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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.



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Hassan hurried to the village center on his brother’s motorcycle to find a Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT, from the U.S. military conducting an assessment on the land. PRTs were tasked with “reconstructing the area and building more infrastructure.”

“I saw the convoy, and I offered them food. I’m a village guy; I had to,” Hassan said, chuckling. “Are you guys hungry?” he asked the Americans, whom he remembers as having friendly faces and broad shoulders. “Food? Tea?” While the PRT continued with its work, Hassan tagged along, wearing a friendly smile and speaking in bits of broken English. “I helped them navigate by showing them the road and how to get back,” he recalled.

Dunleavy described Hassan as a “good-looking” young man who stood out. “You can just tell right away that Hassan has this certain something about him that just draws people to him,” Dunleavy said. Hassan’s presence left a positive impression on Dunleavy, whom Hassan still calls “boss.”

Hassan remembered hearing, “You want a job? Call this number.” He laughed. “All I understood was the word ‘job,’ but when I saw the number, I knew what to do.”

Dunleavy was also instrumental in helping Hassan immigrate. He said he had no reservations about providing Hassan a positive letter of recommendation as a thank you for his service. “The risks that some [translators] take is almost at the same level as soldiers that go in combat,” Dunleavy said.

But Duadzai’s repeated attempts of reaching his supervisor to request a letter of recommendation were unsuccessful, for a perversely trivial reason. “He only remembered the person’s first name,” Shinwani explained. “It was Jason, but there are a million of those.”

Shinwani tried relentlessly to connect Duadzai with his former convoy, but to no avail. He also remembered Duadzai complaining that all of his emails would bounce back, as the personnel with whom he worked withdrew and left the country.

Duadzai’s visa application was denied. Desperate, he appealed while working at the U.S. Embassy. One of his final messages to Shinwani read, “We are not safe in Afghanistan.”

Despite the limited number of visas handed out since the SIV program’s inception, Congress continued to authorize more each year mainly through the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. A total of 3,500 were authorized for 2018 alone, but only 2,410 were actually issued.

“So many people are trying to apply that [the government] cannot keep up with demand,” said Nasiri, the Pleasanton attorney. Perhaps that’s why, as 2017 came to a close, the U.S. embassy in Kabul quietly declined to interview applicants for the visa, prompting longer wait times and more declines — despite a four-year reauthorization of the Afghan SIV program. Then, budgetary restrictions forced the NDAA for the fiscal year of 2019 to pass without more Afghan SIVs even though the Trump administration initially submitted to Congress a request for 4,000 visas.

In response, NOLB strengthened its lobbying efforts dramatically. “We went to Congress many times,” Shinwani said. “There are a couple of people in Congress and senators who are big supporters of the SIV program.” The late-Sen. John McCain, he mentioned, was the principal champion of the SIV program. But now, he said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., has helped NOLB in preventing the SIV program from sunsetting.

Shaheen collaborated with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to send a letter to the Senate Committee on Appropriations, asking for the promised 4,000 Afghan SIVs to be approved. “Afghan civilians continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Americans in the battlefield at tremendous risk to the safety and welfare of their families,” Shaheen said in a press release. “Congress has an obligation to do its part to uphold our nation’s promise to allow these brave Afghans and their families to find refuge in the United States.”

As the only person from his village who was offered a job with the U.S. military, Hassan was excited — but he said he was convinced it was “just a trial.” With no hint of a plot or narrative, Hassan set out for what he believed would be a weeklong stint at a base in Ghazni — but the days did not just saunter past; they rushed by at rapid pace until one week became eight years, and the base became his new home.

“I will always remember the first day,” Hassan said. “Boss came and picked me up from my village.”

A four-hour drive on unpaved roads finally ended at the “big base,” where Dunleavy gave Hassan a tour. He began working first at the dining facility of the base, where he mastered his English by interacting with soldiers and supplementing his learning with chapters from Chicken Soup for the Soul and episodes of Friends. A year later, he became a Pashto and Dari translator and cultural specialist who embarked on more missions than he can remember — more than 1,000, he said. “As a translator and specialist, I would understand the culture dynamic and advise the commander of the brigade how to approach certain areas during missions,” he explained. 

The missions varied in length, some lasting several hours and others spanning the course of weeks. Sometimes, the convoy would be tasked with assessing clinics in villages to gauge what medication and supplies were needed; other times they would work to establish school contracts. One thing remained constant: Each mission was life-threatening. There was stillness in the air as Hassan remembered death’s authority during one specific mission. “Sometimes we didn’t come back as a team. The nature of the operation is like that.”

Hassan explained that troops can have a successful mission only to be hit by a roadside bomb on the way back to the base — like the time he lived through an explosion that took a fellow translator’s life, along with three U.S. soldiers.


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