March 20, 2008 – Detroit, MI — The billboard displays a phone number and only two English words: “Call Mona.” The rest is in Arabic. But if you can read it, the Army wants you.
The sign, erected to help recruit translators from Detroit’s large Middle Eastern population, urges Arabic speakers to consider joining the military.
“In the land of different opportunities,” it says, “this is one you might not have heard before: job opportunities with the U.S. Army.”
Five years after the invasion of Iraq, the Army says it is meeting or exceeding its goals for recruiting Arabic translators. But despite growing acceptance of the military among Arab immigrants, recruiters acknowledge that much of the immigrant community remains deeply suspicious of the Army.
“At first, it was more hostile from the community. It was at the peak of the invasion,” said Mona Makki, a community liaison and language specialist with a company that helps the Army with recruitment. “They perceive us now in a positive way.”
Hassan Jaber, executive director of the Dearborn-based Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, said the Army has built some credibility in the community, but it is not fully embraced.
“To my knowledge, people who are volunteering and taking these jobs are doing it in secret,” he said. “It might be a factor of shame, and that they go in there … because of the money offered, not necessarily because they feel the war is justified.”
Sgt. Mario Banderas, a 39-year-old native of Lebanon, joined the Army in Detroit and served a tour of duty in 2005 as translator in Iraq. He returned as a recruiter.
“I had the idea in my mind that I can go talk to this community and probably get at least two or three people a day to join the Army. This is not the case,” said Banderas, whose name is an alias because the Army does not release translators’ real names to protect their safety.
“The idea that people have here, as soon as they see me in uniform is: ‘Oh, you’re in the U.S. Army? You’re in Iraq killing your own people?'”
He said such comments upset him, but he doesn’t blame the critics “because they don’t know what’s going on in the Army.”
Banderas, a former architect who speaks six languages, works with civilian recruiters of Arab descent to find new translators in the Detroit area, which is home to 300,000 people who trace their roots to the Middle East.
They hold recruitment fairs, sponsor community events and advertise in print, on the radio and billboards.
Applicants must be between 17 and 42, have documents proving U.S. residency, speak fluent Arabic and decent English. The process includes a background check and physical.
The military has met recruitment goals for its translator program since 2006 after falling short in the first three years of the war. In 2006, it recruited 277 translators and the following year got 250.
Community leaders and some potential recruits say interest in the jobs is driven in large part by the offer of a steady salary.
Many would-be recruits expect to make $180,000 a year, a maximum figure touted by civilian contractors hiring translators. But Banderas puts the military’s salary for a translator of his rank and tenure in the $35,000-to-40,000 range, which includes nontaxed compensation for housing, separation from family and other incentives.
“With this economic problem we have, they’re thinking more about money, about their paycheck at the end of the month and nothing else,” he said. Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation.
At a recent recruitment event, some potential translators declined to speak publicly out of concern for their safety. But a few acknowledged that money would be a key factor in their decision.
“You’ve got no choice,” said Salim Alamiri, 24, who said he was recently laid off from a military contractor. “There’s hardly jobs out here … I’ve got a high school diploma, and started in college, but I need the money.”
Banderas says recruiters succeed when they can move beyond the money and misgivings about the mission to show what translators really do.
He tells them about being on patrol in Iraq when a woman holding a baby ran toward his convoy. Soldiers raised their guns, thinking she had a bomb, but he listened to her screams and told them to stop.
“I was the only one to understand the language … She needed help,” he said. “At the end … we saved her life and her baby’s life.”
Still, it hasn’t been easy to erase all suspicions. As he entered a Detroit-area gas station in a noncombat uniform, an Arab immigrant approached him.
“The guy was like, ‘Oh, you in the Army?’ looking at me up and all the way down like disgusting or something. I said, ‘No, I’m in immigration.’ He’s like, ‘Hey, cousin! How are you doing? What’s going on?’
“But if I told him I was in the Army, it was going to be totally different. He’d keep looking at me as a disgusting person.”