When Ahmad Jan Ali says he risked his life to be here, he means it. The 26-year-old intern at the House Foreign Affairs Committee dodged bullets and kidnappers during the journey that brought him from his native Afghanistan to Washington, D.C.
“We got ambushed by the bad guys. We got shot at,” Ali said of the combat missions that he completed serving as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. “There were risks in every day, working or not working.”
Ali, however, does not define himself by the cinematic circumstances that preceded his life in America. Rather, like so many Hill interns before him, he narrates his life as a series of accomplishments and valuable connections that can all be traced back to the same personal motivation: his education.
For Ali, intellectual curiosity overcame the inconvenience of walking three miles in each direction to attend primary school in his Afghan village. A thirst for knowledge inspired him to begin teaching himself English after his family fled to Iran. And his passion for education led him to assist the U.S. military as an interpreter on his return to Afghanistan.
“Getting a job with the military was a big opportunity,” Ali explained. “My goal was to go abroad – anywhere other than Afghanistan.”
Ali’s goals today include securing his American citizenship, receiving a master’s degree in international affairs and finding a job in foreign relations. They are far from the ambitions he held as a child herding sheep on his family’s farm.
Ali was 12 when his family left their village during the rise of the Taliban. In Iran, they faced racial prejudice and economic hardship. Ali did not attend school, and it would be more than a decade before his formal schooling advanced beyond sixth grade.
After two semesters of basic English, Ali decided to spare his family the cost and pursue the language on his own. He bought 150 English cassette tapes of political debates and university lectures and began memorizing them.
“I had no clue if I was learning anything,” Ali remembered.
It would be four years until Ali could finally put his skills to the test. Returning to Afghanistan in 2004 meant returning to a home that looked very different from when he had left. Instead of Taliban soldiers, it was American troops who filled the streets. The first time he saw soldiers, Ali was terrified.
“I was so nervous. I thought, ‘What if they shoot me?'” he said.
He gathered his courage and passed his first English test with flying colors. It wasn’t long before he was working as a translator for the military.
The job was a dangerous one, but Ali recognized it as a way he could one day leave Afghanistan. He also sought to improve access to education in villages surrounding the city he lived in (which we are not identifying to protect the safety of friends and family).
Informed that the American military budget had no allocations for humanitarian aid, he and a military officer secured funding for school supplies from a U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team.
“Sometimes all you have to do is ask,” Ali said.
In 2006, Ali saw his chance. A permanent American visa was available to military interpreters working in Afghanistan and Iraq. This time he asked soldiers for help for himself, adding their recommendations to his application. After a year of anticipation, his visa was ready.
It was also in Pakistan.
Because the visa would expire in two weeks, Ali could not afford to wait for an available flight. The trip to Islamabad traversed some of the most dangerous roads in the world.
“There was sense of trust in my heart,” Ali said about that journey. He secured his visa, and by September 2007, he was in the United States.
In Oregon, he lived with Bob Elliot, a U.S. Army colonel whom he knew from Afghanistan. He first enrolled in community college and then transferred to Lewis & Clark College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in international affairs.
“Going to Lewis & Clark was the second greatest thing to ever happen to me,” Ali said.
Coming to the United States was the greatest.
“People have different opinions on the United States. I view this country based on my story and myself,” he said. “I love this country regardless of politics.”
But politics was exactly what drew Ali’s interest as his time at Lewis & Clark came to a close. Through Elliot, Ali was introduced to Gerry Frank, the former chief of staff for the late Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.). Frank helped move Ali’s rÃ©sumÃ© to the desk of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. After graduating, Ali moved to D.C. to begin an internship.
Ali has been in this country for only five years, but it is difficult to tell he has not been here all his life. His speech is peppered with American idioms, which may reflect his training; his English teachers were Bush and Gore, not Dick and Jane.
His years in the United States have not been without cultural challenges. But Ali asserts he has never let challenges defeat him.
“I pause and ask myself, ‘This is the reality of my situation; do I want to accept this or make myself miserable?'”
Ali thinks his internship holds “the opportunity to be life-changing.”
“Being overseas you get different stories. Some view the U.S. as a world occupier, some say the U.S. is helping, at least by some standard,” Ali said. “I am ready to pursue whatever it takes to have a positive impact on behalf of the United States.”