Ahmad Jan Ali, an Afghan refugee who now works on Capitol Hill, narrates his life as a series of accomplishments and valuable connections that can all be traced back to the same personal motivation: his education.
When Ahmad Jan Ali says he risked his life to be here, he means it. The 26-year-old intern at the House Foreign Affairs Committee dodged bullets and kidnappers during the journey that brought him from his native Afghanistan to Washington, D.C.
"We got ambushed by the bad guys. We got shot at," Ali said of the combat missions that he completed serving as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. "There were risks in every day, working or not working."
Ali, however, does not define himself by the cinematic circumstances that preceded his life in America. Rather, like so many Hill interns before him, he narrates his life as a series of accomplishments and valuable connections that can all be traced back to the same personal motivation: his education.
For Ali, intellectual curiosity overcame the inconvenience of walking three miles in each direction to attend primary school in his Afghan village. A thirst for knowledge inspired him to begin teaching himself English after his family fled to Iran. And his passion for education led him to assist the U.S. military as an interpreter on his return to Afghanistan.
"Getting a job with the military was a big opportunity," Ali explained. "My goal was to go abroad - anywhere other than Afghanistan."
Ali's goals today include securing his American citizenship, receiving a master's degree in international affairs and finding a job in foreign relations. They are far from the ambitions he held as a child herding sheep on his family's farm.
Ali was 12 when his family left their village during the rise of the Taliban. In Iran, they faced racial prejudice and economic hardship. Ali did not attend school, and it would be more than a decade before his formal schooling advanced beyond sixth grade.
After two semesters of basic English, Ali decided to spare his family the cost and pursue the language on his own. He bought 150 English cassette tapes of political debates and university lectures and began memorizing them.
"I had no clue if I was learning anything," Ali remembered.
It would be four years until Ali could finally put his skills to the test. Returning to Afghanistan in 2004 meant returning to a home that looked very different from when he had left. Instead of Taliban soldiers, it was American troops who filled the streets. The first time he saw soldiers, Ali was terrified.
"I was so nervous. I thought, 'What if they shoot me?'" he said.