Published January 19, 2014
An Afghan interpreter who earned a hard-fought visa after saving the life of a U.S. soldier who took up his cause is now helping others settle in America under a program critics say falls short of repaying foreign linguists who risk their lives to help the military.
Janis Shinwari settled last fall in northern Virginia, near the home of former Army Intelligence Officer Matt Zeller, who helped him move to the U.S. through the Special Immigrant Visas program. Shinwari, who became marked for death as a collaborator in his homeland, is now seen as something of a folk hero to other Afghan translators fighting the U.S. bureaucracy to enter the U.S.
“Hundreds have reached out to me," Shinwari told FoxNews.com. "I can't even keep count. They find me on Facebook, or call, every day and every night. They heard how I was helped by Matt and ask if we can help them, too.”
Their stories haunt Shinwari, who understands both the reality of Taliban death threats and the ordeal of diplomatic red tape. One former translator whose own escape from Afghanistan was every bit as harrowing and dramatic as Shinwairi's, is staying with his family in Shinwari's cramped apartment.
The interpreter, who goes only by the name Ajmal, applied for his visa two years ago and was finally granted approval late last month. At the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, he was told he had two days to leave under the SIV program, which was established in 2008 specifically for translators who work with the U.S. military.
“I picked my visa up, I noticed the expiration date was Jan. 1,” Ajmal told FoxNews.com. “I only had 48 hours to get out of Afghanistan.
Ajmal -- who was an interpreter for then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he was in Afghanistan -- went to friends and family to scrape up airfare for him, his wife and two children, cobbling together enough for a flight to San Francisco with a connection in Dubai.
But when he arrived at the airport with his family the next day, Ajmal said he was told without further explanation he could not board the flight. Ajmal was left with no choice but to buy another set of tickets out of money he'd planned to put toward a new life in the U.S., he said. In all, it cost Ajmal $12,000 to get out of Afghanistan, despite having a visa earned by serving the U.S. military.
When the four family members finally landed in San Francisco, they wandered the streets penniless until a countryman helped them track down Shinwari in Alexandria, Va. Days later, they were living with Shinwari's family -- eight people in a small apartment. Zeller paid for the trip from California.
Shinwari is still looking for work, hoping to catch on as a translator. But even as he struggles financially, he wants to help people who face the same struggle under the complicated process of applying for an SIV.
“They supported the U.S. in Afghanistan and we have to help them in the U.S.,” Shinwari said.
Shinwari said he was fortunate to have an advocate like Zeller. The two met in 2007 and, a year later, Zeller was on patrol in the Ghazni Province when he and his unit were ambushed by Taliban fighters. Shinwari was back at the base, but grabbed a rifle and went with a team to aid the men. When an enemy fighter sneaked up on Zeller, Shinwari shot him.
The incident cemented the bond between the two, and Zeller battled the federal bureaucracy for years to help Shinwari get to the U.S. That fight left him angry at his own government.
“As for what State [Department] is doing, it seems to me that it's business as usual,” Zeller told FoxNews.com. “No one at State wants this program and so they do all they can to drag their heels and make emigrating as difficult as possible. It's as if State deems them all potential terrorists and doesn't want to let any in, despite the fact that there has never been an instance of an SIV immigrant being linked to terrorism in any way.”
An official for the State Department told FoxNews.com the agency is committed to helping translators in Afghanistan and Iraq get through the process.
“What we have done in the past year is led a multi-agency process to reach out to the Afghan workers,” the official said. “We’ve done so by establishing town hall meetings and had embassy workers travel to different regions to explain and assist in the application process.
“We are committed to helping everyone who helped us and will continue to do so as long as we are constitutionally allowed to," the official added.
The SIV program is set to expire Sept. 30, but a wave of visas has been approved and processing times have “drastically improved," the official told FoxNews.com. Since October alone, more than 900 visas have been issued to Afghan workers, he said.
In the meantime, Shinwari pledged to do everything he can to help his fellow Afghans and interpreters fight for their freedom in America including the recent establishment of a fund to help with costs.
“I want to continue to help them,” Shinwari said. “It is very hard for those who have nowhere to go. I want to help them like Matt helped me.”