Ziaullah Anwari had never ordered a hamburger at a Sonic drive-in or shopped at Wal-Mart.
Anwari, 22, counts those everyday experiences among his first-ever in America since he moved to Fairborn from his home country, Afghanistan.
The Wright State University student lived a life of danger serving as a translator to U.S. forces in Afghanistan for years. He doesn’t remember how old he was when he first met American troops giving out Meals-Ready-to-Eat, candy and cookies, in his village in Bamyan, Afghanistan, but he was around age 10.
“The first words I learned was, ‘what’s up,’ which was kind of cool,” he said.
The troops would teach him words as a youngster and he would translate into Dari, an Afghan language.
“There was no school to go to learn English,” he said. “I just learned English by speaking it.”
As a translator when he grew older, he worked with provincial reconstruction teams around the rural country wracked by years of war.
“We used to go to villages and ask them what their needs are,” he said.“…When I started it, I didn’t know it would be risky.”
He eventually met Air Force Col. Daniel Marticello, 43, an airmen assigned to the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base who deployed last year as a contracting officer to Camp Eggers, Afghanistan.
Marticello had need for a linguist as he set up a procurement school for the Afghan military. Anwari filled the role.
The Air Force colonel frequently traveled off base on his six-month deployment to meet with Afghans, and interpreters like Anwar followed him.
U.S. forces “were definitely targets in Kabul,” Marticello said. “We always had our full equipment on. Being with us was inherently dangerous.”
Anwari, who once supervised dozens of interpreters for a private company, kept secret his job as a translator.
“There were moments that the colonel used to call me on a cell phone or text me, I never replied to him when I was in a taxi because I didn’t want to risk my life,” he said.
A Los Angeles Times and ProPublica investigation found hundreds of Iraqi and Afghan translators working with U.S. and coalition forces in the two wars were killed between March 2003 and March 2008.
Anwari said he helped the American troops because he viewed them as the “good guys” fighting the Taliban who had killed his uncle and targeted the Hazara people, his ethnic identity.
Marticello remembers he and an Army major accompanied Anwari about a half a mile to an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul while the two military officers wore bulletproof body armor and Anwari wore a business suit. Anwari had applied for a visa in 2011. He was about to have an interview with an embassy official on his request to leave the country.
Marticello prepped Anwari with questions he might hear in a job interview and kept asking the embassy when they would make a decision on the visa.
He was told nothing because of privacy issues.
“I still kept pestering them because I wanted to make sure he got a fair shake because I think he definitely earned it,” Marticello said.
Anwari had spent hours studying to take a U.S. college entrance exam, improve his English and had a company-paid scholarship while he continued to work as a translator. “He was showing that gumption that you want to reward,” Marticello said.
The Afghan got the green light for a rare U.S. special immigrant visa and left for America in September. Marticello and a fellow colonel paid for his plane ticket.
Anwari said he chose to settle in the Miami Valley because of Marticello’s support.
“It was just of bizarre for both of us because I had seen him in Afghanistan and now here he is walking out of the gate at Columbus,” the Air Force officer said.
Anwari got a job to help pay for his tuition and an off-campus apartment.
Marticello will check in on occasion with Anwari, offering tips on accounting to chemistry.
“He doesn’t need too much help,” Marticello said. “He’s sharp.”
The Wright State student has pondered pursing a master’s degree, moving to New York City or Washington, D.C, and working at the State Department, the World Bank or in the corporate world.
But his job translating was not over when he arrived in America.
An Army civilian official who worked with Anwari in Afghanistan brought him to a two-week conference in Washington, D.C., to translate for American and Afghan officials.
Some of the same high-ranking military leaders he translated for in Kabul did not expect to see him across a board table in the United States.
“I told them I was an American now and you will not see me in Kabul again,” Anwar said. “It was funny.”