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Guantanamo Translator Wins Rhodes Scholarship

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Guantanamo Translator Wins Rhodes Scholarship

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Guantanamo Translator Wins Rhodes Scholarship

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Dozens of Americans volunteer to translate for detainees at Guantanamo Bay. We're about to meet one of them - a 24-year-old law student at Yale University. She's also a poet, flag football player and now, a Rhodes scholar.

Diane Orson of member station WNPR introduces us to Isra Bhatty.

DIANE ORSON: Isra Bhatty grew up outside of Chicago, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants in a devout Muslim family. She speaks six languages, including Urdu. That's the language she uses in her work with a Washington, D.C. law firm, representing three Guantanamo Bay detainees. The men have been held without charges for more than five years. Bhatty makes regular conference calls to Pakistan to update the wives on the status of their husband's cases.

Ms. ISRA BHATTY (Law Student, Yale University): In the beginning, they were more, I guess, forceful about asking why, why their husbands are being locked up, that they're innocent, and just very confused and frustrated about the why. Now, I think that's sort of faded away, which is very sad. And it's more of a question of just, please keep calling me and I need to hear your voice.

Ms. ABIGAIL GUSTAFSON (Paralegal, Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll PLLC): They're very difficult calls.

ORSON: Abigail Gustafson is a paralegal with the law firm representing the men.

Ms. GUSTAFSON: They beg us to help them and - but they beg Isra, really, because she's the voice they hear. And afterwards, we get, often, the phone call. And she translates it for me. And I'm just, like, I'm sorry you had to go through that. And she said, no, like, it keeps my life in perspective.

ORSON: Bhatty says the stories of detainees' families have been lost in the debates about Guantanamo.

Ms. BHATTY: And so I have been able to, you know, peek a little bit into the lives of some of the detainees. And it's been mind-opening.

ORSON: Her colleagues say Bhatty's open mind allows her to switch disciplines and worlds easily. She's worked as a research fellow with Yale Law School professor Ian Ayres, analyzing the cost of crime, racial disparities in home mortgages and discrimination on eBay.

Professor IAN AYRES (Law, Yale University): Isra is amazing in how many different worlds she can simultaneously inhabit. She is devoutly religious, but at the same time, can be speaking at the highest levels in talking about running Monte Carlo simulations on the FTSE stock market index.

ORSON: Running across the Yale Law School courtyard dressed in a traditional Muslim hijab headscarf and baggy Yale sweats, Bhatty's eyes shine behind dark-rimmed glasses. She's coaching a friend on how to throw a football.

Ms. BHATTY: So what I say is, like, for girls since we have smaller hands, like, put your middle and your ring on the last two, grip on the back because you…

ORSON: Bhatty's been coaching football since college, where she founded a champion intramural women's team. She's an avid Chicago Bears fan and says her passion for the sport started when she was young - as did her love of writing poetry.

Ms. BHATTY: Of all the words to brush, flush, upon the lips, it is your name that remains the touch deepest in bliss. Its kiss' sweetness pulls spirits into sleepless abysses.

ORSON: She describes her poetry as a kind of hybrid, traditional Persian Urdu and Arabic verse remixed into contemporary hip-hop.

Camille Pannu is a South Asian-American and practicing Sikh. She's also Bhatty's roommate.

Ms. CAMILLE PANNU (Student, Yale University): We're hyphenated Americans in a lot of ways. We come from, like, immigrant families and have very strong cultural backgrounds. And I think the hard part is actually to be women who are religious and active; who identify very strongly as Americans, but Americans from a different kind of background than, maybe, the national narrative of what people assume is an American.

ORSON: Bhatty plans to study the American criminal justice system on her Rhodes scholarship. She wants to improve the way the system works with South Asians, Arabs and Muslims, something she's seen up close in her Guantanamo work.

Ms. BHATTY: My faith and my being American has taught me the value of justice. This is my motivation from the scriptures of Islam and then from the scriptures of America, the Constitution and our Bill of Rights.

ORSON: She says England has developed creative programs to work with minority populations in the criminal justice system. Bhatty will study that country's ideas and remix them into her own when she comes back home to America.

For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in New Haven.

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