Afghan who risked his life for Iowa soldiers becomes US citizen

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Nabi and Sanam Mohammadi, their daughter, Sarah, and their son, Arman, at the federal courthouse in Des Moines, Iowa, where Nabi took the citizenship oath on March 1, 2019. (Photo: Tony Leys/Des Moines Register)

DES MOINES, Iowa – Nabi Mohammadi, who spent years risking his life for Americans, became an American last week.

The soft-spoken native of Afghanistan, who helped Iowa National Guard troops patrol a violent region of his homeland, took the U.S. citizenship oath at the federal courthouse in Des Moines.

“This is something I hadn’t even dreamed about. This is unbelievable,” he said before the ceremony. “I’m so happy to live in a place with peace and freedom for my family. It’s what everybody wants.”

A few minutes later, he and 61 other immigrants raised their right hands, renounced allegiance to any other government, then pledged to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.

The joyful courtroom audience included several of Mohammadi’s friends from the Iowa National Guard, who’d seen him support and defend America plenty of times. He served as their interpreter in 2010 and 2011, accompanying them on scores of patrols through a mountainous area of Afghanistan near the Pakistan border.

Taliban bombs were common, and friends were hard to identify. The Iowa soldiers said Mohammadi volunteered to go on extra patrols, up to three a day. Each time he went out, he put himself and his family at risk of being killed for helping the Americans.

He’d previously done the same thing for National Guard units from Georgia and Vermont, which had rotated through the same outpost. His reward was $700 per month, plus the promise that he could apply for a visa to move to America.

The U.S. soldiers were struck by the slight young man’s courage, determination and intelligence.

Mohammadi, 28, grew up in northern Afghanistan. The dominant language there is Dari, a dialect of what people in Iran speak. He decided as a teenager to become an interpreter for the U.S. troops. That meant he had to learn two foreign languages — English and Pashto, which is the dominant tongue in eastern Afghanistan.

His accomplishment was akin to an English-speaking American teen learning to interpret between people speaking Polish and Chinese.

His Iowa Guard comrades included Sgt. Dalton Jacobus, who helped Mohammadi fill out his visa application while they were stationed together at Combat Outpost Herrera.

Mohammadi met all the requirements for a special visa program designated for Iraqis and Afghans who worked with U.S. troops. He gained a prominent sponsor in Jacobus’ father, retired National Guard Col. Todd Jacobus. But his application was repeatedly snagged in a bureaucratic snarl, and the Iowa National Guard troops came home in the summer of 2011 without Mohammadi.

A couple weeks after the Iowans left, the interpreter was riding with Oklahoma National Guard troops when an insurgent’s bomb exploded under their armored truck. Mohammadi was slammed into the roof, injuring his neck, back and legs. A doctor told him he was lucky not to be paralyzed.

After a few months of treatment, he returned to work as an interpreter in the capital city of Kabul and continued to wait for his U.S. visa. Dalton Jacobus and other Iowa Guard troops read that it could take years for people like their friend to gain permission to immigrate to America. They feared he wouldn’t survive that long.

The Iowa soldiers wrote letter after letter to the State Department. They made call after call to members of Congress. They vouched for their interpreter to every official they could reach.

“If we trusted him enough to follow us around in combat, I don’t know what more you need to trust him with,” Jacobus said at the time.

Eventually, it worked.

Mohammadi gained a special visa in 2013. He moved to Des Moines with his wife, Sanam, and their baby son, Arman. Three years ago, Arman was joined by a baby sister, Sarah.

The Manpower employment agency helped Nabi Mohammadi find a job at Principal Financial Group. He’s now an information technology specialist there, helping employees figure out their computer problems. He’s also finishing an associate’s degree at Des Moines Area Community College, where he’s taking math and science classes. He plans to transfer to Grand View University in the fall, where he hopes to get a bachelor’s degree in two more years.

He somehow finds time to coach his son’s soccer team. On weekend nights, after he helps put the children to bed, he goes out and drives for Uber.

Sanam Mohammadi, who recently passed her citizenship test and will soon take the oath, is attending community college and plans to become a nurse.

The American part of the Afghanistan war is winding down after more than 17 years. The United States has pulled most of its troops out of the country, and President Donald Trump has talked about bringing the rest home.

Mohammadi worries about what will happen to other Afghans who helped Americans during the war, including by working as interpreters. If the U.S. pulls out, he said, “that will definitely put them at risk.” Some have already been killed. He knows former interpreters who have fled Afghanistan in desperation and immigrated illegally to Europe.

The International Refugee Assistance Project, which urges the U.S. government to let more refugees in, says the United States is not living up to its pledge to assist people in Afghanistan and Iraq who supported American troops.

Adam Bates, a policy attorney for the national group, said the number of Iraqis allowed into the United States under the special visa program fell from 6,886 in fiscal year 2017 to 140 in fiscal year 2018.

Thousands of Iraqis have applied for those visas, he said, and young men have a particularly hard time obtaining them, no matter how clean their records are. If you’re a young Iraqi man who helped American troops, he said, “your wait time for a visa is not months. It’s centuries.”

Congress recently approved 4,000 additional visa slots for Afghans who helped American troops, Bates said. But many of those applications are delayed for years, including waiting for extensive security checks to clear. The number of such visas approved for Afghans dropped from 4,750 in fiscal year 2017 to 2,410 in fiscal year 2018, he said.

Nabi Mohammadi is grateful for beating the odds to gain a visa for himself and his family.

Before and after the March 1 ceremony, volunteers from the League of Women Voters approached the immigrants, asking whether they wanted to register to vote. Mohammadi eagerly accepted a volunteer’s clipboard and completed the form.

On the section asking about desired party affiliation, he checked “no party.” He has no interest in being a Democrat or Republican. He said he will study what candidates stand for and pick the ones who will best serve his new country.

Anita Shodeen, the federal judge presiding over the ceremony, urged the 62 immigrants from 26 countries to cherish their native cultures while embracing American freedom and democracy. “You may hear some people say there is only one true American way to think,” she told them. “…Do not believe it.”

Nabi Mohammadi’s Iowa friends were thrilled to see him get what he deserved.

Former Iowa Guardsman Jon Reed, who now works as a paramedic in Lincoln, Nebraska, drove to Des Moines to watch his friend become an American. “Nabi, I’m so proud of you,” he said. “I’m so glad you made it.”

Dalton Jacobus, the former Iowa Guard sergeant, was asked what he’d been thinking as Mohammadi took the oath. Jacobus smiled.

“It’s about time,” he said.

Follow Tony Leys on Twitter: @tonyleys

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