KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany – Paras Upreti stands in a tent speaking in Urdu to Afghan evacuees waiting for a bus going to one of the locations here that will be their temporary home. He asks what he can do to help.
An Afghan man speaks and points to his daughter, noting that she's wearing two mismatched shoes. Upreti asks them to wait, zips out of the tent, and fetches a pair of shoes he believes are the correct size. They don't fit. Too small. So, Upreti hurries out again, returning with a pair of pink shoes. They fit.
In tears, the girl's mother thanks Upreti for getting the shoes, an errand more a byproduct of a journey started in his birthplace of Katmandu, Nepal. He said that journey has come full circle thanks, in great part, to the Army and being in the right place at the right time.
"I'm getting way more than I give," said the U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz employee of the time and skills he’s donating to help others. "This is very personal to me. It can't get more important than this."
As evacuees of Operation Allies Refuge descended upon the makeshift Ellis Island located on Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Upreti knew some Afghans would be speaking Urdu. Coincidentally, it's also one of five languages Upreti speaks, including English, Nepali, Punjabi, and Sanskrit.
Since Aug. 14, about 37,000 people have been evacuated by the Department of Defense from Afghanistan. From Aug. 23-24, the joint staff said the military evacuated another 21,600, many of them coming to Ramstein. Given the more than 60 million people globally and two-in-five Afghans who speak Urdu, Upreti felt he could help hundreds find food, shelter and bring some sense of calm during an otherwise chaotic time.
So, he called the USO in Baumholder and asked if Ramstein needed help with simultaneous interpretation. The answer: a resounding yes. "Initially, I didn't know about the mission. When I found out, I realized how personal this was, and that I would finally get to use these language skills which allowed me to join the Army," said the general engineer who is assigned to the Baumholder Military Community. "I was even willing to take leave to make this happen and help out."
Friends and coworkers who have witnessed Upreti's altruism said the 30-year-old's charge toward action is nothing new. Truett Sanchez, Upreti's supervisor in Baumholder, said Upreti leaps at opportunities like these. "Paras is one of the people who makes our DPW (Directorate of Public Works) team and, by extension, the entire garrison shine. He is a selfless go-getter whose positive energy and enthusiasm are contagious. I'm proud he can serve his country and community in this capacity in a time of need," Sanchez said.
Upreti came to the United States from Katmandu as a college student, earning a degree in electrical engineering from University of Texas at Arlington and then moving in with his sister in his new hometown of Dallas. Drawn to the Army, the service recruited him for his linguistic ability under the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program. When he went to take the Defense Language Proficiency Test in his home language of Nepali, however, he almost failed.
"My mother would have been very disappointed," he said, "but I passed."
Still, he wanted to continue on his trek in engineering, so he enlisted in 2015 as a general mechanic and … "Changed a lot of oil," he said, laughing. "I didn't do a lot of mechanical work."
He remembered never employing the language skills for which the Army recruited him. So, after a stint in Korea, he separated from the service and wanted to do "something bigger." So, he joined federal civil service, first working at Fort Bragg, N.C., as an intern, and then Fort Hood, Texas, before coming to Germany working for the garrison here.
Upreti's career in the military and federal civil service isn't by chance. His father, Shambhu Prasad Upreti, set a lofty example for his son. A retired Senior Superintendent (colonel equivalent) in the Nepal Police, his dad served alongside American Soldiers while deployed to Yugoslavia, assigned to a United Nations peacekeeping mission. Dad was later honored for humanitarian efforts by the president of Nepal.
"Paras knew about my role in Yugoslavia and the similar situation then that's happening now. People had less than 24 hours to leave. We were releasing cows, hens, and pigs from cages and taking care of senior citizens," his dad said. "I shared a lot of this with Paras, and I think it motivated him."
For his Allies Refuge volunteer service, the younger Upreti wears two hats: interpreter and USO representative. As they are ferried to safety, Upreti's is one of the first faces they see. Over two shifts, Upreti said surges are the norm with about 200-400 people per wave, with some relative peace after people are processed through.
Upreti said one Afghan he spoke with – one of about 12 he's been asked to provide interpretation for – said he'd been fighting Taliban fighters with an AK-47 that morning. Upreti said the Afghan soldier then received a cell phone call from his boss telling him to stop fighting and the stark reality ahead. "His boss told him to burn all his paperwork, get his family to the airport, and that he was on his own," Upreti said.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Alexandra Nichols, officer in charge of the Ramstein Operation Allies Refuge Language Support Team, said Upreti’s ability to connect with evacuees and get them assistance and resources has made a difference.
"Paras bridged a critical language gap for us during a surge of humanitarian operations. Using his Urdu skills, he was able to provide hundreds of Afghan evacuees with dignity, comfort, and respect as they pursued lasting freedom and safety in the United States," Nichols said.
This opportunity to connect Afghans with safety brings a decade of learning and work "full circle," Upreti said and holds a world of meaning for him.
"I started this journey I am on as a linguist. I feel honored to be able to help and serve in this capacity," he said.
Of course, Upreti's father is pleased with how his son is following in his footsteps. "I am very proud of his contribution as he not only does his job for the Army but volunteers for this humanitarian role," he said.
The clock is ticking for how much longer Upreti can assist. He's accepted an assignment with the Army to Romania and leaves in early September with his wife of four years. For now, he'll keep working interpretation and USO shifts when he's able, mainly after work.
In doing whatever he can to help, he reflected on that girl who needed shoes, and the family left a bit better by his ability to understand their needs.
"I remembered how my mom used to buy a little bigger shoes for us, knowing we had room to grow. So, in reacting to this, I involuntarily did namaskar," said Upreti, noting the traditional Hindu greeting or gesture of respect, made by bringing the palms together before the face or chest and bowing. "It was a beautiful and memorable moment and is one more story in my book to tell others."