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Resettled in the US, Afghan interpreters plead for help

After fighting for years for American visas, Afghan interpreters for the U.S. military say their futures are uncertain

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – In 2007, Sardar Khan, a young Afghan just out of high school, signed up at Camp Phoenix in Kabul to work as an interpreter for the U.S. military.

It was a straightforward decision. For years, he'd seen American soldiers walking around the streets near his home. He was struck by their tone.

“They … [spoke] in a nice way to the people and they were helping the people,” he recalled. “On that time, a question occurr in my mind: … These people [left] their families. They are coming here to help this country. ‘Why [are] you not joining them?’”

That decision would lead to seven years of service, sometimes on dangerous missions and often sharing the same risks as American soldiers.

“We saw a lot of ambushes, a lot of face-to-face fighting with [the Taliban],” he said. “I was left translating with the headphones during the fight, [saying to Afghan counterparts] what to do … and which side they should take and [whether] we are moving or staying.”

They bled next to us. They died alongside with us. They have more than earned their spot in this country, and they’ve certainly earned more than a welcome to America. Good luck, godspeed, and then [it’s] a swift kick in the ass.

Matt Zeller

No One Left Behind

Khan says he kept his job a secret from everyone but his closest family. But as he worked with the Americans in villages day after day, many Afghans came to recognize him. One day, sometime before 2002, he says his father received a call from one of the Taliban members in his district.

“Your son is a problem for us," Khan says the Taliban member warned. "He’s spying.”

That threat hit home when Khan says his roommate, a fellow translator for the U.S. military, was kidnapped and beheaded in 2007. Khan knew he could meet the same fate.

“Once you come on the list – working for the U.S. Army – then you are the same target, whether you work for five years or whether you work for one month or whether you work for one day,” he said.

'I was getting hopeless'

Recognizing the danger to Afghans who served alongside U.S. military personnel, the U.S. government created an immigration pathway for them called the Special Immigrant Visa program, or SIV.

Sardar Khan
America Tonight

Roughly 9,000 Afghans and their families were admitted last year, including Khan, according to the Office of Refugee Admissions at the State Department.

Khan, who was admitted on July 10, 2014, and resettled in Northern Virginia with his wife and two sons, thought his troubles would be over. He says the State Department promised him housing, help with employment and other services. But instead, he found himself at his wit’s end, unable to find a job or pay for basic needs.

“I thought, ‘Oh God, what am I going to do now?’” he remembered. “You don’t have the rent. You don’t have a car. You don’t have diapers for your baby. It’s winter [and] you need clothes for your family … One day, I was really close to deciding to put myself under a truck because I was getting hopeless.”

Seven Afghan translators who were resettled through the special visa program in the last year told America Tonight that State Department aid, which included three months of paid rent and varying amounts of other services, ended long before they could provide for themselves.

A translator and a friend

Matt Zeller, a former intelligence officer in the Army National Guard who did a couple of tours in Afghanistan, credits his translator with saving his life.

All Zeller remembers about the attack on April 28, 2008, is getting knocked down and “the unmistakable sound of an AK-47 going off right next to my head.” He turned his head to see the force that pushed him over. It was a guy dressed in an old U.S. Army-style uniform. Zeller asked him who he was.

Matt Zeller, left, believes that he'd be dead if not for Janis Shenwary.
America Tonight

“He looks at me and he goes, ‘I’m Janis, I’m one of your translators,’” Zeller said. “And then I looked past him, and that’s when I saw the bodies of the two guys that he had just shot and killed.”

If Janis Shenwary hadn't shot and killed those two attackers, Zeller is sure he would be dead.

"He was willing to lay down his life in defense of ours,” he said.

Zeller says he was one of five Americans who Shenwary ultimately saved in combat, all in different tours. It took the translator five years to get his U.S. visa.

“People I never even have met before would see his story on the news about the struggle to get his visa and call me up and say, ‘That guy saved my life in 2009. That guy saved my life in 2007. What do you need me to do to help out?’” Zeller recalled.

Zeller founded No One Left Behind, an organization that helps Afghan and Iraqi interpreters resettle in the United States. Later, Shenwary eventually made it to the U.S. and now lives in Northern Virginia, near Zeller. In his free time, he volunteers with No One Left Behind.

Limited options

Earlier this month, Shenwary and the team at No One Left Behind were picking up furniture donated by local churches to deliver to Afghan interpreters' families.

“Some families, they just arrived here last week and they have nothing,” Shenwary said. “They need everything. They just came here with one suitcase per person.”

The U.S. government’s policy is to treat these Afghans much like any refugees: providing 90 days of assistance and contracting with charities to supply housing, furniture, employment and other services. They are also eligible for food stamps and Medicaid for up to eight months, and to apply for assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services on a case-by-case basis.

[Shenwary] was willing to lay down his life in defense of ours.

Matt Zeller

No One Left Behind

Zeller says the resettlement agencies are overburdened and underfunded, and that most Afghan interpreters' families receive few real services. And since most landlords require prospective residents to undergo a credit check, those families, who lack a U.S. credit history, find it hard to find a home and plug into the U.S. economy.

“What ends up happening is the only housing that is actually available to them is housing that doesn’t require credit checks,” said Zeller, or what he calls “slums.”

Some interpreters' families have infestations in their homes, but no money for an exterminator. Many have no access to public transport or nearby job opportunities. Every week, Zeller gets emails from Afghans pleading for help.

He read one example for America Tonight:

Dear sir,

I am Shapur Adil, one of the Afghans who came to the U.S. through the SIV program in early February 2015. My family is three people large. We were settled in Lynwood, Washington, and received the amount of $3,300 in terms of assistance from my caseworker at the International Rescue Committee.

I personally had to find my own apartment. We have no furniture, and other services, and are still using floors of the rooms for sleeping. We are on camping foams as mattresses, and we have two blankets that we borrowed from an Afghan...

But this is all that we have. I’m not able to pay my apartment rent and the landlord has come to my door twice and even some days, four times, asking me to pay him my rent for the month of March 2015.

Nouf Bazaz, a mental health counselor at the International Cultural Center in Maryland works with Afghan interpreters' families. She says some interpreters are so distressed that they call her in tears, and have no one else to talk to about the stress that they’re going through.

“They don’t want to tell their families. They don’t want to tell their wives. They don’t want to tell their children, because they don’t want to burden them,” Bazaz said. “And they don’t want to feel like they’ve, in some way, failed their family, that they’ve come here to the U.S. and that they’re really struggling to provide for them.”

At the same time, their families in Afghanistan often have high expectations that they will be able to send money home. “A lot of these Afghan interpreters will say we don't have money to send back home and their family will say to them, ‘How is that possible? That can't be true,” Bazaz said.

A difficult transition

Many S.I.V. families live in Maryland area apartment complexes, some of which are infested with rats. These living areas, which require little to no financial or security background checks, are described as "slums."
America Tonight

The Parkview Gardens Apartments complex in East Riverdale, Maryland, is home to many Afghan interpreters' families. Ajmal says his apartment, where he lives with his wife and daughter, has been infested with mice for nearly six months. 

He says he applied for nearly 1,000 jobs, but has yet to find permanent employment. Part of the problem is his name. Like many Afghans, he uses only one name. His green card lists his first name as “FNU” – First Name Unknown – and those three bureaucratic initials now haunt him.

Ajmal was offered a job with a solar company, but “First Name Unknown” is hindering the background check.

“Due to this issue, my background is pending [for] more than one month,” said Ajmal, who isn't sure how he's going to pay next month's rent. “My recruitment is pending.”

His neighbor, FNU Assad, is slightly better off. A friend got him a job delivering food for an Afghan restaurant, but at $6 an hour, it’s not enough to pay the rent, let alone utilities and food. Assad says if he can’t get a better job in the next couple months, he plans to move back to Afghanistan.

“I’m 100 percent sure that I’m not safe if I go back there,” Assad said.

Larry Bartlett, the State Department's director of refugee admissions, says he knows that Afghan interpreters families' transition to the U.S. is not an easy one.
America Tonight

Larry Bartlett, the State Department's director of refugee admissions, says SIV holders are supposed to be guaranteed transitional benefits and an opportunity to be safe and create a new life for themselves and their families. That was the intent of the program, he said, when Congress created it in 2008.

“It’s a tragedy, frankly, and it’s one that we don’t like to hear about,” Bartlett told America Tonight. “We know that both for Afghans and Iraqis, people have returned from time to time. Making the transition to the U.S. is not easy and it’s not just for the Special Immigrant Visa holders; it’s also for refugees themselves.”

Every former military translator we spoke to has a binder full of recommendations and letters of praise and thanks from U.S. military commanders. Bartlett said they should help the refugees get jobs. But in reality, the translators say they never get a chance to show prospective employers their letters, applying as they do, for entry-level positions at busy job fairs or through online applications.

“They bled next to us. They died alongside with us. They have more than earned their spot in this country, and they’ve certainly earned more than a welcome to America,” Zeller said. “Good luck, Godspeed, and then [it’s] a swift kick in the ass.”

Khan, the translator who worked with U.S. military for seven years, may be one of the lucky ones. Through Afghan friends, he found two full-time jobs, as a security guard and a pizza deliveryman. He says it’s just enough to survive. An American family who heard about his story also raised money on his behalf and donated clothing and furniture for the 27-year-old’s home in Alexandria, Virginia.

“They come together to help me and they help me a lot,” Khan said. “I’m really thankful for them and I hope one I can return their favor, too.”

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