One of the spin-offs from any war is the use of locals to help in warfare. The US military used local Afghan interpreters and guides to help US soldiers in their quest for defeating Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq. However, the 69,000 aides from Iraq and Afghanistan face a serious problem when relocating to the US as a bid to escape persecution and execution after the US leaves the country.
One such Afghan immigrant is 31-year-old Ajmal "AJ" Faqiri from Kabul. AJ drives for Lyft as part of a pilot program aimed to help the thousands of local Afghan translators that helped the US troops.
AJ standing in front of his car (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
A few of AJ's passengers notice he is from Afghanistan and ask him how he got to live in the US, and AJ says that what the real question is "why?" AJ speaks four languages, Dari, Pashto, Urdu, and English and he served with US troops from 2006, surviving seven years of service including participation in many firefights and dangerous action. In AJ's eye's he is a US veteran that happened to be born an Afghani. In fact, the moment he was "voluntarily conscripted" to serve with the US army, he should be considered a veteran.
AJ now lives in Sterling, Virginia and believed that with his help and the help of thousands of other natives they could finally bring peace to Afghanistan. From 2008, Afghani translators and contractors, with their families that worked with the US army have fled to the US. The US Department of State issued special immigrant visas to help save them from retaliation and death threats.
The State Department released a statement saying that they increased the resources they dedicated to special immigrant visa processing and are constantly streamlining the process at every application stage. However, with around 14,000 applicants waiting in various stages and that doesn't include their families, the 3,500 available slots for 2108 is extremely meager.
Once the immigrant has landed in the US, cultural and social differences make it apparent that life is going to be very hard. Most Afghans cannot provide a work or credit history, so their chances of being employed are low. Most of the immigrants live well below the poverty line, and more than one family will cram together into a small apartment, just to be safe from the elements of living outside.
AJ states that their service to the people of the US and the US military should earn them some form of honor. After all, their work was on the front lines and in many cases, their lives could not continue back home, where their families would be shunned and in some instances ostracized from society.
While living in Afghanistan would not be safe, living in the US is just as bad, but for different reasons. When a person cannot find a job, then they cannot pay rent, and from there it's a quick downhill roll to living on the streets.
AJ was lucky, he managed to save and borrow around $16,000 to buy him and his family tickets to the US, and reached San Francisco International Airport one hour before their visa's expired. Had there been even the slightest delay, they would not have reached US soil and ended up being returned to Afghanistan. Being sent back was not an option since the Taliban militants closely monitor anyone that aided the US military and offer cash prizes for their capture.
An Afghan interpreter with US troops and Afghan Police
Supporting the Immigrant
In recent years, some nonprofit and business support incentives have emerged offering aid to the Afghan immigrants. Lyft is one US company that decided to help these amazing people; it launched in October 2017 in Washington DC a pilot program for Afghan immigrants that worked with the US military. Lyft's program provides them with work as drivers and also gives them added incentives such as ride credits to help them reach consular and medical appointments.
The reason Lyft chose Washington is due to the saturation of immigrants in the city, with over 10,000 Afghan immigrants living in the metropolitan area, Steve Taylor, GM of Lyft in Washington stated that this made Washington DC a crucial testing ground for the program.
Lyft is not alone in its efforts. The pilot program participants include the advocacy group "No one left behind" which provides assistance, financial aid and also pressure on the State Department for providing more special immigrant visas. This group was set up by retired army officer Captain Mathew "Matt" Zeller, who served in Afghanistan. He was deployed to Afghanistan in April 2008 where he served at the Ghazni Forward Operating Base as the unit's Intelligence Officer, Operations Officer, Air Logistics Officer, and head of all human assistance missions. The group was set up in lieu of his interpreter Janis Shinwari's actions. Shinwari saved Zeller's life in one combat instance by killing two Taliban insurgents. This brought immediate death threats to Shinwari and his family and was the catalyst for Zeller to help bring him to the US as well as help others in the same situation.
Mat Zeller with Janis Shinwari: Getty Images
Zeller states that "The only difference between Janis and I, is where we were born. Interpreters are more of a veteran than I am," Zeller said. "I only did one tour. Janis served nine years."
While AJ continues to drive Lyft passengers in his Black Toyota Camry and stresses that people should not pity the immigrants, they should respect their service and try to help them. All the Afghan immigrants that helped the US military are by nature ambitious, hard-working people that just want the chance to make a living in the US. He explains that most people do not think of the local support that the military uses, and should understand that interpreters and other local assistance providers are a mandatory need for military operations. Without their services, the results would have led to extreme casualty and failure of most missions.