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Interpreters in Conflict Zones, Travel Bans and Broken Trust

Published January 30, 2017

In this photo from 2008, a U.S. Army soldier and an Iraqi interpreter talk to an Iraqi woman during a patrol in Amiriyah, Iraq. DoD photo by 1st Lt. Meg Harvey, U.S. Air Force. (Public Domain)

*UPDATE (February 2, 2017) In the face of widespread outcry against its executive order, the Trump Administration has introduced an amendment to its travel ban to once again allow Iraqis who served as interpreters for the US government and armed forces in Iraq and their family members to emigrate to the United States. You can read more about the decision in this article by the New York Times.

Since its creation in 2009, InterpetAmerica has worked to raise the profile of interpreting and to shine a light on the role of interpreters in a global society that communicates and conducts business in many languages. From the very beginning we knew our efforts, however modest, needed to include those interpreters called upon to facilitate communication in conflict zones, whether helping refugees, troops or civilians to communicate.

InterpretAmerica is not a political organization, but we do care passionately about our profession. The interpreters we support often find themselves in the crossfire of politics and international relations. Interpreters in conflict zones, particularly those that served NATO and US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, are once again caught in the turmoil of politics.

As most of you know, on Friday, January 27th U.S. President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order that temporarily bans students, visitors, legal permanent U.S. residents with green cards1 and refugees from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the United States2. The very first travelers to be affected by the ban included an interpreter from Iraq3. The executive order has effectively frozen the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program for Iraqi Translators and Interpreters. It is still unclear how it might affect those from Afghanistan.

The current situation is fluid, however the plight of interpreters in conflict zones is constant.  

Interpreters are essential for all governments to understand and communicate with both their allies and their enemies. They are a crucial part of negotiations to resolve disagreements, and to formulate and execute foreign policy that is both well informed and carefully thought out. The ability to communicate across language barriers is key to keeping a country’s borders intact and its citizens safe.

The tortured history of the woefully inadequate SIV Program and now the travel ban instated by the Trump Administration put America at risk. No individual will be willing to risk life and limb, as these interpreters have done, for a country that fails to honor its promises. Trust, when broken, is not easily rebuilt.

We care deeply about the commitments our nation makes to our most endangered and vulnerable colleagues. We are focused on raising awareness in and outside our profession to do what we can to support them. We call on the United States to honor its commitment to interpreters who risked their lives to help US troops and diplomats communicate in furtherance of US policy.

If you are as concerned about this injustice as we are, here are some things you can do to help make a difference:

Urge the UN to protect translators and interpreters worldwide: ( This petition sponsored by Red T, AIIC, FIT, IAPTI, CLI and WASLI is just over 8,000 signatures short of reaching its goal of 50,000. It seeks to provide translators and interpreters with protections similar to those provided to journalists in the Geneva Conventions.

Support Red T: ( “Red T is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of translators and interpreters (T&Is) in conflict zones and other adversarial settings. Comprising a team of volunteers, Red T advocates worldwide on behalf of linguists at risk, raises awareness of their plight and promotes their safety.”

Support No One Left Behind: ( “The mission of No One Left Behind is to help Afghan and Iraqi combat interpreters with Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) resettle safely in the United States. No One Left Behind bridges the gap that exists between current State Department and NGO refugee relief programs and provides assistance with housing, employment and cultural adaptation. According to the No One Left Behind website, ‘We treat our clients as the heroic veterans they are.’”

Update on The Interpreter Movie: ( Finally, many of you supported our campaign to help fund The Interpreter movie This project is more timely now than ever and it is moving forward. Director Robert Ham gave us an exclusive update for this blog post.

“The Interpreter team has been hard at work with a new re-write and is set to shoot sometime in April or May 2017. The team has brought on Valerie McCaffrey as their casting director (American History X, Hard Candy and many more) and are gearing up to start casting in the next few weeks.”

Tell us what steps you have taken. Let us know what else we can do to help. At the very least, we can send a message to our fellow interpreters that they do not face this difficult moment alone.


Barry S. Olsen and Katharine Allen


[1] According to the Washington Post, "Reince Priebus said that 'going forward,' the order would not affect green-card holders," however, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly was less definitive, stating that each would be subject to a case-by-case review. (

[2] Trump's latest executive order: Banning people from 7 countries and more(

[3] Banned from the U.S.: ‘You Need to Go Back to Your Country”(


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