The boat carrying former Marine interpreter Sami Kazikhani began to take on water a couple dozen meters from the coast. All that stood between the 50 souls on board and doom was the thin layer of black rubber that was built to sustain 25 people. Passengers started ditching the bags that carried what was left of their possessions into the sea. Some men hopped out to push the craft toward shore.
"One of the boats that was coming along with us flipped over with, I don't know, 45 or 50 people. It was really tragic. The rule is not to look back but straight ahead," Kazikhani, 32, tells the Washington Free Beacon over Facebook Messenger.
Yasmiin Kazikhani cradled the couple’s seasick 10-month-old, Roxanna, but was too scared to open her eyes. She’d periodically ask how far away they were: "just one more minute," Kazikhani said from beginning to end. After an hour the boat reached Lesbos, a Greek island home to about 90,000 natives and 25,000 refugees. Kazikhani told her it was safe to open her eyes.
More than 2.5 million Afghans have been displaced by war, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. But they have been overshadowed by the mass migration of nearly 4 million Syrians caught between a brutal dictator and murderous terrorists. Kazikhani’s journey is one of service, betrayal, bureaucracy, and, desperation, but hope entered the mix on September 1. "Miracle" is the word he uses most often over several hours of texting and telephone conversation.
A couple hours after the Kazikhani family landed in Lesbos Turkish authorities discovered the body of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi facedown in the surf. The photo of the young boy in Velcro shoes forced the world to confront the reality of a refugee crisis five years in the making. Former Marine Sergeant Aaron Fleming saw it on Wednesday from his home in Missouri. He checked back in with Kazikhani, his interpreter during a 2011 tour in southwestern Afghanistan.
"He asked about [the refugee crisis]. I said I was one of them," Kazikhani says.
Fleming was incensed. He knew that Kazikhani had requested a special immigrant visa reserved for interpreters. Now the comrade who helped him survive his third combat deployment was risking his life at sea when he should have been in the United States.
"They risk their lives for the United States government and they get hung out to dry. They have no option but to cross the ocean in a canoe because they’re terrified," Fleming says.
Fleming and his wife, Marion, are now trying to bring the family to the United States. They began selling $18 "Refugee" sweatshirts designed by Marion to benefit the family and set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise $10,000 for his travel expenses to get from Greece to Germany. They are working with lawmakers to secure a long overdue visa for a man that went "shoulder to shoulder" with Fleming into combat and sacrificed much in the process.
"My personal goal and desired outcome is my wife and I sponsor Sami, his wife, and Roxanna, and for them to come live with me in this country and get settled," Fleming, who retired medically in March as a result of combat wounds, says. "If any interpreter or local national deserves to be in the country as a political refugee it is Sami and his family."
Kazikhani’s odyssey began 12 years ago. At 21 he tired of his war-torn country and the tribal system. "I was looking for a new way of life," he says. He paid smugglers several thousand afghanis to take him to Europe by way of Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Italy before settling in Manchester, England. He knew nobody save the three other smuggled immigrants assigned to his flat. He spoke no English. He started working at an electronics shop and immersed himself in the culture, mastering the spoken word well enough to get a job as a barman peddling wares forbidden in his native land.
Then he got deported. He remembers the exact date: July 24, 2010. He worked odd jobs in Afghanistan for a year before applying to be an interpreter in January 2011. Within weeks he found himself working with 1st Battalion, 6th Marines in southern Afghanistan near the Iranian and Pakistani borders. The hardtop highway under their charge was a pipeline of weapons for the Taliban and local warlords.
"I felt like I was at home working with the coalition forces. It was as if I was in England or America," he says.
Kazikhani signed up with Fleming and his team in July 2011 on the verge of the single bloodiest month of the 14-year war for American forces. Of the 418 troops who died in Afghanistan that year—the second deadliest of Operation Enduring Freedom—more than 25 percent occurred in July and August. Thirty-five of those deaths came from insider attacks by Afghan soldiers as U.S. forces ramped up embedding with the Afghan National Army. Fleming replaced a team that lost two Marines to a green-on-blue attack in May.
Throughout their seven-month deployment the 18-man team dealt with anywhere from 1,200 to nearly 2,000 soldiers. They started with three interpreters. One went AWOL within weeks. That left "Jack" and Sami. Both were capable, but Sami stood out. He pulled the fresh Marines aside to teach them local manners to stave off offending prideful Afghans. He reminded them that minor slights had been credited for many insider attacks.
"I could translate all day long, but if I knew nothing about the atmosphere I can’t tell you that the body language could be pissing someone off. The spoken language comes second to non-verbal communication, and the tribal alliances and family social structure that have been around for centuries," Fleming says.
The Marines needed Kazikhani. An interpreter is a translator, a tour guide, a walking-talking etiquette book, and mediator. He’s bunk-to-bunk and shoulder-to-shoulder with troops confronting some of the most deadly people on the planet. He is unarmed because he’s still considered a civilian. He is unmasked so as not to muffle his words. He is a traitor in Taliban eyes, a pay stub to the contractors that hire him, and an afterthought to the United States government. He can be a godsend to the troops that work with him.
Kazikhani’s eye for cultural differences saved lives. He could look at a man fifty yards out and let his American counterparts know whether he could be trusted. In a guerilla war the color of a man’s sandals matters. "The Afghans are very deliberate in how they dress. You could see a man in flamboyant colors one day, but then later in the week, he’s wearing all black. That means the Taliban came through," Fleming says—a lesson he picked up from Kazikhani.
"There was one time in particular where a village elder gave him information, but he came back to me and said ‘this guy is Taliban.’ We got two streets down and, bam, there they were. The guy was trying to delay us so that they could set up," another former Marine comrade says. "If I took the typical two hour back and forth there would have been a lot of casualties."
"There were times we had to pull him back. When a villager was playing dumb, he’d get fired up—he’s got Persian blood so he’s definitely passionate, animated, he’s like the Freddie Mercury of interpreters. He’d start yelling ‘these Americans aren’t here for the weather, they’re here to help you,’" Fleming says with a laugh.
Kazikhani holds the team in equally high regard.
"They did whatever they could to improve the situation and keep the locals happy. They weren’t only Marines—they were heroes, my friend," he says.
Kazikhani’s work contributed to long-term U.S. intelligence in the region. He once told the Marines that the perfectly innocent farmers they were interviewing were actually there for the poppy harvest. The Americans gave the farmers the benefit of doubt until he pointed out that their tribal dress matched those of a migrant class steeped in the heroin trade, as well as the dark brown streaks on their hands that only come from scraping poppy. He translated a marksmanship manual written by Fleming that is still in use by the Afghan army.
The Afghan army managed to secure nearly 200 kilometers of highway, building trust among locals by eliminating the bribery that dominated Taliban and national police checkpoints. Roadside improvised explosive devices died down. Within a year the Marines no longer needed to worry about that stretch of highway.
Fleming’s team left in February 2012, ceding the assignment to a replacement unit. Kazikhani went on vacation in Kabul to visit his fiancée. She confessed her love for another man, and he agreed to mutually call off the arranged marriage so that she would not be harmed by her family. He went to his rendezvous point to return to combat but no Marine escort was there—a prerequisite for any Afghan national travelling on American aircraft. By the time he made his way back his contract was cancelled.
"After being sacked from the mission it was terrible. I’ve reapplied 20, 25 times. They said, ‘the team was happy with you but we have lots of assignees,’" Kazikhani says.
He reached out to team members to coax the Americans to take him back. He still carries a 2013 recommendation letter written by then-Sergeant Emir Hadzic.
"While assigned to my unit, Mr. Sami Khan [a name given to protect his identity] displayed the highest degree of proficiency and expertize," the letter says. "Mr. Khan also displayed moral and physical courage during numerous combat patrols and enemy engagements. His loyalty to the team was proven time after time during numerous morally challenging and dangerous situations … He is a very honorable, loyal, and hardworking man."
Hadzic did not return request for comment.
The letter failed but Kazikhani retained one hope. Before the Marines returned stateside they recommended him for a special immigrant visa given to interpreters. The State Department pledged to issue 4,000 visas and has already given out 2,500 from 2008 to 2014, but the program has been mired in controversy as interpreters and their families have been murdered by Taliban while awaiting approval.
Kazikhani never heard back. A State Department spokesman declined to comment, saying all records are confidential.
The situation is too familiar to Mohammad Shafiq Hamdam, chairman of the watchdog group Afghan Anti-Corruption Network, as well as a teacher at the University of Maryland and part time instructor at the Middle East Institute. He began working as an interpreter in 2001 and began assisting coalition forces in other capacities in 2006. He’s survived "half a dozen [assassination] attempts and attacks" through the years. He received a special visa in 2014 after three years and $4,400 to cover medical checkups.
"I have obtained visas for numerous countries and U.S. visas as well, but the Special Immigration Visas are the most difficult process someone may ever go through," he says in an email. "I was not sure if it was worth all those days of waiting, spending money and paperwork, but upon my arrival the border agent who checked my visa said, ‘thanks for your service and welcome to America.’ That was the impression that will remain with me forever."
All visa recipients are grateful for the opportunity to come to America, but too many are caught in bureaucratic limbo with deadly consequences, according to Hamdam.
"The process is not based on a need and priority, but based on bureaucracy. Some of the applicants with the highest security threats have either been killed by Taliban or escaped to other countries. Unfortunately, some of them and their family members have died or gone missing while traveling to Europe," he says.
In recent months, Hamdam has visited refugee camps all across Europe and encountered former interpreters at each one. He says at least three former interpreters have gone missing while trying to cross into Greece. He got in touch with Kazikhani through one of the former Marines and told him to get out of Greece quickly so he could reapply for the special visa from a more stable European safe haven.
"He deserves to be in the U.S. He is in danger because of his service for the U.S. government and Americans. He fought a war without a gun with al Qaeda and terrorists alongside U.S. armed forces, and I believe it's a moral obligation for the Americans to assist him and other interpreters," he says.
Kazikhani is a calm man, steady, unemotional, and patient. He doesn’t dwell much on the lost visa, even as his wife and child sleep on cardboard bedding on an Athens sidewalk. He opts for British reserve, rather than Persian passion, in the face of disaster. "It’s just fate," he says in a Manchester accent.
Fleming doesn’t have that kind of patience. One of his Iraqi interpreters was murdered in 2008.
"I think it’s a Goddamn disgrace and shame that we’re having this conversation right now," he says.
Kazikhani returned to his native Parwan Province in central Afghanistan in 2012. Geography is key for an interpreter. Every Taliban commander and hostile villager takes careful note of their faces during meetings and wait for an opportunity to track them down when Americans aren’t around to protect them. Kazikhani was grateful to be back up north where he could go unrecognized. He moved on from the Marines and his parents arranged a marriage with Yasmiin’s family. Then fate dealt him another blow.
A friend ran into his future in-laws at a wedding. Like any good wingman he extolled Kazikhani for his virtues and in the process revealed that he’d once seen him at an American base.
"When you work with coalition forces, Marines, army, or whatever, only you and your [immediate] family knows. Not your relatives, not your neighbors. You should never let them know. You can be blackmailed, caught by a terrorist group, or killed," Kazikhani says.
After 18 months of engagement, Yasmiin’s family threatened to behead him. They informed local Taliban officials, who put a price on his head.
"The Taliban put up money for the lives of interpreters. We are considered a worse enemy than any U.S. soldier. They consider us a bridge between them and coalition forces," Kazikhani says.
He paid $9,000 for plane tickets to Turkey, as well as a legitimate Turkish visa to avoid deportation. That has done little to diminish his desperation.
"It’s more terrible than the first time. That time I was alone. This time I am with my family. That time you didn’t have the trouble. Now we’re crossing the sea in plastic boats," he says.
Afghan refugees enjoy more freedom in Turkey than their Syrian and Kurdish counterparts because they are seen as less of a threat. They’re cheap labor, too. Kazikhani got a job in construction, working between 13 and 17 hours a day for 15 Turkish Lira—the equivalent of $5. His daughter was born in a Turkish hospital on December 5, 2014, but she is stateless: Turkey won’t have her and the Taliban will kill her for her father’s sins. Yasmiin’s family has no idea that they are now grandparents. He scrounged to pay for his child’s medicine and kicked himself when he left the country before getting Roxanna her nine-month vaccinations. With tens of thousands of migrants crossing into Greece he knew it was a matter of time before the Europe began sealing its borders.
They arrived in Mytilene, the capitol city of Lesbos. It’s a tourist destination with about 85,000 residents and 15,00 refugees, as if Asheville, North Carolina, were forced to take in the entire city of Pierre, South Dakota. They sleep in blue tents in a makeshift shanty town littered with trash. They called it "The Jungle." They hadn’t been in Lesbos for an hour before Roxanna, already feverish from teething, developed diarrhea and Yasmiin suffered dehydration.
"We been there in jungle for 2 days without the food and water my friend," Kazikhani says in a Facebook message. He left Lesbos by boat and arrived in Athens on Saturday. The family slept on cardboard boxes on the sidewalk. He has less than 600 Euros to last him until he gets to Germany.
The Flemings offered to pay for a hotel room in Athens, but Kazikhani turned them down because he doesn’t want to burden the family.
"They are doing their best to take me out from this misery. I’m used to sleeping in the jungle and not eating. I don’t want to put pressure on those guys financially," he says.
Kazikhani reached Serbia by bus on Thursday, eight days after he made contact with Fleming. He sent over some photos snapped by his wife in Macedonia. It is a familiar scene to any parent: an infant girl wearing one sock crawling over her sleeping father. Kazikhani is napping on the gravel in between train tracks. Roxanna is beaming.
"It was like a miracle getting that message from Aaron," Kazikhani says. "We still have a long way to go."
UPDATE Wednesday Sept. 16, 10:50 A.M.: An earlier version of this post said that Kazikhani became an interpreter for the U.S. military in June 2011. It was January 2011.