AC Alum Recognized as 2018 CNN Hero

Posted on November 9th, 2018 by cnickels

Veterans Day celebrates our soldiers and marines who served this country or, in some cases, made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. But what about all those people who help our troops? The people who live in the country that is being torn apart by war. The people who risk their lives to help our soldiers communicate, navigate, and survive. What about them?

Matt Zeller, an AC Class of 2000 alum, left our campus with ideas of being a lawyer or a politician and went on to earn degrees from Hamilton College and Syracuse University before joining the U.S. Army.

In 2008 his life, and his future, changed forever.

During a battle with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, Matt was out of ammunition and seeking safety in a ditch when a coalition force translator saw two Taliban fighters moving toward him. The translator started crawling in the bushes toward Matt, and when he got close enough, he fired at the men, killing them. Matt soon learned the name of the man who saved his life was Janis Shinwari.

Janis lived in Afghanistan and saw firsthand the terrible things the Taliban had done in his country. He decided to support the coalition forces by serving as a translator, but never imagined being on the front lines of battle. Janis met Matt just 10 days before saving his life. Dressed in fatigues and carrying ammo, Janis looked, and served, like any other coalition soldier — except when it came time to go home. Matt was sent home to safety in the United States, while Janis stayed on, serving more missions, and continuing to live in a country where he was not safe. He served as a coalition translator for nine years. Local nationals who help coalition forces are added to a list by the Taliban. Bounties are placed on their heads and the heads of their families. Hit teams are sent out to find them, kidnap them, and torture them. Unless they can get out.


“Interpreters and translators should be treated like the war heroes that they are.” – Rep. Seth Moulton (D) Massachusetts


In 2006 and 2009, the U.S. government established Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programs to help Iraqi and Afghan translators move to safety in the United States. A limited number of SIVs are authorized every year for Iraqi and Afghan nationals who have worked for, or on behalf of, the U.S. government in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nationals must apply for these programs with a recommendation from their U.S. supervisor and an explanation of the threats they are facing in their home country.


“My interpreter was absolutely critical to me every single day. He helped me understand what I was hearing. He helped me work my way through the translation of what was being said to me. And I think, more importantly he put that in context to make the kind of decisions I had to make as a division commander and a multi-national corps commander. He was absolutely essential to my mission accomplishment.” – General Peter Chiarelli


Matt was able to help Janis get to the states after nearly five years of hard work. When Janis and his family finally arrived, Matt held a fundraiser to help him buy a car for job interviews, go grocery shopping, and take his kids to school. Janis was overwhelmed by the generosity extended to him and his family, but he wouldn’t accept the money offered. Instead, he asked Matt to put it towards helping other translators left behind in Afghanistan.

That’s when No One Left Behind was born.

Matt and Janis co-founded No One Left Behind to help wartime allies and their families move to safety in the U.S. and get on their feet. Since the organization began, they’ve helped 8,300 people move to safety, but they estimate more than 50,000 interpreters, translators, and other wartime allies are still living in danger in their home country.

Mohammed, an Afghan national, served with the coalition forces despite the risks he knew it posed to his family. He was on duty one day when he received a call from his family that people were at his home, threatening his mother. They told her that they knew her family members were working with the coalition forces and that they would be back to hurt them. It was then that Mohammed began the arduous process of applying for his visa to move his family to safety. For five treacherous years, they waited. Many who applied were denied, but Mohammed, his wife, and young children were some of the lucky ones. He received his visa and moved to the United States, where he can now visit the playground and give his children the freedoms they would never have had back in Afghanistan.


“We have an obligation to look after those who have served us, and served our mission, and served their own country, so very faithfully and often involving a great deal of sacrifice.” – General David Petraeus


Ellen Smith is the Rochester Chapter President of No One Left Behind. Her job is 24 hours a day, answering messages on Facebook and What’s App from allies looking for help. When they arrive in the U.S., her job is far from over. No One Left Behind pays for the first month’s rent, furnishes their homes, and helps families enroll in school, English classes, and support from job agencies. They do whatever is needed until families are fully settled and integrated into their new home country. The first group of people that No One Left Behind helped just finished the process to become U.S. citizens. Janis is due to receive his citizenship sometime in the next year.

In recognition of the work his organization has done, Matt Zeller, a Rochester native and AC alum, was named a 2018 CNN Hero. His commitment to helping translators and interpreters move to safety in the U.S. has been supported by leaders in the military and political circles nationwide. But the work isn’t over. Thousands of allies still need our help.

This Veterans Day, Allendale Columbia remembers our soldiers, marines, and the many local nationals who helped our brothers and sisters complete their missions and return home safely.



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Posted in: AC in the News, Alumni News, Authentic Learning, Entrepreneurship, Global Engagement, Highlights

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