For Evan Zemil ’85, Afghan and Iraqi Refugees Have Become an Extended Family

There’s one thing Evan Zemil wants the world to know: These men are heroes.

“They put their lives on the line for this country,” Zemil explains. “They left everything they knew—and most of what they had—to come here.”

He’s referring to the Afghan and Iraqi combat interpreters and other allies who worked for the United States in their war-torn native countries, often at great risk to themselves and their families. Thousands later qualified for the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) and sought refuge here. Thousands more are waiting to emigrate; some have died waiting.

In 2015 Zemil decided to get involved.

Fast forward to 2017, and he’s known to practically every Iraqi and Afghan family on Chicago’s Far North Side, functioning as a combination of village elder, go-to guy and life coach. It’s like the word-of-mouth reputation he earned as a small-business owner willing to tackle tough projects, except that now he’s also using that can-do spirit to help resettled former interpreters.

Until fairly recently the Pikesville, Maryland, native could never have imagined himself in this role. “I majored in business at TU and worked at Montgomery Ward after graduation,” he says. Two years later Zemil left his hometown for a position at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. In 1989 he launched Kitchen Concepts, a company specializing in remodeling, windows, doors and household repairs.

Along the way Zemil married, had a daughter and grew his business. He invested in residential real estate, assuming a landlord’s duties.

Reaching out to refugees

He says his life changed in 2015 after watching a five-part series about the Afghan and Iraqi interpreters on the VICE News channel. “At first I offered money,” he recalls. “Then I volunteered with the Chicago chapter of No One Left Behind.” Founded by former U.S. Army Capt. Matt Zeller, whose Afghan interpreter saved his life, No One Left Behind helps wartime allies with special visas resettle safely in the United States. The nonprofit also provides assistance with housing, employment and cultural adaptation.

No One Left Behind directed Zemil to local social-service agencies, which in turn steered him to five refugee families in need. Those five quickly became 15, then 20. Now he estimates he’s helped more than 50 Afghan and Iraqi families put down roots in America. “If the interpreters haven’t met me, they’ve probably heard about me,” he says.

Zemil says these refugees receive a green card on arrival, plus short-term financial aid and help finding an apartment. Then he takes over, rounding up donated furniture, bedding, dishes, cooking utensils—even computers and bikes. “The program allows only two suitcases per person,” he points out. “When they get here, they need just about everything.”

Zemil notes that while No One Left Behind and other private and public agencies can smooth the way, newcomers are expected to be self-supporting within a few months.

“Often there’s only one breadwinner per family, so it’s a struggle,” he says.

The former interpreters have an edge over non-English speakers; even so, jobs are scarce. Zemil knows a man who started a successful painting business, but says most take entry-level service jobs. Many drive for taxi or ride-sharing companies, working seven days a week to make ends meet.

Sometimes Zemil finds himself delivering brotherly, if blunt, advice on how best to overcome the challenges they face daily. “Work hard,” he urges. “It’s up to you to make it happen.”

Zemil left No One Left Behind after a year, continuing the outreach he began during his affiliation with the chapter. “I work through No One Left Behind, just not with them,” he emphasizes. Now a one-man aid operation, he’s renowned for his ability to persuade people to part with useable secondhand goods. He scopes out deals on small, high-demand items, often paying out of pocket.

“It’s amazing how he can have a refugee family all set up in a couple of days,” says Pat Barth, who met Zemil when both were volunteering with No One Left Behind.

“Evan knows what benefits they’re entitled to and which agencies might be able to lend a hand.

“And if he doesn’t know, he finds out.”

Barth says she was among the volunteers who helped Zemil salvage furnishings from a condo. “A member of his synagogue invited us to clean it out, so we hauled away whatever the refugees could use,” she recalls.

“Evan owns a truck and has a garage crammed with stuff.”

Bridging cultural divides

Zemil rounds up donated furniture, bedding, dishes, cooking utensils—even computers and bikes.

Zemil doesn’t see any irony in the fact that he’s a Jewish benefactor to Muslim refugees. “They all know I’m Jewish,” he says matter-of-factly. “This isn’t about religion—it’s about being human. I have a responsibility to stand up for those who stood up for us,” he insists. “I feel like I’ve become a part of the interpreter community.”

At times the gratitude brings tears to his eyes.

One refugee told Zemil he’d done more for the resettled interpreters than any Muslim. A cabbie gladly obliged a request to pick up Zemil’s daughter after school one day—then refused to take his money. A man phoned from Afghanistan to inform Zemil that he possessed “the biggest heart of anyone I know.” Another, hearing Zemil was no longer working with No One Left Behind, told him, “Brother, I don’t care as long as you’re still my friend.”

Former interpreter Hamat Aziz says he observed Zemil’s selflessness firsthand.

“I heard about this guy, Evan, then I got to know him when he was helping a family,” Aziz remembers. “There were seven or eight people, including little kids, and the father could not support everyone. The landlord was going to evict them.

“Evan did a lot, including getting two months’ rent through No One Left Behind,” he says. “This family didn’t have furniture or any of the basic things, so Evan got people to donate what they needed.

“Evan is doing all of this and running a business too,” Aziz adds. “It’s an incredible job that he does for the interpreters.”

Reviewing his remarkable accomplishments, Zemil says he never in his wildest dreams thought it would turn into this.

“There are lots of other things I could be doing,” he admits, “but how could I say no?

“To get to the United States after all these guys have gone through and to find somebody they can count on—that can make all the difference.”

So when the calls come, Evan Zemil says, “Welcome, brother. I’m here. What do you need?”

Jan Lucas is associate director of publications in University Marketing and Communication.