should have been in Afghanistan, where we were fighting to free people from religious fundamentalism, instead of in Iraq, where we were enabling fundamentalist militias to take over.

After 15 months in Iraq, I returned to the United States and started preparing for another deployment to Iraq. I requested to waive my recovery time and instead go straight to Afghanistan with another unit, but my request was denied. I tried again, volunteering to switch places with another sergeant with my specialty so that he could live closer to his wife, but I was rejected again. They got divorced; I never went to Afghanistan. Not every story has a happy ending.

I gave up my dream of fighting the Taliban as soon as I left the military. I buried myself in work and school for the next three years, graduating cum laude and never giving Afghanistan much thought. My days of spying and fighting were over, but I still had the urge to serve others, so I became a teacher. After a few years of teaching, I went to graduate school for a master’s in education, but something was still missing. I wanted to see the world, but as a curious explorer and not as a soldier. I wanted to help others, but I wanted to spread peace through peace instead of through force.

I looked around to see where I could help without being a “white savior”— there is no shortage of unqualified orphanage workers or well diggers in the developing world. The skill that most set me apart from others was speaking Farsi and Dari. As someone the government trained to spy on Iran, traveling to Iran seemed foolish. Volunteering in Afghanistan was out of the question. I went to Greece instead. Lesbos Island was the epicenter of refugees fleeing Afghanistan and Syria, so I felt a calling there.

I arranged to translate for an agency that did shore rescues in the north of the island for the overnight rafts carrying refugees from Turkey to Greece. The night before I was set to leave, the Greek coast guard changed its patrol pattern. The rafts started going farther south, and the agency stopped operations and no longer had a use for me.

Without plans on arrival, I asked the cab driver to take me to a warehouse. Warehouses needed help, as most volunteers dreamed of heroically pulling children out of rafts, but nobody dreamed of heroically sorting shoes. I didn’t speak Greek, and the cab driver didn’t speak English, so after a game of charades, he dropped me off at a refugee camp for children with special needs. I worked odd jobs there, like raking gravel and building shelves, until I was able to convince people that I could speak Dari. With my nationality and skin tone, it was no easy task.

I got my foot in the door by translating a sign into Farsi about rules and responsibilities at a daycare in a bigger camp. That caught the eye of a woman who ran the clothing distribution center; she asked me to translate there. While at the clothing center, nurses from the medical clinic came by to ask for my help in emergencies. I quickly earned their trust and worked full-time at the medical clinic. That’s where I met Sayed.

In some ways, I dreaded work. It was difficult, stressful, and exhausting. There were no good days. While most days at the medical clinic brought in children with “only” colds and fevers, patients like Sayed came in from time to time. Some had physical scars from torture, a few spasmed uncontrollably after being electrocuted, while some had urgent psychiatric issues.

There were no happy stories. These were the things I joined the Army to prevent but never had the chance.

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At the clothing distribution center, some women choose not to wear veils for the first time since puberty. At the daycare, boys and girls play together with no tension. At the medical clinic, women are given some control over their lives, being discreetly offered birth control by female doctors. One man took me aside and asked if there were Catholic churches in Germany, then cried and kissed my cheek when I told him yes. These things, normal to us, meant the world to them.

I had joined the Army a decade ago, setting out to save a world I was too young to understand. I’m proud of the work I did in Iraq, but something was missing. I put everything I could into preparing to serve in Afghanistan and ended up playing whack-a-mole with zealots in Iraq instead. I learned Farsi to talk about weapons and wars. I finally used it a decade later to treat wounded women. Taught to me as a weapon, the language was now a shield.

I never had the chance to face the Taliban head-on, but here in Greece, helping Afghans recover from torture, trauma, and brainwashing, I finally found my calling. This was where I belonged.

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It’s been six months since I met Sayed. I wish I could write an inspirational conclusion about his recovery, or a special connection we made, or at least mention where he is now. But I don’t know. I haven’t kept in touch, because as soon as he put his shirt back on and left the medical clinic, Sayed, the grieving widows, sick children, and wounded men we treated were all just like everyone else at camp — on a path to a better life. It’s the only thing they came for.

When I hear people say they want refugees sent back, I don’t consider them alt-right, Islamophobic, or whatever this week’s buzzword is. I just wish they could meet a Sayed and hear his story. But they won’t, because even though Sayeds are all around us, they don’t want attention or sympathy. They want the same thing we all want: a chance at a better life.

And they’re on their way to getting it.

Explorer, aid worker, teacher, and the luckiest man alive. Everything:

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