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Afghan interpreter arrives in US after years of fighting for visa

Afghanistan War Veteran Marc Silvestri (right) greeted his former interpreter, Sibghatullah Nooristani, as he arrived at Logan Airport.
Afghanistan War Veteran Marc Silvestri (right) greeted his former interpreter, Sibghatullah Nooristani, as he arrived at Logan Airport.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

REVERE — On his first full day in the United States, the new arrival from Afghanistan was treated to a boater’s view of his new surroundings during a brisk cruise in calm waters off Revere Beach, Lynn, and Nahant.

“It was kind of cold,” said Sibghatullah Nooristani, an appreciative but jet-lagged 30-year-old who had never been on the ocean before Monday.

He later marveled at the construction of the Revere hotel where he was staying, so different from the often-fragile construction in his remote village. On Tuesday, to his delight, Nooristani savored an Afghan-style meal of chicken, rice, and bread from a halal market

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Finally, he could exhale. A tortuous, years-long odyssey for the former US Army interpreter had ended with a special immigrant visa, a US Embassy flight to America, and a reunion with a combat veteran who had made it his mission to bring Nooristani to the United States.

“Welcome to America, baby!” veteran Marc Silvestri said Monday, enfolding Nooristani in a bear hug as the Afghan walked toward a baggage carousel at Logan Airport. “How are you doing, my friend?”

Marc Silvestri (right) embraced Sibghatullah Nooristani at Logan Airport.
Marc Silvestri (right) embraced Sibghatullah Nooristani at Logan Airport. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Silvestri, the veterans’ agent for the City of Revere, had last seen his former interpreter 11 years ago as the Army corporal left an embattled outpost near the lawless Afghanistan border with Pakistan. The front-line base, manned by only 60 soldiers, faced hostile fire on more than 400 occasions during Silvestri’s 13-month tour, with Nooristani close by the entire time.

“We were called the bullet sponge of Afghanistan,” Silvestri said. “I said to him when I left there, ‘I give you my word. I’ll do whatever it takes to get you to America.‘ ”

But after years of roadblocks, Silvestri had lost hope.

“This thing was dead in the water,” he said.

He persisted, however, contacting legislators and keeping in contact with Nooristani. The quest eventually gained the support of Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who pushed repeatedly for the visa after Nooristani’s initial application was denied by the State Department.

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His bid was rejected, Nooristani said, because he had left a base to care for his wife, who had suffered a miscarriage. The unauthorized leave occurred after Silvestri’s tour had ended, but the veteran said that Nooristani — unlike many interpreters who suddenly left and never returned — made his way back.

Marc Silvestri took Sibghatullah Nooristan to Safy Market for Halal food.
Marc Silvestri took Sibghatullah Nooristan to Safy Market for Halal food. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Because of those circumstances, Nooristani deserved the chance to relocate to the United States, Silvestri said. The State Department ultimately agreed, and his wife and two children, ages 6 years and 19 months, are scheduled to follow him here, although the timing of their arrival is uncertain.

“He kept me alive. If we didn’t have men like him, we wouldn’t have had a shot,” said Silvestri, 43, who received a Bronze Star with Valor and the Purple Heart. “I was scared out of my mind, and I was carrying a machine gun. It would have been just as easy for him to join the Taliban and not worry about being safe.”

Nooristani said he worked for the Americans out of concern for his province and country. He decided the risks were worth the effort to protect his village from the Taliban, the militant group that has since regained control of large swaths of the country in its protracted battle with the Afghan government.

“I understood it was a risky job, but the people of Nuristan needed support from the United States,” Nooristani said. “My family was worried. They said, ‘Don’t work with them. You will lose your life, and it will be risky for us, too.’ “

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Nooristani said he is fortunate to have left the dangers of his homeland behind, a danger he has known firsthand for much of his life. In 2011, his sister lost her leg when a Taliban rocket destroyed her home, he said.

“Thousands of interpreters remain stranded and in danger,” Nooristani said. “When US forces left Afghanistan beginning in 2011, the Taliban’s priority was to get the interpreters.”

The Trump administration has been sued for failing to address a backlog of visa applications from translators who worked with American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In September, US District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan of Washington, D.C., said the government had offered no convincing explanation why it had failed to abide by 2013 legislation requiring decisions on visa applications for Afghans and Iraqis within nine months.

Instead, many applicants have had to wait several years for a resolution, the court said in the ruling. In February, Chutkan gave the government 30 days to propose a plan to work through the backlog.

Nooristani’s visa finally was approved in March, although flight restrictions related to the coronavirus added new uncertainties to the trip. Finally, Nooristani is on American shores.

“I’m going to start from zero,” Nooristani said with a smile, sitting in the lobby of the Comfort Inn, which offered him a free room for a week. “I believe that Marc will help me to work on this complicated life.”

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Silvestri wasted no time.

He found Nooristani a one-bedroom apartment in Revere. He enrolled him in MassHealth and connected him with a job filling containers with oxygen and other gasses at American Gas Products in Everett, which he can start once his green card is issued.

Silvestri even showed him how to get his cellphone up and running. Furniture and a microwave have been among the early donations.

“I can’t imagine being in his shoes,” Silvestri said. “On one hand, it’s got to be the most exciting feeling. On the other, it’s got to be the scariest.”

But not as frightening as being in the middle of a firefight with the Taliban, although Nooristani’s courage and maturity were remarkable, Silvestri said.

“He was like a soldier working 24/7. He ended up coming up with some amazing intel,” the veteran recalled. “He never let us down.”

Marc Silvestri (left) gave his former interpreter, Sibghatullah Nooristan, a tour of The American Legion in Revere.
Marc Silvestri (left) gave his former interpreter, Sibghatullah Nooristan, a tour of The American Legion in Revere. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In one example, Silvestri recalled, Nooristani returned from a nearby village with reports of an imminent attack.

“We ended up getting hit very, very hard for two hours in the middle of the night,” Silvestri said, “It was such an orchestrated and well-planned attack. If we had not been on standby, we would have been in trouble.”

Now, Silvestri said he feels an obligation to help his friend adjust to a foreign country, in peacetime, half a world away from his native village.

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“He kept us alive over there. I don’t believe in coincidences,” Silvestri said.

For Nooristani, the adjustment will measured day by day. The United States is his new home, but he will not forget the one he has left.

“If peace comes again, I will go to visit Afghanistan,” Nooristani said, nodding slowly. “This is my hope.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.