EDGEWATER, Md. — In a grainy video chat, Zak shared the latest from his embattled province in Afghanistan, an update as grim as it was commonplace. “The Taliban left a note at my house last night. They said, ‘Surrender tonight or we will kill you,’” he recounted in a tone more resigned than terrified.
Maj. Thomas Schueman shifted in his chair in a cafe 7,000 miles away as Zak described the spiraling violence in the country where they had served together as a platoon commander and his invaluable interpreter.
The men fought in the 2010 battle for Sangin, one of the deadliest campaigns of the 20-year Afghan war, and later worked in Kabul advising the Army. “It was very dangerous,” said Zak, who requested that he be identified by only his nickname because he feared for his safety. “But, you know, America came to help us and worked side by side with us for building our country and bring peace and democracy. You never know what life is going to bring you.”
Zak, who spent three years working for the military, was assured that a U.S. visa would be his reward after risking his life to assist coalition forces. But even with Major Schueman’s help with applications, and calls, letters and pleading on his behalf, Zak has waited six years for approval.
“I will keep working this for you every day and every night until we get this taken care of,” insisted Major Schueman, a Marine infantry officer now attending the Naval War College in Rhode Island. “I’ll never forget you, brother.”
Long before the Biden administration pledged to evacuate thousands of Afghan interpreters and others at risk of Taliban reprisals, military veterans were laboring to get their trusted partners to the United States.
These private efforts — often spurred by desperate WhatsApp and Facebook messages from former colleagues in Afghanistan — have taken on renewed urgency as U.S. and NATO forces complete their withdrawal from the country, and Taliban fighters take over large swaths of land.
Passage for thousands of Afghans was promised under two special visa programs, but the documentation and security requirements have bedeviled many applicants. The House voted on Thursday to speed up the process and increase the number of visas available, but the bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where there is bipartisan support for the visa program but issues over funding.
The Biden administration is also racing to do more, and officials say an initial group of about 2,500 Afghans and their families will arrive at a base in Virginia in the coming days.
For veterans of a war that many concluded years ago could not be won, getting their interpreters out fulfills at least one promised goal going in: to protect Afghans who helped in the fight.
For the interpreters, whose identities are forever entangled with the American-led war, the journey has been perilous and slow, often taking years longer than anticipated. Several thousands are still trapped, as Taliban fighters tighten their grip in areas beyond the capital.
“I feel the sorrow of war,” Major Schueman said. “I fought that war for about three years, but they’ve been in that war for 20 years, and every U.S. military member has come and gone.”
Heroes, or Homeless
Less than a year after Ramesh Darwishi began working with American Special Operations teams in 2011, the Taliban began calling his cellphone and threatening his life.
In 2015, after moving his family to a series of safe houses, he applied for a U.S. visa, which was approved last September. Mr. Darwishi and his wife, Farashta, borrowed money from relatives to afford the necessary medical exams and plane tickets for the trip.
The insurgents torched the Darwishi family home in Farah Province two weeks ago, and most of their close relatives are in hiding.
Mr. Darwishi, 32, said he could not understand why it had taken so long to obtain a visa, after accompanying Green Berets on missions every night for five straight years and surviving gunfights, ambushes and improvised bomb explosions.
He credits his friend Ian Parker, a former U.S. Army soldier with whom he trained Afghan commandos in Kandahar, with pushing through his visa application after it had stalled for years. Mr. Parker, 37, now a contractor who divides his time between overseas assignments and his home in Florida, called members of Congress.
“I’d seen other interpreters get approved in less than a year, certainly less than two years,” said Mr. Parker, who has not been able to meet with his friend in person in the United States yet. “I did what I thought was the right thing to do.”
But even after Mr. Darwishi’s paperwork started moving, it was 354 days before he and his wife could come to the United States, Mr. Parker said.
The couple settled in Northglenn, Colo., near Denver, after Mr. Parker suggested that the landscape might remind them of home.
“The first days here were pretty good for me,” Mr. Darwishi said. “No one was behind me. No one was looking to kill me.”
But after six months, the money he was getting from a refugee settlement agency for rent on a one-bedroom apartment dried up. No employers or colleges in the area have recognized his bachelor’s degree from Afghanistan, even though he graduated at the top of his class. And while interviewing for jobs, Mr. Darwishi contracted the coronavirus and passed it to his wife, who was already battling a series of medical conditions. She was sick for a month and a half.
Afghan friends pooled money to buy him a sedan so he could drive for a food delivery company, where he makes about $215 a week after paying for gas.
It has not been enough.
Sitting on a coffee table in their modest apartment was an eviction notice, next to a brochure for an apartment complex for lower-income families.
“Some people call us heroes,” Mr. Darwishi said. “Some call us homeless.”
On a shelf in the apartment he must vacate by Oct. 1, Mr. Darwishi has four framed certificates of appreciation from the U.S. military units and contractors he assisted for more than eight years. He also has several graduation certificates from online courses he recently completed in the hopes of getting into a computer science program at a nearby university.
They ‘Dropped Out of the Sky’
Last Saturday, a group of Afghans and Americans met in a house secluded among the redwoods south of San Jose, making pizza in an outdoor oven and reminiscing about the early days.
Among the guests were Mohammed Yousafzai, an interpreter, and Adrian Kinsella, a former Marine Corps captain, who met in Afghanistan in 2010, when Mr. Yousafzai was assigned to his platoon.
“We relied on him to translate everything but also to give us the actual meaning and context behind the words,” Mr. Kinsella said. “He never complained about going on two patrols a day. He hated the enemy even more than we did.”
After the Americans arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, Mr. Yousafzai said, men no longer walked through the marketplace of his hometown holding the severed hands of shoplifters, and he could wear a soccer uniform without fear of punishment when he and his siblings biked 20 miles to school. “I was so excited and happy,” Mr. Yousafzai said. “People started living their lives.”
Recruited at 18 by an American contractor, he was soon in the cross hairs of the Taliban, who assassinated his father in revenge. After leaving his work with the coalition after four years, he was constantly on the run, facing threats and a hail of bullets one day when he slipped into Kabul from hiding in Pakistan to sell his car.
After separating from the Marines, Mr. Kinsella enrolled in law school at Berkeley and asked his fellow students to help with Mr. Yousafzai’s case, which had been pending since 2010. Mr. Kinsella spent the next two years contacting senators and media figures to gain passage for Mr. Yousafzai and his family, including a 3-year-old brother who was kidnapped by the Taliban, who kept him in a shed, as they waited. A note referred to “a friend of the Americans” and instructed Mr. Yousafzai to leave a $35,000 ransom on his father’s grave.
Finally, in early 2014, Mr. Yousafzai was granted a visa. He made his way back to Kandahar with his mother, who carried his documents because she knew she would not be searched, and he was off to San Francisco. His mother, brothers and sisters soon followed.
The family’s new neighbors in San Jose furnished their home and helped them settle in, later got them medical care and tutors, and eventually taught the older children to drive. “I went on my neighborhood email and I told people, ‘This family dropped out of the sky and are sitting on a floor with nothing,’” said Katie Senigaglia, who owns the house in the woods where the group gathered for pizza.
An Interpreter Too Good to Share
Major Schueman concedes he was in a transactional mood on the day he met Zak. He had already worked with so many interpreters, but Zak was different. He was physically fit, and his English was excellent. Most of all, he was willing to go to Sangin, which many interpreters avoided, given the dangerous terrain.
“I immediately recognized he was a special guy and I was very lucky to have him,” Major Schueman said. Marines in the other platoons began to eye this new addition to the team with envy, but Major Schueman had no intention of sharing him.
The patrols were long and terrifying, as the Marines made their way through mined territory toward villages, often being ambushed in a campaign that killed and severely injured scores of troops.
At one point, Zak overheard two Taliban fighters from the distance talking on their radios as they organized an attack on the group of Marines plodding slowly toward them in formation, behind an engineer with a metal detector.
“He just runs through the field, tackles the guy,” Major Schueman recalled of Zak, who not only obviated the attack, but also marked a cleared lane with his footprints for the Marines to advance.
“There’s no other interpreter that would be willing to accept all that risk,” he said. “We would give Zak a loaded weapon and have him on security while we were working on a casualty. I have several more kinds of Zak stories, but I just think it’s a testament to the trust that we had in him.”
When Zak left Sangin after that deployment was over, “all of us walked into the landing zone where the helicopters landed, and, you know, it was sending off one of our own,” Major Schueman said.
Zak has not been able to find the second of two contractors who hired him, delaying an already arduous process that has left him despondent. “I worked for two years with Army, and I had nothing. I don’t have work papers, nothing. And that’s why my processes is delayed,” he said.
So far from Kabul, in a province surrounded by the Taliban, it is hard for him to see how the Americans can find him now that he is hidden far away.
The Taliban leave menacing voice mail messages on Zak’s cellphone. He is unable to go into town and get a job to support his wife and four children.
“I can’t find a way to have a life,” Zak said.