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Among the Lucky Ones

An ex-translator for the U.S. military in Afghanistan got a special visa and safely resettled in the East Bay. But for other Afghan translators, there now appears to be no way out.


Hassan understands that he is unable to return to Afghanistan to collect the pieces of his heart that he left behind. - PHOTO BY LANCE YAMAMOTO
  • Photo by Lance Yamamoto
  • Hassan understands that he is unable to return to Afghanistan to collect the pieces of his heart that he left behind.

On Oct. 20
, the sun rose in the Kabul sky two minutes past 6 a.m. An hour later, polling stations opened and voters rushed in to cast their ballots during Afghanistan’s parliamentary election. Qader Duadzai was one such voter. A former combat interpreter for United States Special Forces who later transitioned to the U.S. Embassy, Duadzai was well aware of the risk associated with partaking in the foreign-imposed voting process that militants sought to banish. The threat of a violent rejoinder by Taliban operatives was ever-present in the American ally’s life — but especially on that day.

Then, at some point while voting — perhaps when Duadzai lowered his head to write, or when he closed his eyes to think, or when he stood to cast his ballot — a thundering blast caused the dust to dance below his feet. He fell to the ground. What followed the explosion was chaos: a frenzy of frantic people and harrowing screams, car horns blaring in the distance, and civilians dragging bodies out from under the rubble. Fifteen people lost their lives that day, including Duadzai.

Seven thousand miles away, on a quiet patio overlooking the Oakland/Alameda Estuary, another Afghan former combat interpreter sat in front of me recently, sipping his cold-pressed juice. He introduced himself as Hassan and asked that his last name be withheld for fear of Taliban retaliation against his relatives who remain in Afghanistan.

“There are 15 years of Americans in Afghanistan, and that 15 years is worth 100 years,” in terms of the country’s progress, Hassan said, noting that America helped free Afghanistan from the “prison of Taliban regime” by funding its military and giving the country democracy — the kind that Duadzai sought to take advantage of by voting. “If you compare now to those days, it is way much better,” Hassan said, breathing a heavy sigh. “But there’s so much work left to be done in the country that I left behind.”

Today, it’s hard to imagine that Hassan, a Hayward resident, was once trapped in the depths of rural Afghanistan, amid Taliban rule and U.S. intervention. His neatly pressed slacks and tucked in, wrinkle-free, button-down shirt suggest a different history. But that is the land to which he was born, and it is where resilience was borne in him — even during “the dark days,” which is how he described life in a wounded world with a failed government and an absent military; a place where propaganda substituted for news and education focused only on Sharia.

“When I was a child living in the village, always you could see darkness. There was tribal fighting, political parties fighting, and there was no hope for a future,” Hassan said. “I always wondered what is a good way to leave — you have a short life; you at least want to enjoy your life.”

After growing up under warplanes that sang in dark skies and cradling his uncle as he bled to death from a gunshot wound, Hassan, as a teenager, fled his childhood home in the Qarabagh district of Afghanistan’s southeastern province of Ghazni to hide in between Iran’s mountains. But years later, he returned home and decided to take an unlikely offer from the U.S. military to become a wartime ally: someone who would aid the Americans in successfully and safely completing combat missions.

And then came Congress’ passing of the Omnibus Appropriations Act in March 2009, which gave people like Hassan a “good way” to leave. It allowed Afghan translators and interpreters who had worked with the U.S. military a chance to escape the consequences that came with joining the war by allowing them to apply for Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs.

With an SIV comes a green card that allows holders to live and work permanently in the United States. The program gave those most loyal to the troops the chance to find relief from the looming threat of violence spurred by insurgents who target people who have helped U.S. troops. They are the eyes and the ears for the Americans, Hassan said, which makes them enemies and traitors to other Afghans.

But during the 2009 fiscal year, when 1,500 visas could have been granted to Afghan translators seeking asylum, only three were. The amount of SIVs issued fluctuated over the last decade, but Congress recently decided that during the fiscal year of 2019, it would fund no SIVs and that the program would be temporarily suspended.

For many Afghan translators like Hassan, an SIV is their only way to safety. With long waiting periods and now uncertainty about whether the program will continue, many wartime allies suffer continued chaos and are forced into hiding without the protection of the troops they once risked their lives to support. Many others, like Duadzai, suffer the ultimate consequence.

To qualify for an SIV, Afghan translators must have served at least two years with the U.S. military and provided “faithful and accurate service,” according to the law. The application, which is done entirely from Afghanistan, is a 14-step process that moves through four phases and can cost each applicant thousands of dollars.

It begins when an asylum seeker submits a completed application package to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which then approves or denies each one. If approved, the applicant must file a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services before scheduling an interview at the embassy. Most times, additional interviews are required. The final step mandates that the applicant obtain a medical exam.

Hassan began his application on a whim in 2011 after stumbling upon a notice in the military base. “I didn’t believe it would actually happen,” he said, adding that the medical exams were “extensive” and too costly for people “in a country that had an average income of less than 3 dollars a day.”


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