Former Afghan translator for U.S. military seeks a fresh start with Corvallis tailor’s shop
A single thread runs through the shifting circumstances of Mohammad Aref Rezaee’s life: Above all else, he just wants to take care of his family.
But for Rezaee, the son of an Afghan farmer who moved to Corvallis in 2010, that’s never been easy.
“When the Russians invaded Afghanistan (in 1979), I was a third-grader in school,” Rezaee, now 44, recalled in an interview this week.
“I remember like it was yesterday. All the kids in school, we saw the Russian convoy in front of the school and we all ran away, some through the door and some through the window.”
That was the end of Rezaee’s childhood education, although he did attend classes taught by the local imam. In many ways, it also was the end of his childhood.
He wanted to join the mujahideen, the Afghan militias fighting to expel the Soviet troops from their country, but his father wouldn’t hear of it. Meanwhile, his family needed money to survive. In the mid-1980s, Rezaee began traveling back and forth between his homeland and Iran to find work — and avoid military conscription.
“In Afghanistan there were no jobs,” he explained.
“Also, it was not safe for us (his brothers and himself). If you were in government territory, the government would pull you for the military. If you were out of government control, the mujahideen would pull you for their groups.”
Rezaee worked many different jobs in Iran, eventually finding success as a tailor. He started out as an apprentice, then worked his way up to a managerial position and eventually started his own company.
Though the hours were long, he found time to take English and computer classes, and he was able to send money home to his family.
But the Iranian economy, crippled by U.S.-imposed sanctions, was highly volatile, and Rezaee’s business went under during a steep recession in 2000.
By 2004 he was back in Afghanistan, trying to get a computer business off the ground, but it was tough going in a nation ravaged by decades of war.
The Soviets were long gone, driven out by the mujahideen. Now the Americans were there, battling the Taliban for control of the country.
But if the Americans had not brought peace, they had at least brought cash, and a friend helped Rezaee get a job with the U.S. forces. He speaks both Pashto and Dari, the two national languages of Afghanistan, and for the next four years he worked as a translator, helping American troops talk to their Afghan counterparts.
“This was very interesting work for me,” Rezaee said. “I had very good income and I was able to support my whole family, which was my parents, my two brothers and my wife and kids.”
‘We always have conflict’
But while his family was secure financially, their life was precarious in other ways.
“Since I remember, we have had civil war in Afghanistan,” he said. “We always have conflict.”
In 2008 he applied for a U.S. visa under a program designed to protect translators from the Afghan and Iraqi wars, and in May 2009 he brought his family to America.
The resettlement agency directed them to Atlanta, where Rezaee found a job with a printing company making $8 an hour.
But he still hadn’t found the security he was looking for. His family wasn’t comfortable in the big city; their neighborhood, which Rezaee describes as infested with drug dealers, felt unsafe.
Then he connected with a friend, another Afghan translator who had resettled with his family in Corvallis. “You should come to Oregon,” he said.
In May 2010 Rezaee relocated again, moving his wife and children to Corvallis and going back to work for the Army. The pay was good, but frequent deployments to Afghanistan kept him away from his family for months at a time.
Last October, Rezaee decided to make yet another change, giving up the financial stability of his military job to stay close to home.
He had little luck finding steady employment until a teller at his bank suggested he try his hand at tailoring again. She sent him to Nancy Kneisel, and Rezaee’s luck began to change.
Kneisel owns three resale shops in downtown Corvallis, including one called The Alley that specializes in men’s clothing. Rezaee introduced himself, and Kneisel immediately saw the commercial possibilities.
“Nancy said, ‘Yes! This town needs a tailor,’” Rezaee recalled. “She made me motivated.”
Kneisel made him a proposition: She would set Rezaee up with the space and equipment he needed to start a tailor’s shop, and he would start paying rent when the business got off the ground.
Since December, Rezaee has been operating Jefferson Alley Tailoring from a back room inside The Alley, 312 S.W. Jefferson Ave.
So far business has been slow but steady, mainly hemming and alterations (although he’d be happy to make you a custom-fitted three-piece suit).
Still, even though things are tight right now financially, Rezaee is sticking to the plan.
“I’m telling myself to be patient,” he said. “My hope is to make enough money to support my family here and in Afghanistan, and I will stay here with my family.”