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For relocated Afghan translators, U.S. life offers new struggles

May 12, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Afghan interpreters who spent more than a year working for U.S. forces were allowed to apply for U.S. visas, but many endured years of bureaucratic limbo and personal risk before being able to leave. As difficult as that process was, the struggle to resettle in the U.S. might be even harder. Special correspondent Sean Carberry reports on the challenges they face and how one man is trying to help.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: the story of those who helped America in war, but struggled when given the chance for a life here.

Afghans who served as military interpreters qualify for a special visa program. But, for years, getting that visa was a long and complicated process. That left many applicants in limbo, forced to hide from the Taliban while waiting for approval.

Congress streamlined that process in 2013, and more than 15,000 Afghans and their families came to the U.S. with green cards.

But, as special correspondent Sean Carberry reports, once they arrived, they faced a whole new set of hurdles.

SEAN CARBERRY, Special Correspondent: This is 26-year old Aminullah Sayed. The Kabul native spent seven years accompanying U.S. forces into battle. He worked as an interpreter in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan. It took him years to navigate the convoluted visa process. He and his wife and son finally arrived in the U.S. in late February.

Since then, Sayed has spent much of his time walking around his new home of Woodbridge, Virginia, looking for a job. He looks for places like this moving company that have “help wanted” signs out front.

He has to walk because he doesn’t have a car. Like most Afghan interpreters when they arrive, he was provided an apartment that is paid for, for three months. He also has food stamps and Medicaid, but he has to find a job quickly before his rental assistance runs out.

Sayed spends about 20 minutes inside filling out a job application to be a moving assistant.

AMINULLAH SAYED, Former U.S. Military Interpreter: I hope they call me, because I have been filling out many applications to the stores like Wal-Mart, their applications, Dollar Tree, General Dollar, other stores when I see hiring sign posted there.

SEAN CARBERRY: Sayed has received job search training through Catholic Charities, one of nine agencies contracted by the U.S. government to provide assistance to refugees.

Resettlement organizations are required to find initial housing for refugees. They assist people like Sayed with signing up for benefits and finding a job. About 70 percent of Afghan interpreters come to the U.S. with the assistance of a refugee agency. They are provided the same benefits as refugees fleeing violence in Syria or South Sudan.

Sayed is approaching the end of his period of rental assistance and will soon have to support himself.

AMINULLAH SAYED: I’m really depressed because of that, what will happen. My kids will be on the street, so I don’t want them to have that, to be on the street. If I find a job now, it’s OK. If I don’t, then that’s the question. Who will support, and who will help?

SEAN CARBERRY: One person trying to help is U.S. Army Reserve Captain Matt Zeller. He’s the founder of No One Left Behind. It’s a nonprofit that provides assistance to interpreters in the D.C., area.

CAPT. MATT ZELLER, No One Left Behind: These guys are veterans. They did tours of combat, just like we did.

SEAN CARBERRY: This is a personal cause for Zeller. While on a mission in Afghanistan, his interpreter picked up a gun and killed two Taliban who were ambushing their position.

CAPT. MATT ZELLER: He literally saved my life. To me, he’s — you know, he’s an American veteran, and we ought to be taking care of folks like we do our other fellow veterans.

SEAN CARBERRY: Zeller helped get his former interpreter, Janis Shinwari, to the U.S. a year-and-a-half ago. Now Shinwari and other Afghan volunteers spend their weekends visiting thrift shops like Pender Methodist in Chantilly, Virginia.

MAN: Couches and dining tables and some dishes.

MAN: OK.

SEAN CARBERRY: The shop donates furniture and kitchen supplies that Zeller and his team deliver to newly arrived interpreters.

Zeller says the first person No One Left Behind helped was an interpreter named Ajmal. He once served as translator to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

CAPT. MATT ZELLER, U.S. Army: When we found Ajmal, he was living homeless on the streets of San Francisco with his wife, his 4-year-old son, and his 2-year-old daughter. We flew them out to Maryland so that he could be closer to people that he knew, helped him find an apartment, furnished that home, helped him get a job, bought him a car, and it sort of snowballed from there.

SEAN CARBERRY: More than a year after arriving in the U.S., Ajmal is now doing well and volunteers for No One Left Behind. Zeller says he shouldn’t have to do this work. He argues the U.S. government and relief agencies should be providing more of a safety net.

Interpreters we spoke with all said they are eager to work and provide for their families, but they wish they had a few more months of assistance to find work and get on their feet here.

Larry Bartlett is director of refugee assistance programs at the State Department. He acknowledges that it’s a tough transition for Afghans.

LAWRENCE BARTLETT, U.S. State Department: It’s a program that allows people to arrive, but then expects them to become self-sufficient economically.

SEAN CARBERRY: And do so quickly. With the surge in processing of visas for Afghans, and the greater numbers of refugees fleeing violence around the world, resources are stretched.

LAWRENCE BARTLETT: There’s a bit of a tension, because the federal funding for this program is limited, and the needs of the population, as the needs of refugees who are recently resettled here, are perhaps greater than the federal funding can allow.

SEAN CARBERRY: Bartlett says there is no talk of extending additional benefits to Afghan interpreters, though, as hard as it is initially, many Afghans are succeeding in the U.S., such as Shinwari, Zeller’s former interpreter. He struggled initially, but he says he happy with his life in America.

JANIS SHINWARI, Former U.S. Military Interpreter: I like it, nice place. And the important thing, we — we are secure. We don’t have to be live under fear, like we did in Afghanistan. We have fun because we help people from Afghanistan and Iraq.

SEAN CARBERRY: Today, they are delivering furniture to a newly arrived family in Riverdale, Maryland. This is where Ajmal lives, along with a number of other Afghan families. He says it’s not a good place to live.

SEAN CARBERRY: So, do you feel safe living here?

AJMAL FAQIRI, Former U.S. Military Interpreter: No. We left Afghanistan because we thought we were going to safe. And if a person comes to your apartment, and the drug dealers keep bothering you, is it safe?  I’m not calling it safe.

SEAN CARBERRY: Apartments have water leaks, roaches, mice, and mold, often in bedrooms that families share with their kids. Ajmal and others say they weren’t expecting luxury when they arrived, but they often left nicer homes in Afghanistan.

AJMAL FAQIRI: I have noticed about almost 10 families, they left back this country.

SEAN CARBERRY: They went back to Afghanistan?

AJMAL FAQIRI: Yes, they went back to Afghanistan, approximately 10 families.

SEAN CARBERRY: Ajmal says there was one man who left when the rent support ended and he hadn’t found a job. He told Ajmal he’d rather die in Afghanistan than suffer here. At least the grave is paid for in Afghanistan, he said.

Still, despite the hardships that many Afghans face here, there are thousands more seeking visas in hopes of a better life in America.

For the PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C., I’m Sean Carberry.

GWEN IFILL: Aminullah Sayed, the Afghan translator we profiled at the beginning of that story, found a job with a moving company. He makes more than the Virginia minimum wage, but not enough to cover his family’s rent. So he’s looking for a second job and a cheaper apartment.

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