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The interpreters who worked for American and NATO forces during the recent Afghanistan war are among America’s bravest and most loyal allies. They played an essential role educating foreign forces about the local culture they so badly needed to understand, and sourcing intelligence.
As the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan, the tens of thousands of Afghans who put their and their families’ lives at risk because they believed promises would be fulfilled by the US should now be offered safe haven. Instead, a majority of the interpreters are being either denied transit to the US, or left in limbo for years on end.
I spoke with several interpreters now living across the world about their experiences since ending their work with the US and NATO, and the promises that have not been fulfilled.
Janis Shinwari is probably the most famous of the interpreters who made it to the States. He was only granted a visa after a US Army veteran and former CIA officer, Matt Zeller, spent years campaigning for him. Janis had saved Matt’s life in Ghazni, a heavily contested province in eastern Afghanistan where the Taliban have a strong presence, and Matt had promised Janis he would do everything he could if Janis ever needed anything. The two of them now live a short drive away from each other in Virginia, where Janis is struggling to find work. He was allowed to bring his wife and two kids to America, but not his parents. Unlike their Iraqi counterparts, Afghans can only bring their spouses and any children under the age of 21 with them. Like many conditions of the Special Immigrant Visa program, no one has any idea why this is the case, especially not when parents and brothers of interpreters have already been killed in retribution for the work the interpreters did.
I spent a day with Matt and Janis. They told me how they had met and how hard it had been to get Janis out, despite the obvious service he had performed and the threat he had faced.
Janis: The biggest thing was, for us, that when I landed in the United States, I said, "I'm safe." No more fear. No more fights. And we can go everywhere.
Matt: Yeah, you could see the sigh of relief on his face. You could just… it was palpable. I mean, it was just right there.
Matt took us to lunch at his favorite restaurant, a BBQ place on the ground floor of his apartment building. Matt said he had a “never-ending quest” to get Janis to love American food. He pointed out the dishes Janis had to avoid because they contained pork and insisted he try the burnt ends in beef dishes.
Matt: I met Janis the first week I got to Afghanistan, in April 2008. We'd gotten down to our base, FOB Vulcan in Ghazni. I only met him briefly in passing. They basically brought all the interpreters on the base and introduced us. I just said, "Hey, I'm Matt. I look forward to working with you." And that was it. I didn't realize that a week later he'd be saving my life.
We were in this horrible firefight. We were pinned down, surrounded by 45 members of the Taliban versus 15 of our guys. I was one of those 15. We were running out of bullets. I was out of grenades. This firefight had been going on for about an hour. I had already been almost blown up three or four times, with rounds landing right next to me, and this mortar hit about two or three meters away from me. It sent me flying into this ditch.
I thought, Okay, that's it. That last one was way too close. I'm going to die now. And literally, you couldn't have scripted it better, in terms of a Hollywood movie. At the absolute moment of total despair, somebody yelled out, “Zeller, don't shoot to your six, friendlies to your rear.” And I turned to see these three armored Hummers tearing up like bats out of hell coming to save us. The lead vehicle got there and it was driven by this US Army sergeant, who threw open his door and goes, "Aye sir! I heard you're in a pickle. I brought an MK-19 grenade launcher. Where you want it?"
I pointed up at this ridgeline and said, “Kill everything that moves up there.” They went for it, but I started taking fire again. So I'm starting to return fire, when all of a sudden I feel somebody land right next to me. And before I can turn to see who it is, I hear the unmistakable sound of an AK-47 being shot right next to my head. I turn and it's Janis who has just shot and killed these two Taliban fighters who were creeping up from behind me to get me. And if he hadn't been there, I'd be dead. Hands down, they either would have shot me in the back or dragged me away and killed me on the spot. Had it not been for him, I would not be sitting here.
And from that point on, I made sure that he and I were connected at the hip for the rest of my deployment. He became my personal interpreter. We ate every meal together. We basically went everywhere together. I almost never let him out of my sight. And so my tour ends around Christmas 2008. He had saved my life in April. They had us all gathered, waiting for our flight home. We're no longer on this small outpost. And he'd come to the front gate to say our goodbyes, and I looked at him and said, "Brother, I promise you I'm going to do whatever it takes to repay this debt. I'm going to get you to America. I don't know what it's going to take, but I promise I will not stop until I've gotten you to safety.” And he said, "Okay, thank you. We will see."
I flew home and we spoke every day, either via Skype or Facebook. In 2009, he got transferred to Kabul because his name had been added to the Taliban kill list for having saved my life and others. He was told, “It's too dangerous to stay, they know who you are. They're hunting you.”
So I called him up and I said, “You know, there's this visa process, do you want to apply?” And he says, “No, I love Afghanistan. I'm safe here in Kabul. Things are good now. I think it'll be okay.”
Then two years go by and finally, in 2011, a US officer I was working with said, “Look, I know you're real close with Janis. We have to let you know he's basically under a ton of threats now and I'm going to be helping him apply for his visa, but he'd like you to be his sponsor.”
I said, “Sure, not a problem.”
I thought it would take a couple of months at the most. But much to our absolute dismay, two years later, it's the summer of 2013, and we're still waiting. We haven't heard a thing. The State Department had interviewed Janis, made him do the medical screening. But then, nothing. It was just like his case had disappeared into a void, never to be heard from again. And so for the time being we were just in this weird sort of holding pattern. The threats had gotten so bad that he had to actually live on the US base. He couldn't go home anymore. He hadn’t seen his family for almost two years because it was too dangerous to go and see them.
And then in July 2013, I was sitting on my computer when he sends me a Facebook message and he says, "Brother, I just got word they're going to lay off all the interpreters on the base because the US unit we are supporting is leaving and there's no replacement unit coming after them, which means we're all going to lose our jobs. We all have to move off the base and we're all going to be exposed. It's only a matter of time before the Taliban catch us and kill us. You have until October to save my life." So I went into overdrive. I started calling up all my friends in the State Department asking for help. They basically said, “We’re powerless. You need to get some Congressional action and maybe some media attention.”
So I started a petition and within a couple of weeks we had a couple thousand signatures. Yahoo News heard about it, we did an interview and they made it their front-page story. Within 72 hours, we had over 100,000 signatures and several members of Congress asking how can they help. There was a lot of media attention. And then much to our absolute joy, within a day or two of hitting more than 100,000 signatures, the State Department called up Janis and told him his visa had been approved. We were all overjoyed. We were celebrating and making plans for his arrival in the US.
They told him he could only come with one suitcase per family member. So he had to sell his house, quit his job, get rid of all his things, and consolidate his life into one suitcase per family member. And he does all this, just as they instruct him to. He sold his home, was living out of a relative's place, changing locations every night because he's afraid the Taliban might come and find him, and the State Department sent him a message. I'll never forget this.
It was two in the morning here in the US, and he sends me another Facebook message just as I'm about ready to go to bed. He says, “The embassy just called me and says there's a problem with my visa and I need to bring my passports to the embassy. This happened to my cousin. When he went there they actually took away his visa and said, ‘Your visa's been revoked; you're never going to the US.’ I'm terrified. Do you think I should just spend all of my life's savings and buy plane tickets now?”
I called up his lawyers and they said that if he gets on a plane there's no way they're going to let him into the country, that visa's likely been turned off even though he physically holds it. They said I had to get them to turn it back on, but they’ve never heard of anyone having their visa reinstated. That's what I was up against.
So I called the embassy and they forwarded me to a mailbox that nobody answered, a voice mailbox. Finally I got ahold of an actual American who tells me that they can’t help me, that there’s no way to appeal this, that Janis has the email address which he should send all correspondence to. And I’ve been emailing this email address. They’d said that for reasons of national security, we had to make a different decision. And that’s the end of it. His visa was revoked.
I call every press person that had been a part of this, told them what had happened and that Janis was now on his way to an early death in Afghanistan because we’re screwing up. So they made this big media story.
I found out from some friends of mine in the State Department that the Taliban had followed his story. They saw that Janis had been given his visa and they knew that their only chance to kill him was to keep him in Afghanistan. So they used the tip line at the US embassy, for Afghans to call in anonymous tips about potential attacks. They used that tip line and called it up and said, “Janis Shinwari is actually a member of the Taliban working for us all these years. And he’s going to kill Americans.” That triggered a knee-jerk reaction.
Forget the fact that he has been fighting for us for seven years and saved my life and the lives of four other soldiers. Forget the fact he has been the personal interpreter for 12 US senators. That apparently isn’t good enough. They’d spent three years investigating him. The FBI, the CIA, the NSA, you name it, and they found nothing. And yet one anonymous, bogus tip comes in and suddenly all of that investigation just gets tossed out? And he’s now screwed. He’s now going to die a horrific death in Afghanistan?
I started arranging meetings with members of Congress, talking to anyone in the press who would listen, just anything I could think of. Ultimately I made such a political stink about it that the State Department knew they couldn’t just toss this guy back into the wind. I emailed the former ambassador, the current ambassador, General Joseph Dunford, anyone who would listen. I was not going to let this die. Eventually the CIA came in and polygraphed Janis twice, and he passed with flying colors. That was enough for them to say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was not a bad guy. They turned his visa back on a couple of weeks later and by the end of October, he was in America.
It had taken three years. Three years of sitting around waiting with no response whatsoever other than, “We're still looking into it.” That was it. Three years of absolute silence.
More importantly, no one should have to go to this level of an effort to honor, to ultimately honor our nation’s promise and commitment. But we’d done it. I thought, Okay, this is great. I got my last member, my buddy, out. But because we got all this press coverage, Janis and I have become the people that Afghans, and other American veterans who want to save Afghans, come to for help. And the scariest part about this is, it isn’t repeatable. This is the one time that I’m ever going to be able to do something like this. It’s not news anymore.
So all the other interpreters are now in what’s called the administrative review process, where they have the US intelligence community investigate their background. And they just languish. They sit there for years, untouched. No one is coordinating the process. And sometimes the easiest thing for these people to do is have a mindset where they don’t want to let these people in. The easiest thing for them to do is to just not make any decision at all. And just say, “Well, it’s still being investigated.” And the effect is still the same. The interpreters are still trapped and stuck in Afghanistan.
One Marine came to us for help. His interpreter just got here last month. While he was waiting for his visa to be approved, his father was killed and his younger brother was kidnapped, just because the Taliban were trying to get to him.
There was another interpreter who applied for a visa. While he was waiting, he went to meet his parents. When he got there, the Taliban killed him in front of his family. They decapitated him.
That’s the fate that awaits these people, our allies. And if these were US soldiers, or American citizens, we would move heaven and Earth to save them. There would be no expense spared.
One of the interpreters Matt and Janis are now trying to rescue is called Qadeer, whom they had both worked alongside in Afghanistan. I had interviewed him in Kabul. It was his house that was shot up by the Taliban, and his father who had agreed to look after his wife and kids should he decide to get smuggled out of Afghanistan.
After several failed attempts, Qadeer finally appeared on Skype, where the weak signal meant that his image kept freezing and only the light from his laptop screen lit his face, giving him a ghostly appearance. He explained that they didn’t have electricity and only had tiny battery-powered flashlights for light. Matt told him that a petition to get his case reviewed (he had been approved for, then denied a visa) had attracted more than 10,000 signatures. But Qadeer didn’t seem to take any hope from this.
Qadeer: Last night I just received a call and an email that were very hopeless. A captain I worked with said President Karzai just released many, many of the prisoners from Bagram that me and Janis arrested. All those leaders, they were released from jail. We arrested them in Ghazni and Bagram and other places, and they know us because we sneaked into their houses and a couple times we attacked them. They were all released. The situation here in Afghanistan, day by day, is going to be worse. We could actually lose everything. My case is actually blocked and nobody knows who to ask about my problem. I went to the Ministry of Interior but they said they could not do anything. They told me that if I want someone to be responsible for me, then it is America who should be responsible.
He then announced that his wife had just given birth the night before, to their third daughter. Matt and Janis congratulated him and for the first time since we’d started talking, if only for a minute or two, they were both smiling broadly.
Qadeer: We didn't name her yet. We have to wait for my father. He’s a little sick. He went to the hospital, but when he comes back he will pick the name.
He then went straight back to talking about his case.
Qadeer: The problem is, I don’t know why I am stuck. I helped the Americans. I told those guys I helped them, but who cares? I helped the Americans and I did a service for this country. I did very honest work but there is no place for me and I cannot appeal. I’m so disappointed that sometimes I talk to myself and I swear. I ask myself, Why did I work with Americans? Why?
Every night there is a very bad situation going on outside, in the streets. There’s no government, no security, no nothing. We are stuck and we don’t know what will happen. Why am I stuck? Why won’t they re-interview me?
Matt winced with each sentence.
Matt: I can only say on behalf of my country and everybody you ever worked with, I’m sorry. We’re… you’re absolutely right. What we’re doing is entirely wrong. It’s reprehensible. It’s a disgrace. It’s an embarrassment and it’s something that I am profoundly, profoundly upset about. And I promise you I am not going to stop fighting for you until we get this resolved. All right? I’m deeply… I am so sorry. We owe you. You’ve done so much for our country. You deserve to be sitting here with Janis and I as an American. I’m sorry we are not holding up our end of the bargain. I’m sorry, I really am. And I’m not… I’m not going to forget about you, brother. All right? You just got to hang in there.
Qadeer thanked Matt for all his efforts but had more startling news.
Qadeer: Sometimes now I go outside for work. I have been hiding for too long at home. There is no income, sir. Day by day my economic situation is going down and down. For that reason I had to go outside and start working as a taxi driver. You don’t know, but the money I saved before, I have spent. Everything is very expensive, so I cannot just hide at home anymore. We will see what will happen. I cannot stay at home because there is no income. I have a big family. I have three daughters. They need food and many things. So I go out, driving a taxi and I make, like, five or eight dollars a day. I do it just to bring a few things home, some food. I need it now. I need to work.
The Skype connection was lost again, and Matt and Janis digested what Qadeer had just told them.
Matt: These people are going to get killed. And for people who make policy, it’s an abstract concept, these are people they’ve never met before. But for a guy like me who was on the front lines, it’s like these are my brothers that I’m thinking about.
Janis: The situation is getting worse. I’m talking to many people. Many people, they are sending me emails and messages to help them. They are cases just like Qadeer’s where there is no cooperation. If the situation changes just a little bit, these people are the first targets. And the ones who got released from the jail? They’re not like the thousands of other Taliban, they are the commanders, the ones making decisions, big commanders ordering the other Taliban to go attack and kill people.
Matt: They remember, and they’re going to exact their revenge. They told you just that. The first people they are going to kill are those who collaborated with the Americans.
And now Qadeer is not just visible, he’s remarkably visible. It’d be one thing if, you know, he’d be working in a back room somewhere stocking shelves or working as a day laborer. But he is driving around picking people up.
Janis: Yeah, he’s an easy target for the Taliban. But he has to do something because he just got a baby. The kids need clothes. They need food. It’s winter, they need boots.
I asked Matt and Janis if they were nervous every time they switched on their computers or checked Facebook. They both said they were.
Janis: I’m getting a lot of messages, even from the Americans who are here now, because we were in the news. They say, “I need Matt’s number, I need to talk to him to help my interpreter because he’s stuck in Afghanistan.” And interpreters are sending me messages and emails: “Please Janis, help us, talk to Matt, can you talk to the press or the media because we are stuck in Afghanistan?”
After we were on Voice of America [the channel in Afghanistan], people said I was a CIA agent. They said I saved an American life and killed my own countrymen. So this has a very bad image in Afghanistan. They think I killed some civilian and I saved an American life. They didn’t mention that I killed Taliban and I saved my brother’s life, my friend’s life. And that message, even in our area, even in our village, everyone told my family, my father-in-law, and my in-laws’ family that I killed some Afghans and saved American lives. So normal people, not the Taliban, people in my village, they think I am a special person for the United States government. They think that I was working as a spy for the CIA. Every day I am getting messages accusing me of this.
Matt: And we get two or three a day asking for help. Two or three a day from Afghans I’ve never met before. They ask Janis, “Do you know this person?” And I get two or three a day from American soldiers. They find me on Twitter or Facebook. They start looking into this problem. They Google “SIV” and my name comes up. The coverage comes up. They say, “You seem to have more success than anybody else, how do I do this?” And I usually spend like the next hour with them on the phone, walking them through all the steps that they have to take.
I asked what impact it had on veterans when they couldn’t get their interpreters out. Matt sighed.
Matt: I mean, I can only imagine if it was the way it was with me and Janis. Sleepless nights just totally drumming up all this stuff that you have to work through and just constantly… I mean… PTSD happens, you end up having panic attacks. I remember the night when they took away his visa, I couldn’t sleep for two days and was just an emotional wreck, and I remember calling my mom in tears and I said, “Mom,” I said, “I’ve killed my best friend.” It was catch 22. To get the State Department to do the right thing, I had to go to the press and sort of embarrass them into action, but by doing that I exposed the fact that he got his visa and now he’s going to die and it’s my fault. I didn’t know how I was supposed to live with this. I still can’t even put it into words. You can see it freaks me out just thinking about what would happen to him.
We all think that the State Department has absolutely no idea what’s going on, on the ground, they don’t understand these men and women and none of us can understand how they can possibly claim that these people don’t deserve a place here, after what they’ve done for us. I’ve yet to encounter an American veteran who was like, “You know, my translator was kind of useless.”
I think there’s a prevailing attitude at the State Department. I think it drives every single decision that these people are making. The average length of tour for, like, a consulate affairs officer is six months; they don’t get outside the massively guarded embassy compound in Kabul, they’re having salsa nights, they’ve got fast food. They’re not living and working with these people on a daily basis, and they’re told that they’re the front line of defense. They’re the first check to make sure that somebody doesn’t get into this country that doesn’t belong here, and so their attitude is, all of these people are potentially the next Bin Laden and they’re looking for a reason to say no.
If you’re the State Department, consulate affairs guy, and you’ve got Qadeer’s visa packet, this is a person you’ve never met, who you’ll never see again, and you’ll likely never hear what happened to him. It’s out of sight, out of mind. If for some reason you accidentally said yes when you should have said no, you’re going to be in front of Congress, and you’re going to be yelled at or fired… so it’s easier to say no.
They need to realize that this monolithic idea that all Afghans are the enemy is not true, it’s absurd. It’s the exact opposite. That’s why the effort that I’m putting in is the exact same effort I would put in for any American. The only difference is that there are times that I feel like I’m fighting this all by myself. If this were an American, I’d have every available means. I wouldn’t be leading this, it’d be someone much more senior. I’m doing this as a private citizen. I mean that’s what’s terrifying.
Janis showed me another message that had just arrived. Another American veteran was asking for their help.
Matt: This is why we ended up starting a nonprofit. We call it No One Left Behind because that’s our mission, that’s our goal. We don’t want to leave a single person behind. We were getting inundated with so many requests that we had to start an organization to formally help these men and women and establish a process and get it going.
I mean, to me personally, the Army has certain values, right? The very first one is loyalty. How are we remaining loyal to those who have been loyal to us if we’re not fulfilling our promise? This was an inherent promise we made to these men and women to do right by them. And as an officer of this country, as someone who still wears a uniform, I will do anything I can to fulfill that promise and I’ll gladly go back into combat if it’s necessary. But if you’re going to ask me to fight alongside people who support us and become our allies, people like Janis and Qadeer, and if you’re telling me that I can say to them, “Hey, because of your service and support, we’re going to bring you to America if necessary,” then allow me to fulfill that promise. Because if you don’t, then my word is worthless and why should anybody ever trust me again?
I’ve been to Afghanistan 12 times since 2007, when it had become clear that the Taliban were far from defeated. During those early trips, there were plenty of people who believed the intervention could succeed. But over the last few years, and especially after the withdrawal began, I’ve failed to find anyone who still believes that any of our stated goals — defeating the Taliban; training the Afghan security forces; leaving a lawful, competent, and representative government in Kabul; or even removing al Qaeda — will be achieved. What we are actually leaving behind is a spectacularly corrupt government whose security forces often prey on the population they are supposed to be protecting. It is no longer a surprise to be told by Afghan villagers that for security and justice, they prefer to live under the Taliban, who are in control of more territory now than they have been since losing power in 2001.
Considering this is the situation, it feels like a sick joke to demand that interpreters like Qadeer and Janis must prove that they face a serious and ongoing threat. I’d love to hear someone from the State Department explain how any single interpreter could not now be facing a serious and ongoing threat. I asked how it felt to be asked to prove something that seemed so obvious.
Matt: It totally pissed me off. My word isn’t good enough? He’s got to provide evidence? I’m an officer of this country. I have a top-secret security clearance. You’re telling me my word isn’t good enough, my report, and my eyewitness account aren’t good enough?
You pay me to be an intelligence officer of this country. My whole job was to make sure that these aren’t bad people, that they should be working with us. For me, it’d be like if I came home and somebody says, “Well, prove that you got blown up.” Are you kidding me? Do you want to see the x-rays of my lungs and all the scar tissue from the massive fireball that I breathed in? Do you want to see, basically, the fact that I have no cartilage in my right knee anymore? Or the nightmares I have every night? Do you want to talk to my ex-wife about how I used to wake up screaming for two years every single night? I mean that would piss me the fuck off. That’s what they’re doing to these people and these are combat veterans. You’re telling them that they actually have something to prove when they could easily be the next person that the Taliban are going to catch and kill?
And then after you make them prove that, you tell them, “Thank you very much, we’re not going to tell you whether or not we believe you this time, we’ll get back to you.” I mean, we wouldn’t stand for this in this country, and I don’t think any other country would stand for this treatment, so why are we asking our friends to?
Janis: When the Americans first came to Afghanistan, they showed me a video of President Bush. He said, “We will fight until we eradicate or destroy al Qaeda from Afghanistan.” And everyone was hoping that, yes, this will happen and we will get rid of bad people. I thought I would work for America for maybe months or even years. After that, the US will leave and Afghanistan will be a peaceful country. We can join the government and we can have a good life. But we saw this fight for almost 13 years and still the situation is getting worse. More people are dying every day. And now in this bad situation, the Americans say they are withdrawing. If it happens, I guarantee the Taliban will attack and they will get Afghanistan in a couple of days.
Matt: A couple of days after that firefight, we were all coming to terms with what we’d just gone through. I sat Janis down and I wanted to know everything about him. I wanted to understand who he was, where he was coming from, and why he did this. And never once did he say, “I’m doing it to come to America.” I asked him, “Why are you fighting for us?” And he said, “Because I love my country and I hate the Taliban, and this is my country and they’ve got to go.”
We had a vision of what we’d achieve in Afghanistan. If that’s not going to be the result, and if the interpreters are going to end up being killed because they worked with us to try to achieve that vision, they should be coming home with us as well. If it’s all going to fall apart after we go, which it’s looking like it’s going to, then we need to do everything we possibly can to save them. I said it time and time again: Janis and Qadeer were members of my unit. They are still working. They are still deployed, still at war. As an officer, as their officer, it’s my job to bring them back home.
While we were driving into DC after lunch, Matt and Janis got a phone call. Another interpreter, called Ajmal, had just arrived in DC. He’d been granted a visa, and had to wait for seats on an official International Organization of Migration (IMO) flight. But the Taliban heard he had been approved and sent him night letters (letters left on his doorstep during the night) promising they would not let him leave the country alive. He scraped together what money he could and bought tickets on the next flight out, to Dubai and then to DC. He had arrived with his wife but they had nowhere to stay and just a few dollars for food. He sent messages to everyone he knew and an American soldier offered his dining room floor as a temporary home. Some other interpreters heard about him, and they were outside his building by the time we arrived.
Ajmal: I have been here six days now. We were alone on the streets, now we are sleeping on an air mattress.
When I received my visa, I was going to wait to catch the arranged flight. But then I received the night letter and seven or eight threatening calls and I thought with myself, If I'm gonna wait for the approved flight, I’ll be dead. I barely had any money so I borrowed money, sold my car, and bought my own tickets. I got in touch with my previous supervisor from the US Navy who picked us up from the airport and brought us here, to his dining room.
I sent the State Department an email the next morning explaining my situation. I told them that we have no place to live and no money at all. I didn’t receive any response, only an auto reply. We also went to the Office of Refugees and Resettlement. I asked for the benefits we were promised and a Social Security number. The only thing they gave us was $313 in food stamps and $300 in cash. And I can't continue my life with this money. So I became very serious and sent another email stating, "Well, sir, I would have been better off dying in Afghanistan because there's no — I mean, housing or nothing more here.”
The trouble is that when they arrange your flight, it can take four or five months. So because of the night letters I couldn’t wait. Once I borrowed the money, I didn't even tell my relatives that I was coming here because I can't trust them. So we came directly here and we thank my previous supervisor for our lives, because he gave us a temporary place to live in order to find work. I need to work if there are no benefits for me. I cannot rent a place with $300. But I cannot stay in this man’s dining room. He is eating here so it means I am causing a disturbance for him. I will be an intruder if I'm going to spend more nights here.
One of the other interpreters told him that he could move in with him, saying, “Hey, brother, you are welcome. My house is your house.” Matt promised they would raise some money for them and promised he would “fight my ass off to get your benefits back.”
Ajmal had to pay for his medical certificates twice because the first one had expired. Added to the $2,600 he had to spend on getting the first flight out of Afghanistan, he was now broke.
Ajmal said that all he needed was a mattress and a blanket, which Matt and the interpreters promised they could get. Matt was ashamed to see someone he held in such high regard humiliated like this.
Matt: You shouldn't have to come here like this, it's wrong, and I'm really sorry. But you're here now and we're gonna take care of you. All right? You took care of us when we were in your country so I'm more than happy to return the favor, brother. All right?
Ajmal: Thank you sir.
Matt: You're not alone, okay? You got brothers now who are gonna take care of you. You're part of our family now. I'm not saying it's gonna be easy but we'll take this one day at a time and at least we can get you things. You're here now. You're safe. That's the best part. You should have been brought over on a nice plane, sat down and told, “This is your house and welcome to America, thank you for serving our country.” But what's good is that you're here now and you're safe and that's the most important thing. You're safe, and you and your wife are alive and you're good now. And you have a bunch of new friends.
Ajmal thanked him again, and was struggling not to weep. He’d obviously been keeping himself together for days as he tried to navigate a way out of this crisis for himself and his wife, who was ill. Now that the worst of his problems might be over, he looked as if he was about to collapse. On the verge of sobbing, he told the rest of his story.
Ajmal: I had no money. Zero. So my family, my friends, they borrowed some money and I borrowed it from them. And now they're asking for the money back, but I don't have enough to send them. My father and my mother, they are about to sell their own house and be homeless in order to pay my money. These are the problems we have and we would like to ask the US government to find a solution for these kinds of problems.
We worked in Afghanistan. We were helping our army and our country, but we were also helping the American Army, standing side by side with the Americans.
I've been more than 10 times, 20 times, 50 times under attack. Rocket attack, RPG attack, different attacks. We were all working together, me and thousands and thousands of other interpreters. We could be hunted at any time.
He had even heard about Janis, and the struggle he had to get out.
Ajmal: Believe me, that day that I heard that your visa was revoked, I started to cry. I swear that I cried when I heard that. You faced a very bad situation in Afghanistan. I spoke with my family about it and said that I was really, really sorry for this guy whose life was in danger. I read all the stories that were written about you and tears came in my eyes.
Ajmal looked at his phone and read a message that startled him. He had received an email from the State Department, a reply to his message about having to flee as soon as possible. He read it out loud to us.
"Thank you for confirming that you have arrived in the United States. In order to qualify for Department of State resettlement benefits, SIV recipients must arrive to the US on an IOM arranged flight. As you arrived to the US on your own flight, you are no longer eligible for the Department of State Resettlement benefits. As such your case for the Department of State benefits AF987844 has been closed.”
"The Interpreters, Part 4: Epilogue" will be posted to VICE News on Thursday.
Follow Ben Anderson on Twitter: @BenJohnAnderson