WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN, AFP/GETTY IMAGES
U.S. Army soldiers patrol near Baraki Barak base in Afghanistan’s Logar province on Oct. 11, 2012.
BASSAM HASHEM Military interpreter Bassam Hashem, right, and
Capt. Brian Englund attend an American vs. Iraqi soccer game at Shaab
National Stadium in Baghdad in 2009.
Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who risked everything for U.S.
troops fear for their lives while hanging on to hope for a fresh start
in the USA
Jabeen Bhatti http://rochesterdemocrat.ny.newsmemory.com/
Special for USA TODAY
AMMAN , JORDAN Iraqi interpreter Bassam
Hashem was having lunch with colleagues at the Loyalty Camp in Baghdad,
a U.S. military base, when an Iraqi colonel in the federal police
force turned toward them from the next table.
“ ‘We will get you when the Americans leave,’ he told us,” said
Hashem, 29, noting the colonel was at the camp to receive training.
“And he was laughing. ‘We will get you all,’ ” he said.
Mohammad Janis Shinwari’s warning came scratched on his car. “Your
judgment day is coming,” was the message to Shinwari, 36, who said the
Taliban has been looking to get him for years.
“They know I saved a U.S. intelligence officer’s life and have
killed Taliban,” he said. “They are trying hard to find me – it’s just a
matter of time.”
Two countries, two conflicts and one common fate shared by thousands
of Iraqis and Afghans such as Shinwari and Hashem: Because they worked
with the U.S. military, they are marked men by militants.
The United States has long been aware of the danger such men put
themselves in by helping the Americans. So it created a special visa for
them to come to work and live in the USA once their assignment was up.
Instead of receiving the visas they have been promised, they have become
snared in a bureaucratic tangle that has forced them into hiding while
they wait for approval.
Kirk Johnson of the group List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, said
the U.S. visa system for interpreters is a web of delays in which no
one is held responsible.
The process is designed to reject them or make them wait,” said Johnson, author of To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind . “It is as low a moment as it gets for both the Iraqis and Afghans.”
The U.S. State Department said it understands the threat faced by
local hires that work for the U.S. government in both countries, but
those concerns must be balanced with protecting national security.
“We take these threats, and the concerns of those who work with us,
very seriously, and we are committed to providing them with the benefits
for which they are legally eligible,” State responded in an e-mailed
statement. But “we need to be sure that those who wish to do us harm are
not able to take advantage of the program.”
The State Department insists it has improved wait times for
responses to requests for the special visas. If so, critics say, it is
not good enough.
TIME IS NOT ON THEIR SIDE
Of the 25,000 visas allocated by law to Iraqis who worked for the
U.S. government, fewer than 6,000 have been issued since 2008, according
to Katherine Reisner, national policy director of the Iraqi Refugee
Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City. Of the
8,750 available for Afghans, fewer than 1,200 have been granted.
Thousands of these Iraqi and Afghan hires deal with escalating
violence in their countries while the visa process, when it works, can
take upward of four years.
The program for Iraqis expired Sept. 30 but was granted a 90-day
extension last week and is due to be extended again for a year. The
Afghan program expires next September.
Johnson was among those who lobbied Congress to establish the special
visa programs. When they became law, he said, he was thrilled that
America had recognized an obligation to interpreters.
“I never imagined that five years later, we would be looking at the
expiration of the program with so many unused visas and an even worse
predicament for the Afghans,” he said. “And when you look at the number
of Iraqi cases still left to process, it would take 17 years to dole out
those remaining visas at the rate we have been g oing.”
Some members of Congress have tried to push the issue, sometimes
pressuring State on particular cases, but Congress cannot overrule a
process that is the authority of the State Department.
Hashem knew from the beginning that it would be dangerous to work
with the Americans. But there was little work in Baghdad, and he lacked
connections to get the few jobs available, so he decided to respond to
the pleas from the U.S. military for help from locals.
DEATH STALKS THEM
He was hired as a translator and began working in January 2009. He
worried about becoming a target for the well-armed Shiite militias
that lurked in most Baghdad neighborhoods. He took precautions. He
avoided the five-minute walk to his mother’s house from the camp and
instead took taxis to distant parts of the city in a roundabout journey
home that took three hours but would lose anyone following him.
“The local militias have their eyes on who is going in and out of the
camps, following the Iraqis that work there, kidnapping and killing
some of those people,” he said. Six months after he started the job, an
elderly neighbor who has regular contact with the Shiite militias
warned his mother: “We know your son is working with the Americans —
your son and your family will be killed.”
His family left for Jordan a week later. Hashem stayed behind and
lived at the camp, where he was safe. Until April 2010, when he lost his
job and needed release papers or a transfer order from the military to
work at another unit. He waited for three weeks, hiding at the homes of
friends until he could get out and to Jordan, where he waits for the
visa he applied for in March 2010.
He received a preliminary approval a year later to his delight, but the visa was revoked with no explanation in late 2011.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I thought, they must have made a mistake.”
He blames the arrests in 2011 in Kentucky of two Iraqis granted
refugee status who were caught trying to send weapons to insurgents in
Iraq. As a result, all Iraqi applicants are under deeper scrutiny, he
suspects. Johnson said he has often hectored U.S. officials at State and
Homeland Security about stalled visas and is told the delay is due to
“But the truth is, when we have wanted to help high-priority
refugees in the past, the only time that happens is if the American
president is involved,” he said. “If he doesn’t provide cover, no
bureaucrat is going to stick their neck out or act with any urgency.”
‘HONOR-BOUND’ TO ACT
Some of the interpreters stuck their necks out for Americans, as Matt Zeller can attest.
The former CIA intelligence officer and U.S. Army captain was serving
in Afghanistan in April 2008 when his unit came under attack by a group
of Taliban fighters in Ghazni province.
Zeller said he was pinned down when Shinwari came running up from the
rear, firing his AK-47. Shinwari killed two militants and saved
He said he spends a great deal of time trying to return the favor —
calling members of Congress, State Department officials, the news media,
everyone he can think of to pressure consular officials to get
Shinwari his visa.
“These people haven’t been among these people, living on the local
economy. They haven’t served in combat. They don’t know what it means
when someone saves your life,” he said of State Department officials he
blames for stalling Shinwari’s case. “I am honor-bound to do whatever I
can to save him and his family.”
Shinwari applied for his visa in 2011, but his situation took on a
new urgency after it was announced that his unit would withdraw in
October and the interpreters would lose their jobs. After months of
lobbying and putting together a petition signed by more than 100,000
people, Shinwari was granted permission Sept. 8 to emigrate.
A few days later, the visa was revoked.
The State Department, which said it cannot comment by law on a
specific case, said it has a right to revoke visas, “based on
information that comes to light at any time.”
Zeller said that is “insane.”
“They are hiding behind reasons of national security, but that is an
insult to the entire process. This guy had been signed off by everyone,
CIA, Defense, you name it,” Zeller said.
“Afghans just shake their head and say, ‘You have put a person on the
moon. How is it possible that you can’t process some paperwork,’ ”
said Marine Lt. Col. Ty Edwards, who had been trying to get his
interpreter out since 2009. Edwards was shot in the head and nearly died
in 2008 after an ambush by the Taliban in Kunar province. What saved
him, he said, were the actions of his interpreter, who shielded him
“A lot of interpreters wouldn’t have saved my life, but he did, and
we owe him,” said Edwards, 45, of Tampa, who is partially paralyzed and
in a wheelchair as a result of his wounds.
After intense pressure, Edwards said, his interpreter finally
received a call from the U.S. Embassy in late September to come in for
processing — four years after he applied for the special visa for
interpreters. He got a call last week telling him he had been approved.
Now he waits and hopes nothing goes wrong.
Retired Marine major general Jarvis Lynch, who visits Edwards weekly
and has been helping to push his interpreter’s case, said it is
important that Americans remember the lessons of the past and do the
“This is what we did to the Vietnamese who had cooperated with us and
did what we asked them to — we basically abandoned (many of ) them to
re-education camps and/or death,” said Lynch, who served in Vietnam.
“We shouldn’t have a repeat of that grievous sin.”
Mohammad Janis Shinwari, right, with an Afghan
police officer, served with the U.S. military in Afghanistan for seven
years. He is in hiding from the Taliban as he waits on the U.S.
consulate to decide on his visa status.
Marine Lt. Col. Ty Edwards, right, served with an
Afghan company commander in 2008 at Camp Keating. Edwards says an
Afghan interpreter saved his life in a battle against the Taliban.
JACK GRUBER, USA TODAY
“They are hiding behind reasons of national security, but that is an insult to the entire process.”
Matt Zeller, former CIA officer