An Interpreter’s Escape

Feature: Naqeeb Jaan served with U.S. troops in Afghanistan and evaded the Taliban in Kunduz—but his biggest fight was getting a visa

Afghan interpreter
Photo credit: Bill McMorris
• December 21, 2015 12:00 pm


A dozen exhausted people stand at Terminal 2 of Dulles Airport on a Sunday morning in October. For nearly two hours they have waved flags, shaken signs, and readied applause as the automatic doors opened to reveal… yet another passenger pushing a cart full of luggage through the threshold. They’ve never seen Naqeeb Jaan, but they know he can’t be the middle-aged man disembarking from Emirates Flight 231, direct from Dubai. They know because Janis Shinwari told them so.

"SIVs only come with one bag," Shinwari says.

SIV is shorthand for Special Immigrant Visa, a program started in 2006 to bring endangered Afghan and Iraqi interpreters to the United States. Jaan, 28, began his application in January 2014 and was approved 20 months later. He left his hometown of Kunduz to finish up some routine paperwork at the Kabul Embassy on the evening of September 27.

"I called home to my dad and asked how was everything going. Immediately my dad said, ‘Thank God you are not here because the entire city is taken by Taliban, and they are going door to door looking for people who worked for the government and for interpreters,’" Jaan says. "My name is in the Taliban’s kill list and they were looking for me."

Within hours of taking the city, insurgents killed 30 people accused of collaborating with coalition forces. Methods of execution ranged from bullets to pick-up truck. The city’s jail cells were emptied, the inmates armed to fight the government. Amrullah Saleh, the former head of the National Directorate of Security, told reporters that terrorists executed three nurses in a maternity hospital. Amnesty International demanded that the Afghan military "restore order."

"The multiple credible reports of killings, rapes and other horrors meted out against the city’s residents must prompt the Afghan authorities to do more now to protect civilians, in particular in areas where more fighting appears imminent," Horia Mosadiq, the group’s Afghan expert, says in a release.

The loss of one of Afghanistan’s largest cities did not warrant much attention in the United States until an errant American airstrike killed 40 people at a Doctors Without Borders hospital. The Afghan military retook Kunduz within three days. Jaan knew that the victory did little to diminish the Taliban’s strength in the region. He ran into a childhood friend who told him that one of their fellow interpreters was among the dead. He knew he could not go back home. The bag he packed for his three-day trip now held his only possessions.

Most interpreters come to the United States with a loan from the International Organization for Migration, but that process can take weeks. "I was sure that if I waited on IOM, that the Taliban would find me and kill me before I could leave," he says. He emptied his bank account and cobbled together money from friends and family for the $1,380 ticket to Dulles. Then he sent a Facebook message to an American woman he’d never met.

Mica Varga is the director of resettlement operations for No One Left Behind, a non-profit that helps bring interpreters to the United States and provides housing and job assistance once they get here. She started volunteering for refugee resettlement agencies at 17, helping displaced natives of the Congo, Eritrea, Ukraine, and Libya settle in Denver. A couple years back she noticed an uptick in Afghans among her stack of files.

"We went from getting one every eight months to having eight Afghan SIV families arrive in one month," she says.

Photo credit: Naqeeb

Photo credit: Naqeeb Jaan

Fighting the Taliban, then the Bureaucracy

Jaan’s story is a familiar one. He is fluent in seven languages and learned English taking private courses during his adolescence. At 22 he got a job with the American contractor DynCorp International and spent four years as an interpreter for the American and Dutch militaries, working with everyone from generals to drill sergeants training the fledgling Afghan National Army. He started off at a regional police base, but volunteered for an assignment in Helmand, among Afghanistan’s most dangerous provinces. That’s where he met Army Sergeant First Class John Gabbard, who trained Afghan troops in 2010 and 2011.

"There was no fair comparison for the work that he did and everyone else’s. He was loyal to a fault. We had a couple situations where I had to tell Naqeeb to get his ass back in the truck because he was putting himself at risk," Gabbard, now a senior trooper with the Kentucky State Police, says. "He loved everything about the U.S. and loved us as brothers."

Coming to the United States was never part of the plan. Jaan believed the Americans when they promised a free Afghanistan and signed on to do his part. "I wanted to work in combat areas. Interpreters were very important people to the fight because not many people spoke English," he says.

The situation changed when President Obama began withdrawing troops in October 2012. Jaan’s contract expired two months later. Fewer American troops meant fewer interpreters. He lost his job and his spot on a base that served as a safe haven from Taliban.

Jaan returned to Kunduz as Taliban forces began to overtake neighboring villages, and started his visa application after receiving multiple death threats. He was in hiding for the next two years, spending most days in a back room with basic supplies provided by a trusted group of friends and family. The only amenity was a top-of-the line Internet connection so he could watch daytime television on his computer.

Jaan could not escape until he completed the 14-step SIV process. His application is handled by three bureaucracies in four cities and takes an average of 417 business days—about 19 months—a 20 percent increase from 2014. In 2013 Congress ordered the department to cut down processing to nine months except in "high-risk" cases. It has made some progress. A January report found that the department spent 154 business days on "administrative processing," the last step in the application. The wait decreased to 153 business days, according to the most recently published data. The interpreter is then free to travel to the United States, though, the department notes, "in some cases, the passport will have expired" by the time the visa is issued.

A State Department spokesman acknowledges that "the process is challenging for some applicants and that some applications still require extensive time to complete," but the department has improved outreach to locals.

"An internal State Department review identified inefficiencies that were previously causing delays, and cut the average processing time for the majority of SIV applicants," the spokesman says.

A group of interpreters is now suing the State Department for stalling out the process.

"The SIV process is depressing. Imagine me checking my email every hour for six months," Jaan says. By the time the department approved his application he had "watched every episode of The Ellen Degeneres Show, some of them twice."

Photo credit: Naqeeb Jaan

Photo credit: Naqeeb Jaan

A ‘Life Debt’

Jaan credits Ellen with preserving his sanity in isolation, and Matt Zeller with getting him to the United States safely.

Zeller, a retired Army captain, uses the term "life debt" often in conversation.

"I’m living on borrowed time. I shouldn’t be here," he says.

He had just turned 26 years old when he met Janis Shinwari at Forward Operating Base Vulcan in April 2008. It was a polite meeting, handshakes, head nods, an exchange of names neither would normally have remembered. A week later a roadside bomb lifted a 13-ton armored vehicle in Zeller’s convoy into the air. Then the small arms fire began. An explosion knocked him to the ground just before the quick reaction force arrived to repel the attack. He rose to his feet only to be tackled to the ground by Shinwari. He heard gunfire. Shinwari helped him up, gestured to the two dead Taliban with his AK-47, and deadpanned, "you are not safe here, sir." Zeller returned to base stunned as much by the actions of the interpreter as by the concussive effect of the explosions.

He tracked Shinwari down in the mess hall.

"I asked him why he’d save my life. I expect that from my guys, but not anyone else," Zeller says.

"He was my guest. I told him in Afghan culture you wouldn’t let a guest die first," Shinwari says. He served as Zeller’s personal translator for the rest of the deployment. The army captain cycled out with minimal casualties and promised Shinwari he’d make good on the "life debt" anyway he could. Shinwari assured him they were fine and moved on to translating for the next batch of soldiers. Zeller left the army, went back to school, and started a lucrative career as a management consultant.

Terrorists soon put a price on Shinwari’s head. The embassy approved his family’s visas in 2013 before revoking them. The department has the discretion to rescind a visa at any time if it receives "derogatory information … that the applicant engaged in an unlawful, unethical, criminal, or terrorism-related activity." He is never told the exact nature of the allegations or who filed them. Taliban are suspected of lodging numerous complaints to prevent interpreters from escaping.

Zeller led a public campaign to bring him to the United States and succeeded with the help of lawmakers. Shinwari arrived at Reagan National Airport on October 2, 2013. Zeller greeted him at the terminal with a check for about $40,000, money he’d raised on crowdfunding sites. The interpreter declined.

"He saved my life. I didn’t want this check," Shinwari says. "I told him, ‘There are more people coming. Why don’t we give this money to help them?’" 

No One Left Behind was born that day. Zeller helped Shinwari find a job, then quit his own so he could focus on the charity. The money sat idle until they could find a proper way to spend it.

Photo credit: Naqeeb Jaan

Photo credit: Naqeeb Jaan

No One Left Behind

The opportunity came two months later. 

Afghans who arrive in the United States flock to locales that welcomed their countrymen as refugees during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. They settled in the Washington, D.C., suburbs when Alexandria was a middle-class town, and in San Francisco pre-Dot Com booms 1.0 and 2.0. Future generations followed suit with disastrous results.

The State Department approved Ajmal Faqiri’s visa two days before his passport expired. Tickets to San Francisco consumed his entire savings account. Arriving in the Bay Area on New Years Eve 2013, he knew no one when he deplaned with his wife, five-year-old son, and two-year-old daughter. He had spent nine years working as an interpreter and risked his life to make his visa appointments.

The road to freedom ended in homelessness. He slept on the street in Tracy, California, (median income: $76,098). After two weeks he chanced upon an Afghan who lent him a phone. Faqiri called friends back home. They gave him Shinwari’s number. He became No One Left Behind’s first resettlement.

Shinwari and Zeller purchased four tickets to Washington. A volunteer got him a job at Ted Britt Ford after teaching him the difference between an Afghan Toyota and an American Ford.

The group has since helped more than 500 interpreters settle in the United States. Zeller’s goal is to provide the same cultural bridge that Shinwari gave him during his tour in the warzone.

During the first year of an interpreter’s arrival a mentor will co-sign his lease, furnish his apartment, drive him to the Social Security office, then a clothing store, then a job interview, then the DMV, then a used car lot so he can get to and from work. They check in with him frequently. When he says work’s great and is excited to finally start earning money after his unpaid three-month training period is over, the organization will find a labor attorney to get his back wages. When he scratches his arms they send for the exterminator. Other volunteers teach his wife English. They’ll accompany her to the grocery store, public school registration, and eventually PTA meetings. No One Left Behind is part resettlement agency, part USO, part Labor Department investigator, and part Big Brother/Big Sister.

The organization did all of this with less than $100,000 in 2014, its first full operational year. No one took a salary to accommodate the group’s growth plan. It expanded from two chapters to nine cities in 2015 with nearly 100 volunteers, several dozen of whom are veterans. Some of the cities operate with just a handful of mentors. If Zeller takes a call from someone serious about getting involved he’ll have a chapter up and running in weeks with minimal intrusion from headquarters.

"I don’t have time to slowly and methodically build a traditional large veterans organization. I’m not Wounded Warriors or the United Way or one of those groups that have an unending need. We have 80,000 interpreters and their families to get here. Period," he says.

The group is on pace to settle 1,000 people in 2015, and is making gains in the world of institutional philanthropy. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with Zeller in September and cut a $50,000 check from his foundation days later.

"Soldiers view many of their interpreters as fellow veterans. Those sentiments sum up well how our country should view these allies and why we need to do more to support them," Rumsfeld says.

Zeller says he needs $2.5 million a year in order to fund chapters in 30 cities to relocate 80,000 people (the average interpreter has a family of five, according to Zeller). He does not worry about overextension because every city has Marines and soldiers ready to help out a battle buddy, American or not. He wants to guide interpreters to areas where they can find jobs and cheaper rent than traditional landing grounds.

Photo credit: Naqeeb Jaan

Photo credit: Naqeeb Jaan

A Diplomat and a Marine Take Charge

Zeller is also expanding operations to fast track interpreters through the application process. He brought on two insiders to help.

Amy Madsen became a foreign service officer in 2002 after studying international relations at Syracuse University. Her career is a case-study in what could be labeled disaster tourism, had Madsen been a tourist: Bahrain, Tunisia, and Libya before going to Baghdad at the height of the insurgency from 2005 to 2006. The first incarnation of SIV began in January 2006 when Congress approved a resettlement program capped at 50 interpreters per year.

"I gained firsthand experience of how amazing these people were and how difficult and cumbersome the process could be," she says. The interpreters she worked with were regularly polygraphed, and background checks "performed constantly." When it came time to apply for a visa, they had to start over.

"They’re working with Marines eight or nine years and their cases still get stuck in this bureaucratic process. It’s understandable on one end. No one wants to be the person who lets the terrorist in. What you lose sight of is that we have to do right by the person, while still respecting national security," she says.

She now helps rejected applicants file appeals and translate jargon. A Section 221g denial, for example, just means that the interpreter submitted an incomplete application. Mistaken identity can also play a role in rejections. Madsen has had to explain to officials that while the CIA and DHS have indeed flagged a terrorist, many people go by the name Ahmed in Afghanistan. The State Department overturns about half of all rejections at the embassy level.

Aaron Fleming, a Marine veteran, followed in Zeller’s footsteps by advocating publicly for his interpreter, Sami Kazikhani, who crossed into Europe on a flimsy raft with his wife rather than risk another day with a Taliban bounty on his head. The story made national headlines. A crowdfunding account raised more than $20,000 in a matter of days. Zeller brought Fleming on to serve as a liaison to veterans and Afghan natives. By November Fleming had advanced 20 applications in the State Department and put numerous servicemen in touch with their congressional representatives.

"Our goal is to push as many interpreters through the SIV process before and if the immigration loophole closes," he says.

The United States issued visas to more than 2,600 interpreters through September. The defense spending bill signed in November granted an additional 3,000 for the next fiscal year. The State Department estimates that 11,500 Afghan applicants were "at some step in the SIV application process" as of August 28. They compete for about 4,400 remaining visas before the embassy stops accepting applications on Dec. 31, 2016.

Those left behind have one hope. A permanent SIV program created by Congress grants 50 visas to interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan each year—a system that could resettle each of the remaining applicants by 2158 A.D.

Zeller is manic when discussing the program. There is no "feel-good" moment when someone arrives, no break time to pat himself on the back for a job well done. He sees himself fighting in another theater in the war against the Taliban. "It’s a race between life and death. It’s a race against the insurgents. That interpreter either gets to the United States or gets buried," he says.

The organization has a military mindset and singular focus. The group’s literature features a number of slogans—"Pay It Back" and "Helping Those Who Helped Us," etc.—but it operates under the unofficial mantra of "Live Fast, Die Young." It’s an expression of optimism.

"This is the type of position that I hope I don't have in a few more years. I want to work my way out of this job," Fleming says.

Zeller is flippant about the future.

"I don’t want to exist in 10 years. As soon as we’ve done our job and kept our promise I’ll take the remaining money and set up an endowment to pay for college for their kids," Zeller says. 

Photo credit: Naqeeb Jaan

Photo credit: Naqeeb Jaan

After Paris and San Bernardino, Interpreters Caught in the Middle

To finance the ambitious new ventures the organization held the world’s first alcohol-free fundraiser at the sprawling campus of Christ Church in Fairfax, Virginia, on November 6. Hundreds of Methodists sat at a hodgepodge of 30 tables featuring centerpieces composed of American, Afghan, and Iraqi flags and battlefield pictures of interpreters. Faqiri and Shinwari are at the center table, their wives in hijabs, and four kids running circles around them. Zeller speaks, pacing, frenetic as ever.

"I am a 1-tour combat veteran, down range for 9 months. My condo has a [Veterans Administration]-backed mortgage. I was injured, so the VA will take care of me for the rest of my life. If I want to get a job, I can walk into any Walmart in the country and they will guarantee me a job. There are 56,000 veterans charities out there ready to assist me," he says.

"My brother Janis is a 9-tour veteran. He has been blown up six times by IEDs. He is nine-times more of a veteran than me. He doesn’t get the VA. He doesn’t have a guarantee for a job. We are the only ones who recognize them as veterans."

The group raises $15,000. Zeller points to the haul as proof that Americans care deeply about the crisis of Afghan interpreters-turned-refugees. "It’s not a lack of interest in helping. It’s a lack of awareness."

A week later ISIS gunned down 130 people in Paris. Then a California jihadist and his State-Department-vetted-Pakistani-bride killed 14 in California. President Obama’s plan to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees came under fire in light of his FBI director’s admission that it is virtually impossible to vet all of them. Reports emerge of terrorists infiltrating the west by hiding among the Syrian refugees migrating en masse.

As a result, some members of Congress are looking to cut off State Department funding for refugee resettlement.

The plight of interpreters plays little role in the conversation. The display frustrates the activists. Fleming’s interpreter, Sami Kazikhani, is in one of the refugee camps in Germany. Varga points out that the family members of interpreters arrive in the United States through the very programs that some aim to gut. The dispute over vetting, however, enrages them. No group in the Middle East has been more scrutinized by national security agencies than interpreters.

Keith Saddler, a retired Army officer and D.C. chapter head, says that if the FBI is concerned about vetting refugees, it should have former interpreters help conduct the interviews. The military depended on them to pick up body language cues and conversational ticks to flag terrorists on the battlefield; it should put them to work at the Pentagon and Homeland Security.

Vietnam comes up often in conversation with No One Left Behind and its supporters. Zeller considers the abandonment of interpreters a repeat of the fall of Saigon. More than 3 million people fled the country, visible on boats bound for the Indian Ocean or hanging from helicopter skids. The desperation was out in the open; the real tragedy—the genocide and mass executions in Cambodia and Vietnam—was not fully understood for years.

"The word had gotten out in the indigenous community about how we treat interpreters. Why would anyone want to risk their life fighting with us if we just leave them at the mercy of the enemy when we extricate?" Saddler says.

Rumsfeld linked his donation to America's ability to recruit local allies in future conflicts.

"America is understandably judged by how we protect and support our allies, which impacts our country’s ability to earn support in the future. Ensuring the safety of local interpreters is a serious U.S. national security concern," Rumsfeld says.

Photo credit: Naqeeb Jaan

Photo credit: Naqeeb Jaan

Coming to America

The crowd at the airport concourse resembles a family reunion; they’re all wearing matching white and army green shirts with the No One Left Behind logo. A toddler runs around carrying souvenir Afghan and American flags, while his mother cradles an infant in plaid pink. Sandy, the mother, says that her children owe their lives in part to the Iraqi interpreters who shepherded her husband, Jerry, through two tours in Iraq. "They saved him on more than once occasion," she says. Jerry remembers their dedication as much as he does his own close calls.

"I didn’t appreciate the risks they faced until 2006. I had one terp in Baghdad whose mom was blinded and dad killed by a car bomb. He was back at work within days," he says. "I could operate in theater because that was my job. I couldn’t imagine doing my job if I knew that my family had to endure constant threats and violence."

They’re at the airport to show support, but also to make amends for more than just Jerry’s "life debt." Jerry and Sandy, not their real names, work at the State Department, which has come under fire for bureaucratic missteps that ended with Taliban executions of American allies. Neither knew of the SIV process until Shinwari’s case made national news.

"I wasn’t aware of SIVs, so I didn’t realize how many unfulfilled promises there were. It sounds like a terrible program," Sandy says. "We struggle with the issue of refugee resettlement, but there’s no question about these guys. They’ve shown a degree of commitment and sacrifice that uniquely positions them to be resettled quickly. They have been pre-vetted."

Jerry says that national security is at stake, especially with the emergence of ISIS and the deployment of (special forces) boots on the ground in Iraq.

"Wars taper down, but they do not go away. In the event that war happens in the future, you’re going to need the cooperation of locals. Their resolve and their political resolve are going to dry up if we’re seen as abandoning them," Jerry says. "Organizations like [No One Left Behind] send a signal that Americans aren’t cutting people off."

By 10:18 a steady flow of passengers pour through the terminal, but there is still no sign of Jaan. The crowd gets less enthusiastic with every opening door. A member of the Uganda World Bank delegation gives a quizzical look at the disappointed faces as he disembarks. Mica Varga checks her phone.

"He got stopped. They’re making him go through another security checkpoint," she says.

The tension turns to disbelief, laughter, the hopeless kind.

"Welcome to the United States of America. We’re going to make life as difficult as we can, so you better get used to it," Saddler says.

The welcoming committee goes quiet for the next few minutes before the doors open at 10:25. Shinwari’s eyes light up and the crowd now knows it’s safe to wave and clap and cheer. The man at the threshold carries one luggage bag, but lacks the pitiable look one associates with charity cases in the age of ASPCA infomercials. The royal-blue boat shoes match his tailored knit blazer, the grey pocket square his slacks. His hair is tousled just so, the product of gel, rather than jet lag. He’s taken aback, and he can only keep repeating, "Thank you all" and "I … I didn’t expect all these people," as he makes his way through the receiving line shaking hands.

"There’s three more security checkpoints," Jerry jokes.

Jaan spends his first 20 minutes in America exchanging hugs and handshakes with well-meaning strangers. They thank him for his service and pledge their support.

He speaks to Shinwari in Dari between the handshakes and hugs. He smiles.

"I told him, ‘you are home now, you are safe.’ I told him, ‘you are my brother. If you need anything, we are with you. These guys,’" he says motioning to the crowd, "‘are your brothers.’"

Varga spirits him off into her red Subaru with the cameramen who will document his arrival for a fundraising video. She’s got one more surprise.

It’s 45 degrees and breezy by the time they arrive at Lafayette Square. Jaan has no idea where he is until he sees the White House on the other side of the fence. "This is amazing," he whispers to no one in particular, then to Mica: "thank you so much," then to the cameramen: "I did not expect to be here on my first day." To me: "Now that I am in the United States and I am able to see what life is like, the biggest thing that stands out to me is that American soldiers left all of the peace and freedom, they left their families, and they came to Afghanistan to try to help my country."

He does a quick back and forth with the cameras as tourists take selfies at the White House fence. About Ellen: "You helped me get through depression. Thank you Ellen … You are amazing." (No One Left Behind arranged a Skype session with her producers later in the week.) About the state of interpreters in Afghanistan: "It took me two years to get here. I feel very lucky. I lost a lot of friends and we still have some good interpreters left behind."

He’s capable and genuine to a fault, given the gravity of his message. There’s an earnestness in his voice and awe in his countenance that’s distracting—the White House is too impressive a backdrop. Jaan breaks out his phone and asks for pictures. He tucks his hands in his pocket just so and lifts his chin for a minute-long photoshoot. Then he takes the furled American flag Varga gave him and drapes it over his back like an Olympian for a final shot.

He texts them to a former colleague in Yemen to let him know he’s safe, and that the Americans kept their promise.

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