AFGHAN IN­TER­PRETERS’ NEVER-END­ING STRUG­GLE

Mandate - - International - By Paul Solotaroff

Afghan in­ter­preters who risked their lives for the US mil­i­tary, had to fight

to get to the US. Now most are strug­gling—and some are won­der­ing if they were bet­ter off fac­ing the Tal­iban.

Late last De­cem­ber, Aj­mal Faqiri boarded a plane in Kabul, Afghanistan, bound for San Fran­cisco with his wife and two small chil­dren. It should have been a mo­ment to weep for joy: He had fi­nally been de­liv­ered from the men who wanted him dead. But Faqiri, 27, was hardly in the clear. He was en route to a dif­fer­ent kind of peril: The ne­glect of the US State Depart­ment and a life of grind­ing poverty. An ace in­ter­preter for the US Army unit that chased Tal­iban in­sur­gents in Ku­nar Prov­ince, he’d been marked for mur­der by Tal­iban zealots swear­ing vengeance on col­lab­o­ra­tors and their fam­i­lies. Faqiri had sur­vived eight years of fire­fights and had proved his met­tle that he was tapped to trans­late for the then Sec­re­tary of De­fense, Robert Gates. In 2010, Faqiri ap­plied for Spe­cial Im­mi­grant Visas, given only to al­lies whose lives are im­per­iled by their work. Af­ter nearly four years, our State Depart­ment obliged him, call­ing him to its em­bassy to pick them up. But in­stead of the stan­dard six months to ar­range travel and sell off worldly goods, it gave him 72 hours to get out of the coun­try be­fore his fam­ily’s brand-new visas would be re­voked. He bor­rowed $14,000 to buy four last-minute plane tick­ets to SFO (he’d hoped to go to Vir­ginia but couldn’t find a flight) and ar­rived with no con­tacts and a few hun­dred dol­lars in his pocket. He cleared cus­toms at 11:31pm on New Year’s Eve, giv­ing him 29 min­utes to spare; had his flight been even a half-hour late, he’d have been shipped back to Kabul on the spot.

Know­ing noth­ing about San Fran­cisco, the fam­ily walked along the high­way to Daly City, where an Afghan im­mi­grant heard him speak­ing Pashto and asked what he was do­ing on the street. Faqiri told the man his story and named the one soul he knew there: Ja­nis Shinwari, an Afghan in­ter­preter with whom he’d worked in Kabul and whose story would later ap­pear in th­ese pages. They found a cell num­ber for Shinwari, now living in Vir­ginia, and asked him for help.

Shinwari was dining with Cap­tain Matt Zeller, the Na­tional Guard of­fi­cer who’d moved heaven and Earth to win Shinwari a spe­cial visa last year. To­gether, they’d raised money to help other en­dan­gered Afghans in Kabul. They bought the Faqiris a flight ticket to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., put them up in the cramped two-bed­room Shinwari shares with his wife and small chil­dren, then scraped to­gether enough money to get Faqiri a used car to land a job at Domino’s. On a good week, Faqiri, who has a de­gree in Com­puter Pro­gram­ming, earns $250 de­liv­er­ing piz­zas to some of the worst projects in Prince Ge­orge’s County, Mary­land. That makes him, sad to say, a stark suc­cess among his peers, hun­dreds of whom have ar­rived here and been given a three-month sub­sis­tence, then cut loose in a hos­tile cul­ture to sink or swim.

Re­cently, I sat in Shinwari’s apart­ment with eight other in­ter­preters, each in dire straits. All of them had worked for the US Army or Marines, car­ried glow­ing

com­men­da­tions from Amer­i­can cap­tains and colonels, and knew more than enough English to at least land en­try-level jobs at gas sta­tions and fast-food stores. “We don’t ask for spe­cial treat­ment, we start at the bot­tom, and that’s okay,” said Aj­mal Su­laiman-Khail, who was un­der siege in Koren­gal Val­ley with a bat­tle­torn unit of the Marines. “But we go to the stores and they say, ‘We don’t need you. You are Afghans, you are ter­ror­ists—go away.’”

“We all have that prob­lem,” said Rafi Hashimi, a “terp” with Spe­cial Forces who served nine gru­el­ing years with distinc­tion. “I feel like I am noth­ing, use­less to my fam­ily. I ex­pected a bet­ter life, and it’s so much worse here.” Roughly 13,000 refugees from our dual wars on ter­ror have come over on spe­cial visas since 2008. Many Iraqis, raised in a land with mod­est in­fra­struc­ture and ac­quain­tance with mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, have trod a smoother path to as­sim­i­la­tion. But most Afghans, rav­aged by decades of war, come from dirt moon­scapes of sub­sis­tence farms with no run­ning wa­ter or power grid. To sim­ply dump them in big cities with­out back­ing or guid­ance seems the height of in­dif­fer­ence. Yet that, says Zeller, is ex­actly what’s been done by the State Depart­ment, which for years dragged its heels in is­su­ing visas to the terps, then brusquely turned its back once they got here.

“They con­tract with re­li­gious char­i­ties to give th­ese guys the bare min­i­mum,” says Zeller. The terps “get three months of rent and eight months of food stamps—but zero as­sis­tance find­ing a job or mak­ing the cul­tural leap to this coun­try.” Most of the men here are be­hind on their rent and mere weeks, or days, from be­ing evicted with their kids, hav­ing been jet­ti­soned by char­i­ties like the Lutheran So­cial Ser­vices. “It’s been months since our case manager has come, and my daugh­ter has a very high fever,” says Hashimi. “I took her to the emer­gency room, but they won’t see her. They tell me, ‘Buy as­pirin. Try that.’” Adds Shinwari over lunch in Vir­ginia that day, “Most of us would have been bet­ter off stay­ing in Afghanistan. At least there, the graves are free.”

So des­per­ate is their plight that two of the terps are con­sid­er­ing the un­think­able—a pos­si­ble re­turn to Afghanistan. Zeller says, “They see no hope here for their chil­dren.” He cre­ated a non-profit so­ci­ety, No One Left Be­hind, that has raised—and spent—about $50,000 to keep roofs over the heads of th­ese men and is try­ing to raise more, but the fund­ing is far out­matched by the need. “Ev­ery day, I get 10 new posts from terps reach­ing out to me on Face­book,” he says. “We’re not talk­ing about feed­ing them on the public’s dime. Th­ese are the hard­est-work­ing peo­ple you’ve ever met, once they get their foot in the door. All they want is the thing we promised when they put their lives on the line: a chance to start over in Amer­ica. If they haven’t earned that, who has?”

Afghan in­ter­preter trapped in a small room

Mean­while, in the UK...

US sol­diers in con­ver­sa­tion with Afghan in­ter­preters

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