When Sayed Nadim Hashimi first joined the U.S. special forces as an Afghan translator, he was replacing a longtime translator who had been killed on a mission. Hashimi knew the man, and volunteered to bring his clothes and belongings back to his family in Kabul. He remembers going to the home, where the man’s 5-year-old daughter asked him when her father was returning.
Eight years later, Hashimi, now 27, has moved to the U.S. and lives in Santa Cruz. He works at a local tobacco shop, and although he rarely gets days off, he’s thrilled to be finally living in America with his wife and new baby.
Hashmi went on over 100 missions throughout Afghanistan during his three years as a translator in the Mission Essential Personnel (MEP) program with U.S. special forces. For his service, he was promised a shot at a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV)—a chance to move to America. Sometimes the missions lasted for days without food or much rest, Hashimi remembers. They worked seven days a week for 12 hours a day and were required to be on call 24/7.
“There were many times like that where we were facing an ambush and arrested Taliban spies,” Hashimi says. “I was on a mission where the Taliban shot an RPG at a helicopter, there was a soldier trying to jump out, but he and 11 other soldiers ended up dying.”
He wore a bulletproof vest and helmet and carried an AK-47, despite the fact that he’d never held a gun before. He says it wasn’t the policy of his company to carry weapons, and they only get a week or two of training on military organization—not on operating in battlegrounds. Regardless, soldiers often gave them guns anyway because of dangerous conditions and the fact that translators were often considered traitors by the Taliban—and thus targets.
“On my first mission, my captain at the time in the special forces, he got shot in an ambush,” Hashimi says. “Two other interpreters got shot, too. It was my first mission, one of my first days, and still someone got shot. It could have been me. It could have been anyone.”
The New York-based nonprofit International Refugee Assistance Project estimated that in 2014, an Afghan interpreter was killed every 36 hours. Having moved to the U.S. just last year, Hashimi says he wants people to remember his Afghan co-workers who have died serving the U.S., and also their families, who often do not receive any government support beyond a few thousand dollars—a modest amount compared to the $100,000 that U.S. military service members families are eligible for as part of a death gratuity program and other allowance programs.
“I saw thousands of young Afghan soldiers die or get seriously injured, losing their hands and feet,” Hashimi says. “Facing that all, that sacrifice, was hard. But you have to lose some things to get some things. I live here now and am trying to not be a part of those days anymore. Now, I want to help the families whose sons died on the missions.”
Hashimi was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. His family fled to Pakistan to escape the Taliban in 1992. As one of nine children, he helped his family operate a grocery store in Pakistan before they returned to Kabul five years later. He was in fifth grade when they returned, and eventually took a Youth Exchange Study exam in hopes of traveling to the U.S. as an exchange student. After failing the exam, he says his only other option was to join the special forces and hope that they would eventually grant him an American visa.
Hashimi signed up for MEP at 19-years-old in June 2011. He waited one year to apply for his visa, eventually leaving his position as a translator in December 2014, once he was granted the special visa. He was one of over 7,000 Afghan natives granted an SIV in 2014, over 2,300 of whom immigrated to California.
Hashimi found his way to Santa Cruz after a stint in Fremont, where he has extended family, and took up a job at a local tobacco store. Even getting here seemed like a huge risk, but one worth taking.
“I saw that I could fight for the country, and if I stayed alive, then I could go to the United States,” he says. “So the day after I finished school, I went with three other classmates and joined MEP.”
MEP, now known as Mission Essential, is a government contractor serving intelligence and military clients. As one of the primary companies providing translation services for the U.S. government, MEP has been responsible for recruiting and screening thousands of interpreters headed for the battlefield. Hashimi’s translator number was in the 14 thousands, and he says he now knows translators with numbers as high as 22,000. “It goes for a long time,” he says. “If they need somebody, they will hire them and they get a number.”
MEP pays interpreters a maximum of $900 a month to accompany front-line troops into action. Hashimi says for the times that he wasn’t on active, hazardous missions, he got paid a salary equivalent to about half that amount, $450 a month. In the past, MEP has been accused by former employees of abandoning wounded employees and sending physically unfit interpreters to the front lines. MEP’s press spokesperson did not return multiple requests for comment in the weeks leading up to the publication of this story.
“Those classmates that I had signed up with, a week or two after they saw the battlefield and soldier injuries, they quit. It was just me left between us four friends,” Hashimi says. “I stayed because I wanted to help my family, fight for my country and eventually come to America.”
After passing his interview in the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan in 2014, he says he waited for three more years to get his visa—though according to U.S. law, the process shouldn’t take longer than nine months. Getting a visa requires 14 lengthy steps, including that applicants prove they are in danger based on their service with the U.S.
“A lot of people get denied visas, and I know a lot of people still that are waiting to apply for a visa,” Hashimi says. All the while, many of the people waiting for SIVs are in life-threatening danger.
Afghans are increasingly the top recipients of SIVs. According to the Refugee Processing Center, more than 97 percent of the 3,234 people who immigrated to the U.S. under the SIV program since Oct. 2018 are Afghan nationals. The highest number of Afghan SIVs awarded in a year, more than 16,800 visas, was in 2017. The 2019 U.S. federal budget authorized 4,000 additional SIVs for Afghan applicants. That would be good news for those applying for a visa, but the problem for hopeful immigrants is that the U.S. State Department may not be able to accommodate the extra visas because of a backlog in the long vetting process.
“It is important to note that the issuance numbers in FY 2017 were more than any other year in the program’s history,” a U.S. Department of State spokesperson told GT in an email, which “resulted from a Department surge to keep up with past demand. We do not expect to issue as many Afghan SIVs in FY 2019 as we did in FY 2017.”
But these numbers only tell part of the story. Many of the people who thought they would be able to move and begin a new life in the U.S. because of their service will be severely delayed or unable to.
“All immigrant visa applicants, including SIV applicants, are thoroughly vetted to ensure they do not pose a threat to the security of the United States,” the U.S. Department of State official said. “Our goal is to issue every SIV as quickly as possible, while maintaining national security as our highest priority. Depending on the facts of a case, we sometimes need additional time to thoroughly evaluate the application.”
Increasing scrutiny—and at times intense cynicism—of immigrant and refugee motives has become a hallmark of the Trump Administration, which has impacted visa applicants from Syria to Venezuela. Yet there is little data to back up claims that recent immigrants pose any increased threat to homeland security.
“To my knowledge, since the SIV program started in 2008, and with coming up on 75,000 SIVs and their family members resettled, not one has ever been charged with any terrorist-related charge,” says Kirt Lewis, chief operating officer of No One Left Behind, a national nonprofit aimed at helping wartime allies who are displaced and in need of assistance. “I don’t know how much better of a public safety track record we can reasonably ask for.”
Hashimi says he knew of many translators who were stopped or killed by the Taliban for working with the U.S. He remembers one instance in particular, where a suicide bomber actively sought out a translator to kill.
“Many of these people, especially those who served as interpreters, are hunted and killed, tortured, or both,” says Jason Gorey, executive director of No One Left Behind. “To my knowledge, no accurate data exists regarding how many Afghan and Iraqi wartime allies have been killed for working with U.S. forces after they stopped their work. Based on anecdotal information, especially due to ISIS in Iraq, I believe we can safely say it is in the tens of thousands—with hundreds killed after applying for and while waiting for their Special Immigrant Visa.”
Hashimi says he doesn’t often try to get in contact with impacted families in Afghanistan, since he doesn’t feel like there is much he can do. He says it makes him sad because many of those caught up in the danger and visa delays are young, stay-at-home mothers who have lost their husbands.
“I try not to talk about it. It makes me hurt. It makes me cry when I think about those young women,” he says. “There was a man I knew who asked for vacation to see his babies. He died for the U.S. government in a car with other U.S. soldiers. Those soldiers are taken care of, but the man who died, he has a family also—and his family will not be supported.”
Although they are often eligible for much more, Afghan and Iranian families typically receive a one-time payment between $2,000-$5,000 from the employer for a killed servicemember, Hashimi and Michael Silverman, associate at Military Justice Attorneys, said. But under the U.S. Department of Labor Defense Base Act, Afghan translators working for contractors like MEP are insured and eligible for more workers’ compensation if injured or killed.
“In a nutshell, anytime an employee is injured or suffers a psychological injury, these insurance companies are responsible for it, and that is also the case for the death of an employee,” Silverman says. “What we have found is that many times the employer will pay a small stipend for an interpreter who is killed and not inform the family that there is insurance that will cover it.”
Silverman, who works closely with No One Left Behind, says his firm represents many clients from Afghanistan and Iraq who have severe, debilitating psychological trauma from working as translators many years ago. Some have already moved to the U.S. and are trying to start a new life here. Although these clients were eligible for compensation and psychological support under the Defense Base Act, they often never received it because they didn’t know about it.
“People understand that they have seen horrible things and that it will impact them, but what they don’t know is that it’s treatable, that they can get to a point that they can live with all of the things that they have seen,” Silverman says. “Literally, we have clients who were on the verge of agoraphobia, who will only leave the house when they have to. I had a client in Afghanistan who hadn’t left their house in years. And the majority of them moved here under SIV.”
According to the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, there have been only around 60 death insurance claims filed for MEP LLC from 2001 to 2018. Hashimi himself says he and his coworkers know of “probably hundreds” of translators who were killed or critically injured while working for MEP.
“The people that die, if they are not Americans, then the government forgets them,” Hashimi says. “They shouldn’t. It’s not easy to do that job. We know that we might die, but we do it to support family, fight for the country and move to the U.S. These families don’t have anyone to support them, because for many people, their only financial support is gone and they don’t get any help from the country that they fought for.”
Likewise, the families of those who die while serving often do not receive the visa benefits that translators do. In order for families to be eligible for American visas, they must apply and travel with the MEP worker, like in Hashimi’s case.
“The say ‘no one left behind’, but how can you say that when I know all of these people, families, who are stuck in Afghanistan without support. They get left behind,” Hashimi says. “I want to fight for those people. I feel that it’s my job to not forget them.”