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Waiting for a U.S. Visa in the Taliban Heartland

The U.S. special immigrant visa program offers a way out for Afghans in danger after working with the Americans. But delays have driven one Afghan interpreter in Kandahar back to the translation work that has already brought him death threats from the Taliban.

Written by Elise Blanchard Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Afghan Border Police personnel keep watch during an ongoing battle between Pakistani and Afghan border forces near the Durand line at Spin Boldak, in southern Kandahar province, on May 5, 2017.AFP/JAVED TANVEER

In March 2017, when he heard the United States special immigrant visa program (SIV) had been temporarily halted, Afghan interpreter Zahir Shah was plunged into despair.

The 31-year-old was born and lives in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. And – having served the U.S. from 2003 to 2012, mainly as a combat interpreter with special forces – he now lives in fear of Taliban violence.

The Islamist hard-liners hunt and kill interpreters who worked alongside their American enemies, often also targeting their families. With the SIV program, which started in 2008, the U.S. government promises a way out for Afghan employees who have provided exemplary service for more than two years.

Shah and his family have received two death threats from the Taliban in the form of “night letters” nailed to the door of the house – and around five years ago his younger brother was killed by insurgents. Forced into hiding, he applied for an SIV four years ago and has waited for an interview for more than two years.

“When I heard that the SIV had stopped, I thought about my little brother and said to myself, ‘Man, you will be killed just like they killed your brother – by the bad guys,’” Shah recalled. “And I thought, ‘You have no safety and you have no future.’”

Shortage of Visas

Congress must renew the SIV program and approve additional visas every year. It allowed 3,000–4,000 visas for each of the past three fiscal years. But anti-immigration hard-liners prevented the approval of a similar number for the 2017 fiscal year – and in the end, Congress added only 1,500 visas.

As a result, the program was halted on March 9, the shortage of visas leaving thousands of applicants stuck in the backlog and in a constant state of uncertainty.

At the time, the U.S. embassy in the Afghan capital Kabul stopped accepting new applications or scheduling interviews for those, like Zahir Shah, who had already started the process and needed an interview to get to the next step.

But last month the Consolidated Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2017 authorized 2,500 SIVs for Afghans who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government as translators, interpreters or to perform sensitive activities, and who had found themselves in danger as a result.

This increase from 1,500 to 2,500 visas was the result of political pressure put on lawmakers by veterans’ groups, NGOs and a few key supporters in Congress.

Shah was overjoyed. He started hearing again of embassy interviews scheduled for other interpreters. Yet he didn’t get any news regarding his own application. “No one knows for sure how long it will take for his or her application process to be completed,” he said.

Back to a Dangerous Profession

Before he heard about the SIV program resuming, when it seemed his visa would never arrive, Shah decided to go back to work for the U.S. forces – the very job that had forced him into hiding.

He felt that being alongside armed Americans would place him at less risk of being found and killed by insurgents than if he took a job alongside Afghans.

And he had to work – he needed the money. While in hiding from the Taliban he could not support his family. “I am a man and a father of five kids,” he said. “I have to work to support my family and provide an education to my kids.”

The translation work available to people like Shah often comes through companies subcontracted by the U.S. government to find interpreters for the military.

In March, Shah took a job with one such contractor. But he resigned when he learned that he would be paid only $450 a month for working every day in Helmand – arguably the most dangerous Afghan province.

Looking for work again, he found a potential job with another contractor offering to pay more than twice as much per month, as a linguist for the U.S. Army. He recently had his final interview with the company and is waiting for a response.

“I’m hoping this will be my last employment in Afghanistan and that I will get my visa soon,” he said. “This is my only hope, so I want to take this job.”

Life on the Run

Shah worries about his wife and children – for whom he regularly has to find a new home. On May 5, shelling from Pakistan almost hit their home in Kandahar province.

To keep his family safer, he stays far from them. He did not meet his youngest daughter until a year after she was born. The family stay at home most of the time. “I worry maybe if I send [them] to school [they] will be kidnapped,” he said.

Shah bears the physical scars of his service. During one of his missions with U.S. Special Forces, in 2005, he was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) while riding in a car with his American colleagues. After weeks in hospital, his neck recovered but not his broken coccyx. He still suffers when walking in the cold and cannot stay seated for more than 10 minutes because of the pain.

His time with the special forces has also left him with mental scars. As a combat interpreter, his work wasn’t limited to interpreting. He carried a weapon and had to use it to defend himself or his American colleagues, spent years on the front line and survived numerous ambushes in Helmand and Kandahar, two Taliban strongholds. “You become a soldier, a full-time soldier on the battlefield,” he explained.

Now he gets nervous when he hears loud noises or angry voices – and often forgets things.

He dreams of the day his family will be safe, although the U.S. seems unreachable. Even though the SIV program has reopened, it is common for interpreters to wait more than four years for a visa. Besides, there are far from enough visas for all applicants.

The State Department issued 2,639 visas between November 2016 and April 2017, but more than 13,000 Afghan applicants remain at some stage of the application process. “As of May 5, 2017, approximately 2,950 SIVs remain (including the 2,500 authorized on May 5),” a State Department official said in an email to Refugees Deeply.

Shah wants to move his family to Washington, D.C., where one of his American supervisors now lives.

Although he intends to work in Washington until his family is settled, he hopes later to rejoin the U.S. military and return to Afghanistan. “I want to take revenge on those guys who killed my brother,” he said.

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