The Long, Slow Betrayal of America’s Interpreters
Facing death, former military translators are walking to Europe with other refugees
U.S. Marine Aaron Fleming became fast friends with Sami Kazikhani during his deployment to Nimruz province in 2011. Fleming was a member of a team of advisers mentoring Afghan troops, and Kazikhani was one of their interpreters.
The Afghan spoke flawless British-accented English — in no small part due to his time living in London — and speaks as many as five languages with varying degrees of fluency. Fleming shared a bunk with him, and they often talked about their families and their respective travels.
They became so close that when Fleming went on extended patrols and Kazikhani wasn’t with him, the interpreter would call Aaron’s wife Marion with updates on his safety. “He just really gave a shit,” Aaron said of his friend.
Fleming has since left the Corps and now lives in Missouri with his family — safe from bombs and bullets. But for Sami, life has been very different. The Taliban marked him and his fiancé for death.
Now Sami, his wife Yasmin and their infant daughter Roxanne are in bureaucratic limbo after a dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean and a long walk across southeastern Europe.
“He was so good to our family,” Marion said. “It just feels so wrong sitting here while he and his family live like that.”
Today there are hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean and trudging across Europe. Some commentators have called it an “invasion,” and suggested that some could be terrorists or extremists. But a significant portion, like Sami, are trying to flee extremists.
Sami’s service alongside coalition troops has made him uniquely vulnerable to violence in his home country — and he’s far from the only ex-interpreter to take his chances and head for Europe. “There are literally thousands of them,” said Matt Zeller, a U.S. Army veteran who’s become an influential advocate for Iraqi and Afghan translators.
Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Iranian-backed Shia militias and now Islamic State have all been hunting and killing former interpreters and their families. They join millions of refugees from dozens of countries fleeing poverty, oppression, extremism and war.
Many former translators hope to find safety in the countries of the soldiers they served with. But there are obstacles — both physical and bureaucratic — standing between them and safety. Unfortunately, that’s been the case for a long time.
Above — British troops plan an operation with Afghan troops through an interpreter. U.K. Ministry of Defense photo. At top — an Afghan interpreter gazes out a window before a patrol in Ghazni province. U.S. Army photo
Part of the team
When the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, soldiers who spoke the local languages were in short supply. How were these foreign soldiers to interact with the population? The solution was to hire thousands of local interpreters.
These men, and a handful of women, came from many walks of life. But most were reasonably well educated — college students, lawyers and doctors, among other professions.
Many hoped that working with coalition troops would help shape their countries’ futures in a positive way. They shared their new employers’ idealistic hopes that they could build new democratic institutions to replace the dictators and warlords who had ruled before.
The interpreters went out on patrols, translated during meetings with local leaders and participated in dangerous raids. Interpreters knew the nuances of local cultures in ways soldiers simply did not. Soldiers began calling them simply “terps,” and often considered them part of the team.
They shared the same dangers as the coalition troops they accompanied into battle — IEDs, snipers and ambushes. But in many ways, the terps’ jobs were considerably more dangerous. Most went into battle unarmed, though some had special permission to carry firearms. And the danger persisted off the battlefield.
Terrorists and insurgents viewed interpreters as prized targets — in their eyes, the terps were the ultimate traitors. If insurgents found out where they — or their families — lived, they would send death squads after them. There are few reliable numbers for how many died this way.
“If I was abducted someone would come looking for me,” Fleming said. “But when it happens to them, they’re on their own.”
Some coalition countries in Iraq — notably Denmark — went to painstaking efforts to look after the safety of their local personnel. When Danish forces left Iraq in 2007, officers insisted the government look after their interpreters. Though Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was reluctant, he eventually caved to political pressure and the military’s demands.
The Danes offered most of their interpreters and their immediate family members the opportunity to relocate to Denmark and flew them out aboard military aircraft. By 2008, Copenhagen resettled 364 Iraqis.
But the U.S. and British militaries were by far the largest employers of interpreters — and less charitable about resettling them. Both governments required that Iraqis and Afghans requesting safe passage fill out mountains of paperwork before they’d even be considered.
By 2006, the U.S. government authorized a limited number of Special Immigrant Visa’s (SIV) to interpreters with one year of faithful service — but only allowed for 50 per year. The process baffled the soldiers who worked with them.
Frustrated American and British veterans formed a wide array of grassroots organizations to lobby policymakers and raise money for lawyers for their former comrades. These campaigns had various amounts of success, and have struggled for funding and public support.
IRAP, which previously went by the name Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, began with five students at Yale Law School assisting a handful of Iraqi families. Today, the organization works with 1,200 students at 26 law schools and attorneys from more than 60 law firms. It’s expanded to include a wide range of countries and now helps a wide range of people vulnerable to violence and human trafficking.
Though former interpreters are no longer the organization’s exclusive focus, they remain a top priority. IRAP’s current chairmen Walt Cooper is a veteran who served two tours leading Special Forces detachments in Iraq.
For Cooper, helping refugees is a partly a way of coming to terms with his own experiences in Iraq. “I came back with, to say the least, very mixed feelings about the war,” the former Green Beret tells War Is Boring. “I saw a lot of bad things happen to good people.”
The U.S. government’s handling of the Iraqi interpreters haunted him. “These interpreters weren’t just another member of the team, they were a central part of the team,” he said. “I was really cognizant of the extraordinary risks they were taking on their behalf.”
Veterans and former diplomatic staff pressured Congress to do more and by 2007, the “Kennedy Bill” — named for its chief advocate, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy — overhauled the process to allow more slots for U.S. visas. The British government also relented to pressure from veterans’ groups and began admitting a handful of Iraqi interpreters.
But despite these victories, the celebration didn’t last long. The process still isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.
Matt Zeller almost died two weeks into his tour in Afghanistan. It was 2008 and the Taliban caught his team and the Afghan troops they were mentoring in a bloody ambush. Enemy fighters unloaded on them with machine guns and lobbed mortar rounds.
As Zeller realized he was about to fire the last of his M-203 grenades, he began to think that his death was imminent. A mortar round landed nearby, sending him flying into a ditch. As the Taliban closed in, Zeller felt a body slam into the ditch next to him as the sound of AK-47 fire rattled next to his head.
When he regained his bearings he saw an Afghan man dressed in an old U.S. Army style BDU uniform pointing a smoking rifle at two dead Taliban fighters. Zeller, still dazed, uttered the only words he could manage. “I asked ‘who the fuck are you?’”
“I’m Janis, I’m one of your interpreters,” the man replied. It would not be the last time Janis Shinwari saved Zeller’s life.
The two forged a close bond throughout the deployment and stayed in touch after Zeller went home. Shinwari balked at getting a visa to the United States whenever Zeller mentioned it. He wanted to stay in Afghanistan and work with the Americans to build a democratic future for his country. “He was a true believer,” Zeller said.
Zeller asked Shinwari why he had saved his life. The interpreter told the American that as a guest in his country, he was honor bound to protect him from harm. “Afghanistan is a beautiful country filled with wonderful people,” Zeller explained. “But being born there after 1979 means a rough life.”
Shinwari worked continuously with the coalition for nine years. But by 2013, the Taliban was hunting him, and he was furiously trying to get an SIV for himself and his family. Zeller had moved onto the reserves by the time he learned his friend was in danger.
Shinwari was living and working on a U.S. base that was closing as part of the troop drawdown. The Americans told him he was on his own — and the State Department still hadn’t approved his SIV.
Zeller took Shinwari’s plight to Change.org — starting a petition. A brief media flurry on his case caused enough momentum to force the State Department to grant Shinwari his visa. It was subsequently revoked more than once, but Zeller made a fuss each time. Ultimately, Shinwari made it to America and Zeller was there to meet him at the airport. The Army veteran raised $30,000 to help his Afghan friend resettle his family.
Shinwari refused. Instead, he asked Zeller if they could instead use the money to help other interpreters like him. Together, the two founded No One Left Behind, a group that — often in partnership with IRAP — works to advocate for and resettle former interpreters.
The process for former interpreters, even those with stellar records as employees working with Western governments, is still a bureaucratic nightmare that would make even Franz Kafka’s head spin. It’s one of the main challenges for IRAP and No One Left Behind — which specialize in dealing with the SIV process.
“Obviously we want to be very cognizant of who we’re letting into the country and that’s entirely legitimate,” Cooper said. “But what’s been set up to screen applicants is an incredibly convoluted interagency process.”
He highlights a process by which officials check their phone contacts. “I don’t know exactly what they do to determine what constitutes a particularly suspicious contact,” the former Green Beret said. “But I do know that this process takes place with very little room for nuance or for explanations or understanding the situations … it’s a very depersonalized process.”
Cooper explains that the process is especially problematic for Iraqis and Afghans who worked with elite coalition units, like his, that often helped gather intelligence.
“A guy who’s in an interpreter in the environments we were working, of course he ought to be talking to all kinds of people — some of them probably connected to bad people,” Cooper explains. He adds that even interpreters who have documented accolades — and troops and commanders vouching for them — regularly get their paperwork rejected or stalled with no explanation.
“It take ages to move these papers from one desk to the next,” Cooper said. He explains that part of the problem is likely hesitance on the part of bureaucrats to vouch for these interpreters. Nobody wants to be accountable on the off chance one of them did turn out to be a threat.
“Things get stuck and gummed up in this process because there’s very little incentive to fill these slots.”
The situation is not much better in the United Kingdom. While the government has allowed a select few Iraqi interpreters to resettle, Whitehall has been far less generous with Afghan interpreters and have denied almost every request for asylum. Recently, British law firm Leigh Day challenged the government’s decision to not grant Afghan interpreters asylum.
Even the Danish government, which went the extra mile for its Iraqi employees has turned away Afghans who worked with its troops in Helmand.
Activists such as Zeller have aggressively tried to shove the issue into the spotlight with some success. Last year a Vice documentary and a John Oliver segment jolted interest in the issue. For a moment at least.
It seems that no matter how much the issue gets out there, the terps’ plight doesn’t grab the public’s attention. “Americans on the street have no idea this is even an issue,” Zeller said with palpable frustration.
To make matters worse, the American SIV program for Afghan interpreters is slated to end on Dec. 31, 2015. It’s unclear if the recent extension for U.S. forces in the country — who will still need interpreters — will have an effect.
“We need to do something for this special class of veterans,” Zeller said. “And make no mistake, that’s exactly what they are.”
Sami Kazikhani with his wife Yasmin and their daughter Roxanne in Greece. Photo courtesy of the Fleming family
Not long after Aaron left Afghanistan in 2012, Sami went on leave to see to family affairs and check in on Yasmin. During the visit he attended a wedding for Yasmin’s brother. At the wedding, an Afghan soldier — also on leave — recognized him.
Sami had kept his job secret, both for his own safety and his family’s. But the Afghan soldier greeted him, and loudly told the other guests how they knew each other. Word got out … and made it to the Taliban. Now both Sami and Yasmin were targets.
The two made arrangements to leave the country. The couple were married in a small ceremony and then fled to Turkey. The Kazikhanis ended up living in a refugee camp with several other Afghans. Sami got a construction job that paid $2-3 per 18-hour work day. It was just enough to pay for their tent space, but little more. While living in the camp Yasmin gave birth to their daughter Roxanne.
Eventually, Turkish authorities grew tired of the camp. Police raided the camp and rounded up the refugees. The cops said they could no longer stay there, and that they should make arrangements to return home — or be ready to get sent home. But the Kazikhanis had other ideas.
Sami decided to hire a smuggler, joining the thousands of other refugees in the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean to Greece. It was around this time that he reconnected with the Flemings.
When Aaron told his wife about the Sami’s plight, little did he know she had just seen the widely circulated photos of refugee child Aylan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach for the first time. Already reeling from the photo, the knowledge that Sami’s family was caught in the crisis was an emotional gut punch. “[Sami] is a big part of why my husband came home to me alive,” she explains.
The Flemings couldn’t turn their backs on the Kazikhanis.
The Kazikhanis began their long trek through Greece on foot, sleeping by train tracks and on street corners. The refugee crisis was now international front page news. The Flemings constantly checked the news for updates on the crisis and relayed them to Sami. They warned him which borders were closing and what dangers his family could face — from theft to detainment — as they walked through southern Europe.
The Flemings took his story to social media, putting out constant updates and posting photos Sami sends them with his phone accompanied by the hashtag #istandwithsami. They started selling t-shirts and put together a crowdfunding page to raise money to help pay for transportation, food and medicine for the Kazikhanis.
The couple become emotional when they talk about their friend’s plight. “Their daughter was born in Turkey, and citizenship doesn’t work there like it does here,” Aaron said. “Roxanne is stateless, she has no country.”
Luckily, Sami’s education and time living abroad has helped him and his family. His fluent English — and mastery of other languages — helped him immensely when interacting with authorities. His family traveled with a group of refugees that includes Afghans, Pakistanis, Syrians and many others.
“He’s become kind of a go-to guy out there,” Aaron said. “He’s able to help them out and plead their cases. He’s just a natural leader.”
The Kazikhanis have made it to Germany, but their fate is still far from certain. German authorities have shuffled them between different refugee housing facilities. He and his family still don’t have a place they can confidently call home, and the prospect of rejection and deportation looms large. Sami hopes to take his family to America and reunite with his comrade and start a new life.
Yasmin sleeping by train tracks with Roxanne when the Kazikhanis passed through Macedonia. Photo courtesy of the Fleming family
Many former interpreters have attempted the journey like Sami. Unfortunately, not all made it alive. In August 2015 The Daily Mail reported on the death of a former military interpreter British soldiers had known by the name Popal.
After the British government denied his request for refuge, he decided to flee to the West by alternate means. He took the land route many other Afghan refugees followed by traveling with smugglers through Iran to Turkey, a journey that would in theory eventually lead him to Germany.
Popal received accolades from British troops and was wounded during fighting against the Taliban in Helmand. Despite surviving combat, it was while crossing through Iran that his luck ran out. Iranian authorities allegedly captured and executed him in the city of Mashhad — and several other interpreters are believed to have met the same fate trying to pass through Iran.
As more reports of the deaths of former British military interpreters emerged in the press during the summer, British soldiers began speaking out once again — including senior military figures. One of them was former British Army chief Lord Richard Dannatt.
“We have a moral obligation to look after them. If they feel they are not able to live their previous life they have earned the right to come and live in this country,” Dannatt told The Telegraph. “The number we are talking about is so small that actually making a fuss about it is a real embarrassment. We have a debt of honor.”
Thus far, the British government has continued to drag its feet with few officials willing to address the issue.
Zeller believes that in America, his fellow citizens need to have a serious discussion of the long-term consequences of abandoning local allies — and not just the moral ones. “There are profound national security implications,” the former soldier warns. He explains that when U.S. forces operate abroad they need local allies.
Terrorist groups have filmed the executions of former interpreters and others who’ve worked with coalition forces and plastered them around the Internet. Zeller warns that if the United States finds itself fighting in other countries in the future, this will hamper efforts. “If we ask [people in other countries] to help us, they’re gonna say ‘no, we saw what happened to the Iraqis and Afghans.’”
Islamic State’s summer 2014 push through Iraq further heightened the danger former interpreters face in that country. Not long after the fall of Sinjar, War Is Boring interviewed Saado Kheder, 43-year-old Yezidi father and former interpreter turned refugee. “Because I was interpreter if I stay in Iraq they’ll kill me, believe me, they’ll kill my family,” the former translator said.
He had applied for a SIV, but had heard little from the State Department. The process baffled him. “I don’t know,” the Yezidi said. “I got everything, my application with me right now but I need help, somebody help me.”
After the official departure of American combat troops in 2010 at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. government left thousands of interpreters in limbo.
The State Department often requires applicants get a referral from the UNHCR, which Cooper points out is overburdened and in many cases unable to deal with the current crisis by its own admission. He said that it’s possible that groups such as IRAP could help ease the strain with pre-screening and make direct referrals.
“There’s statutory discretion that’s specified in the foreign affairs manual that allows this to happen,” he explains. “But right now the State Department — inexplicably from my perspective — isn’t interested in going down this route.”
All the same, the special operations veteran has guarded optimism that change could be on the horizon. “The world is having a conversation about refugee issues unlike maybe we’ve ever had before,” Cooper said. “On the other hand, the events leading to this crisis have only increased the amount of fear that some bad guy is somehow going to slip through the cracks of this process.”
“It seems like we’re falling down on our commitment because we’re afraid … and that just seems kind of sad and pathetic,” Cooper added.
The Kazikhanis and other refugees sleep in a shelter in Germany. Photo courtesy of the Fleming family
Dreams of a better future
“That’s not even the whole story” Zeller said. He explained that if interpreters do manage to make it to America, they do so without social security numbers or credit history, making it hard to find housing or work. Human resource offices toss out their resumes because they don’t fit the algorithms that identify “good” applicants.
“Even if they went to the Harvard of Iraq or Afghanistan, nobody cares about that,” Zeller said. Instead, landlords and employers often treat them with suspicion, despite their service alongside American troops. “We dangle the carrot in front of them and beat them to death with it when they finally get here.”
“We’re supposed to be the great melting pot,” Zeller said. “That’s not what’s supposed to happen here.”
The Fleming family still talks to Sami and his family every day. Sami, Yasmin and Roxanne are visibly and audibly angry when they talk about the process. “All they have to do is approve him and we’ll take care of the rest,” Aaron says.
The former Marine explains that they’ve already lined up a job for Sami when he arrives. They’ve also told U.S. officials they’re willing to pay for the plane tickets and will open their home to the Kazikhanis for as long as they need to get on their feet.
“Literally all they have to do is say ‘yes,'” Aaron remarks bitterly. “It just makes it all that much more infuriating.”
“I’ve become a lot more passionate about this” Marion adds. She’s currently working with No One Left Behind, fighting not just for Sami but for other refugees trying to get to safety. “They don’t deserve this,” Marion says. “They had our guys’ backs when they needed them, we should be there for them now.”
Right now the Kazikhanis are mostly safe, but that could change fast. In the refugee housing areas in Germany, tensions are rising and the future is far from certain.
As angry — and occasionally powerless — as the Flemings feel, they refuse to give up. They say they won’t back down until they know Sami and his family is safe. “This doesn’t end for me until he’s sitting in my living room,” Aaron says.