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Afghan Translators for the U.S. Army


WORLD Radio - Afghan Translators for the U.S. Army

The plight of Afghan citizens who serve as translators for the U.S. Army.

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NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. Today is Tuesday, January 2nd. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher. Since 2009, about 26-thousand Afghans and their dependents have immigrated to the United States on Special Immigrant Visas. The U-S reserves these visas for those who face death threats because they served alongside our troops as translators or in other professions.

It used to take about 4 months to secure a Special Immigrant Visa. Now the process takes years, and the supply of available visas doesn’t meet the demand. As a result, thousands of interpreters are stuck in their homeland. Others have died at the hands of extremists before their visas could be approved.

WORLD Radio’s Jill Nelson caught up with two Afghan immigrants who arrived in the United States only months ago. She has this report.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: When Abdali Mahzon joined the U-S army in 2007 as a translator, he kept his decision a secret, even from his family.

MAHZON:  I did not tell anything even to my wife too that I am working for the US Army because it was so dangerous for me. As you know the bad guys, the people who work with the US Army they don’t just kill them, they slaughter them.

I met Mahzon and another recent arrival from Afghanistan at a Starbucks, in El Cajon, California. A city known for its large population of immigrants from Iraq and Afghanistan. Both men came with their families less than eight months ago. Their special immigrant visas allowed them to escape Taliban-issued death sentences for their work with coalition forces.

We decided to talk in a more private setting. Mahzon’s home a few blocks away from the Starbucks. There, his wife and 7 children greeted me. The children range in age from 13 all the way down to a 3-year-old girl wearing a red embroidered Afghan dress. As the three of us settled down to talk, his children scuttled in an out, serving us milk tea, dates, and nuts...and eventually a full lunch of rice, beans, and flatbread. Our conversation drifted to the war on terror.


That’s Maahzon, speaking Pashtu, on a radio broadcast for the U-S army. After working as a translator for one year, he switched to journalism. From 2008 to early 20-17, he helped produce and record U-S Army broadcasts to counter Taliban propaganda. When his work became more public, he ended up on the Taliban’s hit list... and began receiving threat letters and phone calls.

First he moved his family away from his village, hoping to avoid danger. But in 20-14, “the bad guys,” as he calls them, tried to kidnap his second oldest daughter. She was only 9 at the time. That’s when he applied for a special immigrant visa. Five months ago it arrived, and he set off on the 20-hour journey to the United States.

Mahzon has a joyful demeanor. He smiles as he plays Afghan music for us, and even while talking about the mortar that landed next to his house. He is relieved to be here where his family is safe and he trusts the government. 

The other recent arrival is Hematullah. He is more cautious about publicizing his prior work for the U-S military. He worries about friends and family back home, and he doesn’t trust people he doesn’t know. For this reason, I agreed to use only his last name.

HEMATULLAH: the people I can trust I am telling them, but not all the people, because I’m still new and I don’t know anybody who is he and what background he has.

Hematullah is a 30-year old father of three. He calls the Taliban the black side of his country…and when NATO troops stepped into Afghanistan he was hopeful for change.

HEMATULLAH: So I wanted to help them, and I wanted to help my people, support the government and support the people, so I jumped in to start working as an interpreter for the US military.

That was 2006. The following year Hematullah had a brush with death. He was serving alongside the tenth mountain division, 136th infantry in eastern Afghanistan’s Dab Valley when Taliban fighters ambushed his unit. He picked up their conversation in Pashtu on the radio chat and ran to warn the soldiers of the enemy’s plan: They wanted to shoot the entire unit while they were huddled together. Then the enemy pinpointed Hematullah.

HEMATULLAH: They said do not translate anything for them or they will start shooting and shoot you first. And then they did. I actually I got shot in my chest in my body armor, but it was bullet proof, so it burned. So I was pushed and kicked like three meters away. I was a little bit injured, not that much, but other military units they were getting shot on their legs and everything; So that day was a very tough day and I thought I was [dead] but I wasn’t. 

Eventually, death threats started coming in, and Hematullah applied for a Special Immigrant Visa. After years of waiting, both men are relieved to be in the United States, meeting each other for the first time on the day of our interview. They understand how rare that is.

HEMATULLAH:  Most of our interpreters and translators are still in Afghanistan waiting for Special Immigration Visas. 

The families still face challenges: The local schools don’t yet have Pashtu translators. Mahzon’s 9-year-old son cried during a recent earthquake drill because he didn’t understand what was happening. And in two months, Mahzon will need to start paying back the $11-thousand dollars he borrowed from the International Organization for Migration for plane tickets...and he still hasn’t found a job.

But these challenges pale in comparison to death threats from the Taliban, he says, and both men are relishing the simple pleasures of their new adventure.

MAHZON: I like Mexican rice, when they cook Mexican rice, and also chips, and wings…wings are very very delicious.

HEMATULLAH: And I like cheeseburgers…. Also very nice… we don’t make [them] like this. 

For WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson, reporting from El Cajon, California.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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