William Wilder of the National Guard and his Iraqi interpreter, Basim Al Hassan, were together again, this time in Minnesota.
Wilder met Basim Al Hassan in 2009 when he was stationed at the Basra military base in southern Iraq for a one-year tour with the National Guard. The two worked together at the entry control point to the military base. Al Hassan -- nicknamed "Coy" -- was a translator and spoke good English, making it easy for them to shoot the breeze for 10 to 12 hours while they worked.
"You can learn a lot about someone when you have time to talk -- and I talk a lot," said Wilder, 42.
Their talks about family, relationships, clothing and culture developed into a friendship, and when Wilder's deployment came to an end, he and a number of others in his unit volunteered to sponsor some of the Iraqis on the base to come to the U.S.
Al Hassan arrived in Minnesota late Thursday night on a special immigrant visa, a path offered to people who worked with or helped the U.S. military. During the application process he was able to pick a resettlement location; he chose Minnesota because of his friendship with Wilder.
"I think it's something that's well-deserved because they raised their hands and said, 'We'll help,'" Wilder said. Now it's Wilder's turn to help.
Standing with arms crossed, he spotted his friend coming down the escalator. Al Hassan smiled big when he saw Wilder, dropping his bag to give him a strong hug, patting him loudly on the back.
"How was the flight?"
It was the 26-year-old's first time leaving Iraq and his first time on an airplane.
Al Hassan paused, searching his mental Arabic-to-English dictionary and years of translating experience for the right words to explain how it felt to be in the U.S., but only came up with one: "Fantastic!"
Amanda Smith watched as the two friends reunited. It's a scene she's familiar with, as director of refugee services at the International Institute of Minnesota, but this case was pretty remarkable.
"We've never seen a meeting like this," Smith said. Her work traditionally helps connect refugees with family members in the U.S. "It's just a different experience to call someone who's from the U.S. [and] who can feel like he's paying back to someone who helped him a lot when he was in Iraq."
The process that brought Al Hassan to the U.S. is rare as well, she said. Smith has only seen three special immigrant visa cases come through her office between 2011 and 2012.
In the 2012 fiscal year, 24 translators have come to the U.S. on special immigrant visas, according to the State Department.
'You become very fast friends'
At the airport, the two jabbered back and forth about friends from the base.
After Wilder left Iraq, he and Al Hassan stayed in touch with e-mail, Facebook and a few phone calls, with Wilder checking in on Al Hassan's visa application from time to time. Even after a few years apart, the connection is still strong.
"The friends that you make on a deployment, you become very fast friends because of the environment," Wilder said. "It's more extensive than family, it's so constant."
On the base, Al Hassan was known as "fashionable," Wilder said, often wearing Tom Cruise aviator sunglasses.
Al Hassan reminded Wilder of a specific detail that kick-started their friendship: a knock-off Armani T-shirt. Wilder laughed, remembering Al Hassan strutting around the base in the tight shirt that became extremely popular among the soldiers. Everyone wanted one.
"You been working out?" asked Wilder, pointing to Al Hassan's muscles.
"I've been putting on weight," he said with a laugh.
Al Hassan wants to get his master's degree in English literature; he already has a bachelor's degree. He left a lot of family back in Iraq and he'll miss them. But working as a translator for the military opened a big door for him.
"It's an opportunity," Al Hassan said, "so I had to take it."
Before Smith took Al Hassan to the apartment complex where he'll be living with another refugee from Iraq, Wilder gave him a friendly fist-pound to the chest. They talked about hanging out this weekend and even connecting with other guys from the base. Wilder knows of two other translators from his unit who now live in Minnesota.
"I missed him," Al Hassan said.
Asha Anchan • 612-673-4154