The translators promised visas but made into refugees by the US Army

Nowhere to go.
Nowhere to go.
Image: EPA/Reuters/Jim Hollander
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Athens, Greece

Working for the US Army in Afghanistan can get you killed, but there’s a silver lining.

The US Army offers its Afghan translators the right to request the Special Immigration Visa (SIV). It’s a program initiated by the US to help certain foreign employees leave their home countries and get on a path to permanent residency in the states—usually for protection from groups like the Taliban. For the last four years, the program has been renewed in the National Defense Authorization Act. This year, however, both the House of Representatives and the Senate failed to vote for the allocation of more visas, which could imperil remaining applicants.

Through that program, Muhammad, a former US Army translator in Afghanistan that I met in the port of Piraeus, Greece, should already be in the US. But like several other forgotten Afghan translators who served the United States, his visa has not come through. After being laid off by his army base in 2014, Muhammad fell into a bureaucratic gap between the United States’ promises to its employees in Afghanistan, and its rocky attempt to withdraw from the country.

Muhammad applied for the SIV in 2014. He was rejected in May 2015. According to the rejection email, his application was ruled invalid on the grounds of “Lack of faithful and valuable service.” Muhammad says that’s because he was fired—but not for lack of faithfulness or value. 2014 was simply the year that the Obama administration started closing army bases, in an early phase of withdrawal from Afghanistan. With fewer bases and fewer troops, fewer translators were needed. Muhammad was downsized by government contractor Mission Essential.

So in January 2016, he decided to make a go of it on his own. He paid $5,500 in smuggling fees to be trafficked from Afghanistan to Iran, from Iran to Turkey, and then from Turkey to Greece. By the time he arrived in the port of Piraeus in March, the 22-year-old’s life had been reduced to the phone in his pocket, the clothes on his back, and a sheaf of papers from his job with the United States Army.

His service and his perfect English together, in theory, put him in a better position than most refugees, but because he is Afghan, he isn’t even eligible for any of the expedited European relocation measures that the Syrian and Iraqi refugees sheltering in the port can claim.

Today he lives in limbo in a tent outside the port’s E1 terminal, where he can watch the Greek ferries come and go, bearing tourists to their summer holidays.

A life-threatening profession

Muhammad says that he was well aware his job translating between US and Afghan forces in the city of Khost came with a death sentence from Taliban insurgents, who oppose the current government and US intervention. He never told anyone, not even his family, what he did for a living.

“I was trying to keep a low profile,” he says, sitting cross-legged next to a ship bollard in the port. He forks a clump of rice from crinkled plastic tray on the ground in front of him. If anyone asked about his work in Afghanistan, he says, he told them he was going to school. These days, he’ll tell anyone who’ll listen.

In an Oct. 2014 episode of Last Week Tonight, US comedian John Oliver highlighted the bureaucratic nightmare that Iraqi and Afghan translators have to deal with in applying for an SIV—and the US system’s inability to take into account individual circumstances and dangers. One Afghan translator interviewed by Oliver had to wait three years and four months between applying for his SIV and arriving in the United States. In that time, the Taliban killed his father and kidnapped his younger brother.

In April 2016, Muhammad met someone who nearly met a similar fate: another former Afghan translator for the US army named Ahmad. Until Jan. this year, 25-year-old Ahmad worked for the US army in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Knowing the dangers of his job, he applied for his SIV in 2014, but the paperwork moved slowly. He went back to work on the base.

In Dec. 2015, Ahmad’s family in Kabul received a letter from the Taliban, which threatened to kill his parents if he kept working for American troops. The next month, in January 2016, Ahmad decided he could not wait for a visa any longer, and decided to flee Afghanistan with his younger brother. They paid smugglers nearly $11,000, and got as far as Piraeus. Like Muhammad, the two brothers now camp in the port. Ahmad has not yet tried to restart his visa application process.

The SIV process has five basic steps, which include several phases of petition and permission before actually applying for the visa. The State Department estimates that this entire process takes 357 business days—but clearly, it can also take much longer.

“The single biggest cause for delay is security checks,” says Betsy Fisher, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), which provides legal assistance to refugees. A puzzling problem, considering that anyone who has worked as a translator on a US army base in a conflict zone, has already undergone extensive security checks, including periodic polygraph tests.

Those who make it to the United States…

With patience, some Afghan translators do make it to the United States. Hamed, who asked to go by his first name only, is a former translator who worked for the US Army in the provinces of Khost and Paktika between 2010 and 2015. He began his SIV application in 2012. His application was approved the next year, but he did not receive his visa until early 2015. Luckily, he and his family survived the wait.

“I told them I want to leave as quick as possible,” Hamed told Quartz about the sense of urgency he felt after multiple threats due to his work for the Army. When he got word one night that he was finally cleared to leave, he says, he was so overcome with joy that he couldn’t sleep. In May 2015, he and his family boarded a plane to the United States.

But their departure has not had an entirely happy ending. In Afghanistan, Hamed’s wife was in her last semester of law school in Afghanistan, but they left before she could finish. Hamed has a degree in information technology, but in Woodbridge, Virginia, where they now reside, he has only been able to find a job in fast food.

…and those who don’t

Today, fewer than 4,000 SIV visas are still available, according to Fisher. Roughly 10,000 SIV applicants are currently waiting for a decision.

With the Balkan route that saw a million refugees work their way into Europe in 2015 effectively shut down, Muhammad and Ahmad’s only options are to wait, apply for asylum in Greece, or go home again. Asylum in Greece is not an option, says Muhammad. “This is not a country which can bear refugees,” he says of its record-high unemployment and the economically paralyzing effects of austerity. “Greeks already have too many problems.”

Despite being stonewalled by US immigration authorities, he carries with him at all times proof of his years of army service: copies of letters of recommendation from two sergeants he worked for, as well as certificates commending his work—just in case they might come in handy.

“I have no idea what to do,” he says.