He was a translator in Afghanistan. Now safe in the U.S., he prays his work won’t endanger loved ones left behind.
“Ahmad” has been watching the images and news reports out of Kabul in recent days with a stomach-churning combination of anxiety and dread only people who have walked where he has walked can entirely understand. He has lived in the United States since 2014 after serving as a translator for U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province for 10 years.
To the Taliban, “that makes me a traitor,” he says. (Ahmad asked that his true name not be used, fearing reprisals against family members still in Afghanistan.) Ahmad would be doubly damned if he remained under Taliban rule in Ghazni, his home province. Not only did he work for the Americans, he is also a member of a minority tribe and faith, a Hazara and a Shiite Muslim. His people have long been the targets of persecution by the Sunni Pashtuns who predominate among Taliban fighters and leadership.
When he signed on to assist the U.S. army in 2005, the Taliban were a distant childhood memory; he never thought he was joining what would become a losing struggle against them. But by 2014 it was clear the Taliban were not only not defeated, they were becoming emboldened. Like other Afghan translators, he was receiving death threats, and at one point he was almost abducted by Taliban militants. He was able to come to the United States with his wife and daughter under the same Special Immigrant Visa Program that is being used now to evacuate thousands of Afghans from Kabul.
Reviving resettlement efforts
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been urging the Biden administration to be as generous as possible in expanding and expediting that S.I.V. option. In a recent statement the conference called on the White House “to act with the utmost urgency, considering all available avenues to preserve life.”
“Our job is to help stabilize these folks. We’re helping them sort through their legal situation, making sure that they understand their status and what their next moves will be.”
To achieve that goal Bill Canny, the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ office of Migration and Refugee Services, has been working with the State Department on one end and scores of Catholic Charities offices around the country on the other. A vast U.S. church network of more than 40 resettlement offices—likely soon to expand to 50 or more—is gearing up to assist refugees, he says.
“Our job is to help stabilize these folks,” Mr. Canny says. “We’re helping them sort through their legal situation, making sure that they understand their status and what their next moves will be.” The Afghan refugees can expect housing assistance and language and job skills training. Mr. Canny says they will be put in touch with family or Afghan communities already in the United States, and they will be connected to local imams and mosques for spiritual support.
Refugees are landing now at U.S. military bases around the world and around the United States, Mr. Canny says. Whenever possible, they are being met by teams from Catholic Charities seeking to assess their condition and needs.
How many refugees the church network will eventually be asked to accept remains anyone’s guess this week. The U.S. military reports that in two frantic weeks more than 100,000 people have been flown out of the besieged Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Ahmad has been watching those chaotic scenes around the airport and searching images on social media for acts of Taliban brutality.
Like other Afghan refugees who have formed a small expatriate community in Virginia, Ahmad has been watching those chaotic scenes around the airport and searching images on social media for acts of Taliban brutality. It can all become too much. Ahmad says he feels all the terror and tension in the field in Kandahar well up inside him.
“Yes, there were unfortunately instances where we got into firefights,” he remembers. His team endured I.E.D. attacks and Taliban ambushes. The translator Ahmad replaced had died under Taliban fire. “I’m very thankful that I made it out of all those dangerous incidents without getting seriously hurt.”
But he remembers with satisfaction helping the construction of roads and village improvements that he knows made lives better for the people of Kandahar. “Our primary objective was to establish security to make sure people were living in a safe environment,” he says. “At the same time, we were helping with building the infrastructure and building projects so that we could also create more employment and job opportunities for the people.”
Whenever possible, refugees are being met by teams from Catholic Charities seeking to assess their condition and needs.
He is aghast to watch all that effort thrown into ruin by the events of the past month. Contemplating the fate of fellow translators, their families and the Hazara minority at the hands of the Taliban, he struggles for words and for his composure.
He knows Taliban leaders have promised no reprisals, a general amnesty and the recognition of some gains for Afghan women. “I don’t believe that for a moment,” he says solemnly. “I know for a fact that they have already started looking for those Afghan nationals who have worked for international troops in Afghanistan.”
And the indiscriminate torture and murder of Hazara men in Ghazni has already been reported in villages that have come under Taliban control. “There can’t be a more clear message than that,” Ahmad says. “They have not changed. They are the same Taliban that they were 20 years ago.
“People like myself,” he adds, “I can totally understand how afraid, how terrified they might be because of their affiliation…with the U.S. military or with any other foreign government agencies.
“Unfortunately, now that U.S. troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, I think…their lives are going to be at great risk; they’re going to be in a very dangerous situation. I hope they’re able to flee.”
Every family with its own story
Jay Brown knows that many of the people his office will soon be assisting have experienced unspeakable trauma in their efforts to escape Afghanistan. Mr. Brown is the C.E.O. of Commonwealth Catholic Charities, serving the Diocese of Richmond, in Virginia. Nearby Fort Lee will be one of the arrival points for S.I.V. holders and other Afghans evacuated during these last weeks in Afghanistan. That puts his office at a critical reception point nationally, but he believes the Diocese of Richmond and other regional Catholic Charities offices are up to the challenge. His team members have already been out to Fort Lee to welcome refugees.
Taliban leaders have promised no reprisals, a general amnesty and the recognition of some gains for Afghan women. “I don’t believe that for a moment,” Ahmad says.
“Every family that we serve comes with their own history and their own story,” he says. “Our responsibility is really to make sure that our services are able to be responsive to the levels of trauma that each individual person comes to us with.”
On staff, fortunately, are a number of Afghan S.I.V. holders who have been settled in the United States for several years already. That shared experience should contribute to the compassionate, comprehensive response Mr. Brown is confident his team will offer.
“Our job is really to get to work, making sure that we can provide housing, get the kids in school…and really get them pointed toward success and making sure that they thrive in their new community.”
In recent years scores of other resettlement offices were shuttered across the country as the Trump administration throttled back the national refugee program to a near standstill. Mr. Brown reports the Archdiocese of Richmond decided to keep its office open despite those reductions, allowing it to respond quickly now.
Mr. Canny believes the church’s refugee resettlement infrastructure can achieve a rapid restoration. Staff who may have been shuffled around to other duties can be reactivated, he says, and unlike other resettlement programs, Catholic Charities is a broad spectrum social service provider that maintains staff specialists in housing, education and job placement who can be repurposed to the resettlement effort.
After all, this is not the first time the church has been asked to gear up quickly during a crisis, Mr. Canny says, noting similar rapid responses at the end of the Vietnam War and conflicts in the Balkans, Kosovo and Iraq.
Final days in Kabul
Ahmad is praying for a miracle that people will be allowed to escape peacefully during a conversation on Aug. 25. Unfortunately that hope was shattered the next day by Isis-K militants who authored a suicide attack that claimed the lives of more than 170 Afghan civilians and Taliban guards and 13 U.S. Marine and Navy service members—his worst fears realized.
“Our job is really to get to work, making sure that we can provide housing, get the kids in school and really get them pointed towards success and making sure that they thrive in their new community.”
Many members of Ahmad’s extended family have already escaped Afghanistan, but many others remain, too frightened to try to get out or trapped as borders close and conditions around the airport in Kabul become too perilous. “I think about them every moment,” he says.
“They’re praying that what I did a couple of years ago is not attributed to them.” It is a thought which haunts him, but especially as the final days of America’s mission in Afghanistan come to an end before his eyes.
“I know that I live in safety. I know that I don’t have to worry about being kidnapped, being hurt; I don’t have to worry about being hit by an I.E.D.” He wishes that same security for his family and the people of Afghanistan.
Housing on arrival
When refugees arrive, locating affordable and appropriate-sized housing, preferably close to whatever family or communal connections may already exist, is the first major challenge, according to Mr. Brown.
Finding suitable work, of course, is another immediate need. “We have a robust network of employers who are ready and willing to employ our new refugee arrivals,” Mr. Brown says, adding that his office strives “to leverage the experience and expertise of these individuals wherever and whenever possible.”
“I know that I live in safety. I know that I don’t have to worry about being kidnapped, being hurt; I don’t have to worry about being hit by an I.E.D.” He wishes that same security for his family.
The financial assistance provided through the federal refugee resettlement program is designed to be short-term, he says. “So it’s very important that we get people in jobs and ready to work as quickly as possible.”
Mr. Brown reports that there has been an outpouring of support among people in the Richmond Diocese responding to the call to help the newcomers. His office is boxing donations into household starter kits with clothing, sheets and more. Landlords are offering affordable rental options and volunteers are pitching in to help. His office is “always on the lookout for mentors and tutors, people who are willing to kind of have longer-term relationships, particularly with some of the kids.”
“Our goal is to provide as seamless of a transition as possible,” he says, “especially given what’s happening in their home country.”
Some Americans are already grumbling about accepting more refugees, despite the service to U.S. forces that Afghan translators and other S.I.V. holders have offered and the risks they accepted. Foes of restoring refugee resettlement numbers to historical-norm levels, about 80,000 a year, argue that refugees represent an economic burden and a security threat, but the resettlement program, Mr. Canny says, has traditionally maintained a “very high success rate.”
“Within three months about 80 percent of them are working and on the road to self-sustenance.” And “refugees are the most vetted people who come into our country.”
“Within three months about 80 percent of them are working and on the road to self-sustenance,” he reports. And, Mr. Canny adds, “refugees are the most vetted people who come into our country.”
“I don’t believe we have a single case where [a participant in the refugee resettlement program] has harmed any American,” he says.
The first weeks after their arrival in the United States, Ahmad expects, will be the hardest ones for Afghan refugees. They will have to endure the unfamiliarity of a new culture and home and continuing anxiety about family and friends left behind.
That loneliness and anxiety had been especially challenging for his wife in the first months after she arrived, he says. It was the first time she had ever been outside of Afghanistan and cut off from her extended family. “It’s going to probably take some time for them to integrate into their new community, into the new environment,” he says. “That’s not going to be easy for all of them. But I think those challenges are just temporary.
“I’m sure just like other refugees [Catholic Charities has] resettled, they’re going to adjust, they’re going to integrate,” Ahmad says, and, in the end, “they’re going to do well.”