ZIONSVILLE, Ind.—A local man has embarked on another tour to Afghanistan. He isn’t a soldier, but he’s been fighting a war of diplomacy on behalf of a friend whose life is in jeopardy from the Taliban.
Dennis Norris works for a civil engineering group, and in April, he left his home in Indiana for a four-month trip to the volatile region. When he returns, he hopes to have Hayat Nooristani by his side.
Nooristani is not American, but in the last seven years, he’s been fighting on America’s side in a war torn nation, where a price is now on his head. He has been on the run, unable to return to his home.
“They have killed my grandmother, my cousin, my nephew,” Nooristani said. “How can I go there if they’re killing my own family?”
Nooristani, 27, has been working alongside American forces dodging bullets, explosions and capture from Taliban fighters. As a man who speaks many languages, Hayat has been an asset, working as a translator for soldiers in the desert mountains of Afghanistan. That makes him a wanted man, and he’s been on the run and hiding for the last year, every moment under constant threat.
“Because of his service to our country, the Taliban has occupied his village and are killing off members of his family until they can produce him,” Norris said. “He has a price on his head and they want him.”
While still at home in the United States, Norris had been skirting his own minefields, laid out not by the enemy, but by the U.S. State Department.
“We kept running into these administrative snags, these State Department quicksand puddles,” he said.
Norris had hired Hayat and ultimately sponsored his quest to leave Afghanistan for good, to live in Indiana and start a new life, a right the rules say he earned.
“That’s all he wants, is to go to school and live in a free country,” Norris said. “I don’t know how this became so difficult, but it’s not right, especially for someone who’s done so much for our country and paid the price by having most of his family killed because of it.”
With letters of recommendation from the U.S. Army and the support of U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, Nooristani’s Special Immigrant Visa was denied, time and time again. The roadblocks seemed insurmountable. But then, in the last few weeks: a break in the logjam.
“My wife and daughters started crying, it was kind of hard for me to hold back,” Norris recalled.
On his fourth application for a Special Immigrant Visa, word arrived that Hayat was granted approval. As they have communicated in the last few months, he gave Hayat the news via Skype
“For the first time I can remember, he was silent,” Norris said. “He was very emotional … he couldn’t speak for a while. He was overcome with emotion.”
Dennis’ bulldog tenacity paid off. And he didn’t know it, but it turns out, he may have gotten some help from some 8th-grade students a couple of counties away.
“It seemed to coincide with the writing of several letters from East Tipp Middle School in Lafayette, Ind.,” Norris said. “They saw (Fox 59’s) original story and decided to write letters on Hayat’s behalf.”
Crystal Mart’s American History students were moved by Hayat’s story and wrote Rokita, along with President Obama and then -Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Rokita’s office sent copies to the State Department.
“I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but at about the same time, the process started to move very quickly,” Norris said.
Given the obstacles his friend has faced, Norris decided to accompany him back home. So seven months after his last trip to Afghanistan, Norris is packing up to go back to finish work on a contract and when he’s done, he’s bringing Hayat home.
“I’m not gonna be satisfied til his feet hit the ground at Indianapolis International Airport,” Norris said.
It’s a risk of his own life for the sake of another.
“My ancestors came to this country in 1624. We fought in every battle this country’s ever had. I look back to them. They came to this country to seek opportunity and freedom I don’t remember that ideal being closed down for anybody,” Norris said.