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Military interpreters restart their lives in upstate, others still at risk

On one of the year’s first perfect spring days, Aziz trolls the Wegmans supermarket parking lot for stray shopping carts. Despite sometimes erratic weather, he doesn’t mind logging long hours walking the asphalt. It’s nothing compared to the hiking he used to do in his native Afghanistan. Compared to the mountainous terrain, Aziz calls being on his feet all day in the flat parking lot, “a picnic.” 

Credit photo credit Arleen Thaler
Aziz collecting shopping carts at Wegmans

Aziz worked as an interpreter with the U.S. military in Afghanistan for a decade. He joined the American soldiers on missions, translating for US, Afghan and NATO forces and high-ranking generals like Brigadier General Gunter Katz.

Aziz started his military career in 2004, a time when he says Afghanistan was, “totally destroyed.”

“I wanted to just help the country, help the people, help the international community to rebuild Afghanistan and that was the point that I started working as an interpreter,” he says.

The work was good, but risky.

Intrepeters And Families Remain At Risk

“Normally in Afghanistan when you’re working for the international forces, nobody will like you,” Aziz says. This doesn’t just mean the Taliban he explains, but anyone that he came in contact with.

Aziz started getting threat letters and messages passed along from the Taliban. Then the Taliban commander sent a direct message: “You can’t come back to your village,” Aziz remembers being told. “Because you’ve been working for the Americans or NATO forces, you don’t have any control over your property anymore. If we catch you in the city, you’ll be killed.”

Credit photo provided
Aziz (right) with German, Canadian and Afghan military personnel in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2012

The Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV program, first began in 2008 when it became clear the lives of Iraqi interpreters and military support staff were at serious risk because of their work with the U.S. military. The program expanded to include Afghans a year later.

Wait Times Exceed Legal Requirements Say Advocates

But advocates say the program has some serious flaws, one of which is being addressed through a lawsuit against the U.S. government. Nine Iraqi plaintiffs have filed the suit with the help of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project or IRAP. Mark Doss, a lawyer with IRAP, says the government hasn’t prioritized these cases the way they promised to. For the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the process is taking an average of four years and three months.

“Congress mandated in 2013 the process should take nine months. So we are seeing this take years and years over what is required by Congress,” Doss says.

The lawsuit isn’t trying to get the visas for the interpreters; it’s just asking that they get answers on their cases in a reasonable timeframe. As it stands, the cases are held up in what’s called “administrative processing” - code for security checks. Doss says these shouldn’t take nearly so long.

“They can check their case status online and it says the same thing, administrative processing. So they never get any information other than that,” he says.  

During this waiting time, applicants are stuck. Some already left jobs and sold homes; others are in hiding or fled the country. Families even wait to have children because an additional family member might mess up the application. Aziz applied for his visa in 2011 and didn’t get it until 2014.

First Name Unknown - FNU

On top of the struggle of just getting the visa, a Kafka-esque situation has left Aziz one of many SIV holders who lost their last names in the process. It’s complicated, but basically because of different conventions across international governing bodies, some of Aziz’s immigration documents correctly listed his full name, while others left him with a Madonna-like one-name existence. When his paperwork was processed in the US, Aziz, his wife, and their three kids were all given the same legal first name: the acronym FNU, for first name unknown. Their real first names shifted to become their last.

Credit photo credit Danielle Preiss
Aziz’s Afghan passport reads Azizullah, son of Mohammad Naim, with no last name listed.

This presents a problem for just about every government agency you can imagine. With just one name on their Social Security cards, Aziz’s family nearly had their benefits cut off soon after resettling. Filing taxes with a single name have proved similarly challenging.

“When I submitted all the forms to the IRS I received an answer that your social security card is invalid because you don’t have a last name,” Aziz explains.

Despite the troubles with Aziz’s name, he’s actually faring pretty well. With his good English and his steady job at Wegmans, Aziz is adjusting to his new life in Rochester. For other SIV holders, the transition is harder.

Barbara Gawinski, supervises therapists at the University of Rochester’s Highland Family Medicine who treat SIV holders. Her team often sees all the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress syndrome in these patients:  

“Any person coming from a war country has that. Soldiers are at it all the time so have same trauma and anxiety,” Gawinski says. But because SIV holders are classified as refugees, not as veterans, they’re not able to access the targeted services and therapies regular vets get from the VA.

“Asking for help is really really humiliating. So when someone finally gets to the place where they’re ready to ask for help and they feel like there’s no help is available, it’s even more demoralizing that they put their neck out, asked for help, and then it’s not available,” says Gawinski.

Organization Helps Former Intrepreters

Retired Army Captain Matt Zeller, founded No One Left Behind, an organization that helps former interpreters and other SIV holders after experiencing his own interpreter’s saga escaping Afghanistan. At a recent meeting he told the story of one family to his Rochester chapter volunteers.

An Afghan doctor who had been resettled in Washington, DC with his wife and two kids had emailed Zeller. The family had fallen through the cracks during resettlement and made the gut-wrenching decision to go back to Afghanistan.

Within three weeks upon arrival, they were being hunted by the Taliban, Zeller tells the volunteers. They received a letter saying, ‘We know you’ve returned, we’re coming to kill you.’ The former translator and physician emailed Zeller to ask if he could help his family get back to the U.S. Zeller said he’d do anything he could, but never heard back. Zeller later discovered the family had been killed.

For Zeller this isn’t just a humanitarian issue, it’s a national security issue.

“If we fail to honor our commitment to these fine folk, either by not giving them their visas or by not properly taking care of them and assimilating them when they arrive here to the point that they feel the need to get back only to be killed, this is not going to be the last war that our country fights,” he says.

The organization is helping another Afghan doctor now. Javed, who asked that his last name not be used for security reasons, resettled in Rochester last year. He also considered returning to Afghanistan his first five months in the US. Things are a lot better now, but besides the volunteers from No One Left Behind, he doesn’t have anyone he calls a friend yet.

“I miss my family, my father and mother, and I miss people in general,” Javed says. “It takes time to have friends, it takes years.”

Like most SIV holders, Javed has family back home who are still very much at risk. Afghanistan’s collectivist culture means families don’t just share property and group goals; if one member of the family is in danger, everyone shares that too. Javed’s brothers were blacklisted along with him because of his military work.

While the Iraqi SIV program has some allowances to bring extended family, the Afghan program doesn’t. Javed could only bring his wife and two daughters with him. He talks to his parents all the time on Skype, when they fill him in on what’s happening back home.

“Every time there is an explosion, every time there is something going on, we talk about it for several hours,” he says.

Barbara Gawinski, the therapist, says this connectivity can make it harder to recover. In most trauma work, the therapist comes in once the trauma has ended, she explains. But with this population, it’s still going on.

Homeland Security Acknowledges Error

For Aziz, the Helping Hand at Wegmans, a little piece of good news arrived. Aziz figured his family would just have to learn to live with being FNU (first name unknown) until they can apply for citizenship in five years and change their names. Changing them all before that point would cost about $2000, an amount he can’t picture saving anytime soon.

But the Department of Homeland Security recently approved a process to acknowledge the mistake was made by the government and waive the change fee.

Besides making it easier to file taxes, restoring their names will give Aziz’s family back a little bit of the identity they had to leave behind. Aziz is making a point to retain as much of that identity as he can for his kids. Before heading into Wegmans for the afternoon shift, Aziz shepherds his family to Sunday school every week at the Islamic Center of Rochester.

Credit photo credit Danielle Preiss
Aziz’s daughter, Dewah (right), studies with a friend at the Islamic Center of Rochester

On the Sunday I interview him, the kids silently scurry around the house prepping bookbags and jackets before Aziz’s wife secures sparky headscarves on the two girls. Aziz waits in the parking lot while she brings the kids in. There are just too many bad memories from the war that involve mosques he explains. But it’s important that his kids go, both to stay connected to their culture and to step forward into their new lives.

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