The West was always slow to help Afghan interpreters - I saw so in 2015

I discovered the immense difficulties that those who helped US forces faced trying to get visas

This July 2, 2009 photo shows Josh Habib, far left, an interpreter for the US Marines, speaking with Afghan villagers and two Marines in the Nawa district of Afghanistan's Helmand province. AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

This September might see a serious escalation in violence in Afghanistan, following the withdrawal of international troops from the country. Busier than it has ever been, the airport in the country’s capital, Kabul, saw escorts take off with evacuees to the safety of the skies every 15 minutes over the past two weeks, according to the latest statistics.

In September 2015, I found myself assisting Afghan and Iraqi interpreters and translators from a Wall Street office in New York.

As a hopeful and eager undergraduate student at New York University, I started my third year with an internship at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), formerly known as the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.

As a legal NGO, IRAP brings systemic litigation to help refugees, asylum-seekers and others in need of a safe home. Through advocacy and case work, they assisted thousands of Iraqi and Afghan allies – those who worked with US forces in various capacities – during their resettlement process to America.

For a year, my job was to reach out to former US army personnel who had supervised Afghan and Iraqi interpreters and translators, asking them to provide letters of recommendation and attest to the work of the visa applicants. These letters were a crucial element of a successful Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) application to the US.

In a good year, the programme would process up to 500 people.

Throughout the year, I interacted with a number of Afghan SIV applicants whose files would showcase their life-threatening work with American and international forces with great pride and meticulous detail. Colourful pictures of fearless moments and combat-related assignments with international forces spoke volumes without words. Moreover, the interpreters’ personal stories of survival spoke to me as a young Bosnian equally admirably.

Born during the war and raised in post-war Bosnia, I became fascinated with the problematics of international and forced migration at a very early age. Starting my studies with my own displaced family, I understood the yearning for peace within all those who had experienced war.

Little, however, prepared me for assisting people in Afghanistan via endless email trails and tireless phone calls, some 10,000 kilometres away in New York. According to the White House, more than 20,000 Afghans worked with the US forces as translators during the past 20 years – a humbling number that attests to their colossal involvement with the perceived forces of peace.

Afghanistan is not unique in its suffering. This mountainous giant of a country is, however, alone in persistently knocking on closed international doors. After more than 40 years, Afghan refugees continue to make up one of the largest and most protracted displacement situations under the mandate of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

However, translators and interpreters, whose lives are constantly hanging on a thread, are not included in this statistic. The real number of all those displaced within Afghanistan due to the imminent threat of death for working with foreign forces might never be known.

Looking at the news of what is happening in Afghanistan today, I cannot help but travel six years back to some of the toughest moments in my quest to secure mere letters of recommendation – those few lines that had the capacity to save a life.

As the only lifeline and guarantee of a successful process, many of my calls with former US army personnel would end abruptly with their complete lack of memory of the person on whose behalf I was inquiring. I was blocked on occasions, perhaps even reported at times. Some would shout back at me over the phone, while most would simply not respond to my emails or other written requests.

To be fair, many had complained that their efforts to help fell on deaf ears within government and that their relentless years of trying brought no success.

My year-long internship with IRAP in New York ended when I moved to Jordan to work for the office there. I left no legacy. The number of people that I managed to help and connect to their former supervisors could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Many supervisors felt ashamed of the obscure amount of help or recognition their former interpreters and translators received during and after their fierce service. I felt ashamed for not being able to do more, leaving most of my files to the intern who came after me.

As a Bosnian, I have been desperate in my attempt to see the world as a better place than it might be, hopeful that some sort of common humanity might hold us together, eager to see more assistance where it is needed and more recognition where it merits.

As Afghanistan gears up for September and the tumultuous period it most certainly will go through, time will interpret the dire state of the current moment. I, however, cannot help but ask myself – who will translate for Afghans now?

Published: August 30, 2021, 2:00 PM