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Afghan Translator Finds Refuge, but Few Benefits in U.S.

Safi Manzoor, 28, was born in Parwan, a farming town north of Kabul near Bagram Air Field. His family moved to Kabul in 1986, where his father — a doctor — worked in a hospital during the civil war.

“We didn’t have enough money to leave the country,” said Manzoor. “We stayed in Kabul [while] mujahedeen parties were shooting rockets at each other and tribal parties were fighting.”

The Taliban allowed English to be taught in schools, but only on a limited basis, so Manzoor and his classmates practiced English in private courses outside the classroom.

When the Taliban fell in late 2001, Manzoor was preparing for medical school. He was young, educated, and spoke English, Dari and Pashto — the perfect candidate for one of the 20 translator spots the U.S. Army was seeking to fill in Kabul in early 2002.

Working as a translator offered up to $900 a month, he said, and like many of the others, he came from a large joint family that welcomed his income.

At the time, “we weren’t thinking or even dreaming of coming to the U.S,” he said.

But as the work became more dangerous and many of the Afghan nationals helping U.S. troops became targets of armed militias who sought to retaliate against anyone cooperating with coalition forces, thoughts turned to escape.

“Since we were working with the U.S. Army, a lot of people knew us,” said Manzoor. The length of his tenure also made him a more recognizable target. “Maybe today they’ll catch me, maybe tomorrow — all the time, being worried about the future, a bomb, an IED (improvised explosive device). Maybe tomorrow it’ll catch me,” he recalled.

In response to the deteriorating situation, the U.S. State Department adjusted its Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Iraqis and Afghans working in cooperation with the U.S. government.

SIVs traditionally had been reserved for long-tenured foreign employees at embassies around the world, said Todd Pierce, a spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

But because of the violent backlash, the State Department decided that Afghan and Iraqi SIV candidates had more in common with refugees — those leaving their countries out of fear for their lives — than with traditional applicants.

“We know that some of these people have been attacked and targeted, and killed during operations. It’s increasingly risky (for them) to remain in Afghanistan, even if they’re moved from one location to another,” said Ashraf Haidari, a political, security and development affairs counselor at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C.

The SIV process can take from six to 12 months. Manzoor applied for his SIV in late 2007 and received it eight months later. He arrived in the United States on Aug. 28, 2008, and settled in Springfield, Va. with the help of a strong network of friends — refugees and previous SIV recipients.

He received a government stipend of $240 per month for six months, a Medicaid card and food stamps but said he still felt that “the ground wasn’t as paved as I thought it would be. I thought we’d come, there’d be some office (for us) to get help. How to get an education, a primary job, the basics.”

Pierce acknowledged that the “benefits are not super enormous,” but explained that there is a coordinated public-private partnership, involving the State Department, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, and nonprofit agencies to help resettle refugees and SIV recipients.

Manzoor, who is unmarried, said he considers his arrival in the United States a mixed blessing. He is avoiding the dangers of being a target of militant violence in Afghanistan, but misses his country. “We cannot compare Afghanistan to the U.S. — home is always home,” he said.

And the current economic problems in the United States have exacerbated the translators’ ability to find steady employment. Manzoor, like other SIV recipients, has continued to work with the Army in staggered, 17-day stints training military personnel and translators around the country. Unfortunately, Manzoor said, the irregular work rotations have made his hope of enrolling in a college impossible so he said he is looking for a more flexible part-time job and generous financial aid package.

The lack of jobs in the United States also has made the prospect of returning to Afghanistan seem more appealing. According to a Jan. 9 article in the Christian Science Monitor, some private contractors are offering up to $225,000 a year to work in Afghanistan — as translators.

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