Life's back into a normal rhythm for Dennis Norris. He’s back in Central Indiana – around his family, his dogs, and the creature comforts of home.
Norris is back after years on the move. First, in the United States Coast Guard in Louisiana, stopping drug trafficking; then in the San Francisco Police Department working 10 years on the overnight shift.
After a stint with the Zionsville Police Department, Norris moved to his biggest work yet, in non-profit management, eventually building infrastructure in third world countries and remote places like Africa and Dubai.
“The company prides itself on going to places nobody else wants to go,” Norris said.
It was when he got to Afghanistan working as a security and anti-fraud agent for an American for-profit engineering firm building bridges, roads and irrigation systems, that he realized his tactical background, gift for learning languages -- and a skill for blending in.
“It’s just not that easy,” Norris recalled. “You have to negotiate with the elders, the community members.”
And it’s all done outside the safety of the U.S. military. It supported his company’s work, but was usually far away when things turned violent.
“There’s IED’s (Improvised Explosive Device) where we go, small arms fire, RPG’s (rocket-propelled grenades), all that element of being in a war zone. The danger comes when one of the locals doesn’t like you, doesn’t trust you,” Norris said.
Dennis’ long beard and native look weren’t enough to navigate the dangers of a war-torn. Working with friendly locals became a key to security.
That’s where a 26-year-old man named Hayat Nuristani comes into the story.
“I needed a right hand man.” Dennis said. “Looking for somebody to hire, that could help me, somebody I could develop a level of trust with that would help me detect fraud and theft and things like that.”
The chance meeting between Dennis and Hayat came in Jalalabad.
“This crazy guy comes up, yelling in a language I didn’t understand,” Norris remembered. “I didn’t know what to do, so I had a pistol next to me, I put it up against the car door. He got about three feet away from me and stopped, and said, ‘dude, I thought you were my brother!’”
Hayat had been working for the U.S. Army as a translator for six years. Norris said, “He’s been shot at, blown up, he’s pulled more of our guys out of trouble than we can describe.”
If the story sounds familiar, it may be because it has the ring of the 1984 Oscar-winning film, The Killing Fields.
A clip from the movie trailer: “it was there in the war torn countryside amidst the fighting of the government troops and the Khmer Rouge guerillas, that I met my guide an interpreter, Dith Pran, a man who would change my life.”
While the locale is Afghanistan, not Cambodia, and the setting is almost 40 years later, the stories share a connection between two men, one of them trapped by war and desperate to be whisked to America.
In some ways, Hayat is Pran. Fluent in seven languages, knowledgeable of local customs and having a keen interest in the American way of life, Hayat got a job as Dennis’ translator. In their time together, Hayat became more than that local that Dennis could trust...he was becoming that brother he’d been mistaken for months earlier.
“I really related it to picking the right partner as a street cop, you sort of know, and I had my street cop in Hayat,” Norris said.
And now that street cop was ready to retire. Knowing Hayat’s dream to leave war-torn Afghanistan as an American citizen, Norris wanted to help. It should have been easy. To qualify for a Special Immigrant Visa, the candidate must work at least one year for the military or a U.S. government agency, and come under direct threat.
“We have a guy who’s gone above and beyond what would be asked of anybody in Afghanistan by the U.S. military,” Norris said.
With a number of letters of recommendation and certificates of appreciation, Hayat applied for -- and was granted -- a Special Immigrant Visa by the U.S. State Department, twice. But each time it was held up by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, while others who did less were sent on.
“He was told by a senior state department employee that both times his application was tabled because they didn’t want to lose him,” Norris said. “(There’s) a lot of radio traffic and with Hayat’s incredible linguistic skills, they could use that. He was coming to the end of his rope with the U.S. military.”
With Norris in the picture, Hayat tried a third time, again with no success. That was exactly a year ago. He’s now a wanted man. Some of his own family has paid the price.
“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. He has a price on his head and they want him,” Norris said. “To kill him and put him on Youtube as punishment for helping us, helping America.”
The embassy has been provided with all the necessary information, with no resulting action. Norris would not let that status quo stand. He reached out to U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, (R-4th District).
“Are we going to wait until he dies himself at the hands of our enemies for doing nothing more than helping us?” Rokita asked.
After learning of Hayat’s situation, Rokita became an advocate, writing the embassy urging action to bring him to the United States.
“This man deserve an answer and I intend to get him one,” Rokita said.
That was eight correspondences ago, and Hayat’s life hangs on by a thread that’s getting thinner by the day.
“He’s on the run, living house to house, God knows where he’s getting food, sleeping when he can,” Norris said.
And for a few brief minutes, from Dennis’ home, we got to speak to Hayat himself.
“There’s a big price on our head,” he told Fox59 via Skype.
Hayat had found his way to a computer with internet service and quietly spoke of his desperation.
“They have killed my grandmother, my cousin, my nephew,” Nuristani said. “How can I go there if they’re killing my own family? If I knew my future was going to be like this, I wouldn't have started working with the U.S. Army."
Meantime, Norris focuses on the positive. He’s turned his college son’s room into Hayat’s new room. The hope is that Hayat will live there, become a college student at IUPUI and live a life of freedom. It’s all here waiting for him if Hayat can make one last hurdle above the red tape…before time runs out.
“Are we asking for an exception? Norris asked. “Absolutely. Jump him to the front of the line, he’s earned it.”
Rokita has written another letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In it, he asks for her personal involvement in this life or death struggle. If she wants to help, it will have to be fast. Clinton leaves office at the end of the year.