Ted Aljibe / AFP / Getty Images

Afghan interpreters demand promised US visas

Hundreds of Afghan translators, who took risks to aid US war efforts, accuse US of reneging on pledge to help them

KABUL, Afghanistan — Distinguishing which coalition force the 30 or so Afghan interpreters protesting outside the U.S. embassy in Kabul had worked for was not difficult.

Sayeed Razawi had an American accent, laced with a southern twang, while Fridoon Abrahamkhil spoke perfect British English.

The young men, who had gathered to protest against not receiving visas they had been promised, acquired their signature accents from the troops they served under in the country's most volatile regions such as the southern Helmand or Kandahar provinces.

Besides learning to speak English well, the interpreters had been well-paid and had learned other skills during their stints working for the troops, including weapons training, emergency medical skills, and how to negotiate successfully.

Above all, though, they were promised visas to the U.S. under the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, designed for those who have supported the U.S. war effort.

However, for those who gathered recently to protest, and thousands of others, the visas never came. And they are growing anxious as insecurity continues to plague the country and as allied troops hand over to the Afghan army and police.

"They have trusted us with their weapons and their missions. We have worked with them on their bases," said Razawi, who worked with U.S. troops for almost nine years and has been waiting to obtain his visa for four.

"And now – after they have decided to leave us – they find out that we are bad guys."


In 2009, the Afghan Allies Protection Act allocated 7,500 visas for Afghans employed by the U.S. government, the majority as military interpreters. But, by 2011, the U.S. embassy in Kabul had not processed a single visa.

After a slow start, the U.S. gradually speeded up the process – only last year did the interpreters start seeing a significant increase in cases processed.

However, new cases tended to process faster than the old, backlogged ones, leaving behind many of those waiting the longest.

"We just want our rights, like the other interpreters that made it to the States," said Razawi.

"Yeah," another chimed in, this one wearing a mask to conceal his identity for fear of reprisals. "These guys couldn't have done anything in this country without us."

Razawi and others say they were placed on a blacklist after failing an intelligence screening that Afghans must undergo every six months in the course of their jobs.

"If you miss one question, you fail. Then they put you on a blacklist or watch list and you lose your job with them and the visa, making it very difficult to find work anywhere in Afghanistan," said Ehsanullah, another interpreter. "I think they make excuses because they can't take everyone to the U.S."

It is not unheard of for interpreters to mistranslate, leak information, and to have links with the Taliban or other anti-government groups. Several years ago in northern Kunduz province a translator working for the Germans joined Al-Qaeda, later dying at the hands of U.S. forces in Chardara district, according to a local journalist. However, most here agree that such cases are rare.

"If I am the bad guy, what about the rest of these people?" said Razawi, who clutched the paperwork of 90 other interpreters across the country who had applied for, and never received, the SIV.

Despite not accepting the protesters' paperwork, a U.S. embassy official provided Al Jazeera with a statement reiterating the U.S. commitment to "helping those who have helped us."

"The U.S. government has spent the past two years building the capacity and streamlining the SIV process," the official said.

By the end of August, according to the official, approximately 3,000 SIVs had been issued to Afghans who worked on behalf of the U.S. government. 

A faster pace of issuance meant the U.S. government reached the 2014 cap of 3,000 visas in August before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. In response, Congress authorized an additional 1,000 visas for the Afghan SIV program.

In a recent statement U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said more than 11,000 Afghans and their family members have benefited from SIV program and the U.S. is "eager to welcome more" Afghan applicants. 

'Sellouts and traitors'

Time may be running out for many of these applicants, who have often paid a high price for their service.

The consequences of Nasir Rahamad's five-year stint with the Navy Seals in Kandahar province are etched on his left arm: an eight-inch scar extending from the middle of his forearm up to his armpit.

"I was coming from my home in Kabul and was on my way to work when they shot me from the street,"Rahamd said.

While interpreters all have different stories – being shot at, receiving threatening letters at night, receiving threats against family members, kidnappings and living in constant fear of reprisal by the Taliban – they are bound by one common thread: "Everyone hates us," said Abrahamkhil.

Others agreed. "These guys are hated by everyone, even the Taliban won't hire them here," said an Afghan journalist.

Afghan translators are not just considered "sellouts" and "traitors" by the Taliban and other groups fighting against the coalition forces and the Afghan government, but also by their own family members and ordinary people.

Sardar Khan from Tagab, Kapsia, who recently moved to Washington after waiting two years to get his visa, told Al Jazeera via email that his grandmother often told him: "You are working for pagans and you are a pagan too."

"She would tell my other relatives, 'Look at my grandchild Sardar Khan, he is an infidel, he is not praying, maybe he changed his religion.' This was my own family," he said. "Ordinary Afghans think interpreters are spying for the Americans and are creating a bad image for Islam."

Many Afghans defer to elders and religious conservatives who still have the final say in most parts of the country. "A bad thing about Afghan culture is when an older man or woman says something, then everyone accepts this and it becomes true," Khan told Al Jazeera.

"Because of this, most of my relatives hated me and would look for a chance to kill me because they thought they would go to paradise if they killed an infidel."

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