The United States government is failing to live up to promises made to thousands of Afghan citizens responsible for saving American lives during the decade-long Operation Enduring Freedom.
Several years ago, the U.S. State Department created a program that offered thousands of visas to interpreters and other civilians in Afghanistan who spent at least one year fighting alongside coalition forces in the region. Under the program, the U.S. government pledged to relocate Afghan interpreters and their families and provide them with housing, furniture, food, clothing and community orientation within the first 90 days of their arrival.
That’s if you’re lucky to get a visa. According to The Washington Post, the State Department is set to run out of 3,000 visas allocated for this year, leaving thousands of applicants backlogged. The problem is not new — for years, the State Department has treated “the (visa) issue as a low priority,” according to Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, meaning the backlog is a creation of the department’s own doing.
While the State Department contends it has “the highest respect for the men and women who take enormous risks in supporting our military and civilian personnel,” Secretary of State John Kerry has acknowledged that the program is falling short of expectations.
“A full-scale State Department review revealed statistics and anecdotes that highlighted unconscionably long processing times for applicants, including on background checks conducted by other U.S. agencies,” Kerry wrote in a Los Angeles Times editorial. “Some deserving people were simply falling through the cracks.”
One person who didn’t slip through the cracks is Hameed Afzali, who became a target of Taliban harassment and threats after he was shown on Afghan television interpreting for the U.S. military.
After seven years of working alongside U.S. soldiers, Afzali secured one of 3,000 visas to relocate him and his family to the United States. But when he arrived, he found many of the promises made to him about the relocation program were empty.
“Sometimes I feel I am not going to survive in this situation,” Afzali told CBS News. “I want to work. I want to support my family, but there is no way.”
Where the U.S. government falls short, non profit organizations step in to help. One such group that is helping Afzali and his family is No One Left Behind, a charitable organization run by former Army captain Matthew Zeller.
Afzali’s plight is one Zeller’s seen before. For months, he worked to secure a visa for Afghan interpreter Janis Shinwari, who Zeller credited with saving his life during an insurgent attack in 2008.
Shinwari was one of thousands who applied for special immigration visas, or SIVs, under a special State Department program in 2011. But like thousands of applications, his was caught up in bureaucratic red tape that seemed endless.
Zeller did what he could to help his friend: He reached out to his elected officials, started a Change.org petition that received thousands of signatures and contacted the media. Shortly after The New Yorker wrote about the situation, the government finally approved Shinwari’s immigration visa.
Last October, Shinwari landed in Washington, D.C. and was reunited with the soldier he had saved.
“When I was in Afghanistan and I heard something about my visa, there was some issue, I knew that somebody is here to fight for me, my brother Zeller,” Shinwari told the Huffington Post. “And finally, he did. And what he promised, he did. He made it.”
But getting here is only half the battle. Once interpreters like Shinwari and Afzali land in the United States, they’re often left to fend for themselves.
“We’re dropping them into slum housing. We’re not doing anything whatsoever to help them find jobs,” Zeller told CBS. “I wouldn’t be sitting here right now if my translators hadn’t saved my life. How could we not possibly give these people more than a slum and a good luck and that’s it?”
Zeller’s organization, No One Left Behind, has launched a campaign to help Afzali properly adjust to life in the United States. For more information and to donate, visit NoOneLeft.org or click here.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.