When Sayed Nadim Hashimi first joined the U.S. special forces as an Afghan translator, he was replacing a longtime translator who had been killed on a mission.
Hashimi knew the man, and volunteered to bring his clothes and belongings back to his family in Kabul. He remembers going to the home, where the man’s 5-year-old daughter asked him when her father was returning.
Eight years later, Hashimi, now 27, has moved to the Bay Area—long one of the main destinations in the U.S. for immigrants seeking political refuge. He works at a Santa Cruz tobacco shop, and although he rarely gets days off, he’s thrilled to be finally living in America with his wife and new baby.
Hashmi went on over 100 missions throughout Afghanistan during his three years as a translator in the Mission Essential Personnel (MEP) program with U.S. special forces. For his service, he was promised a shot at a special immigrant visa—a chance to move to America. Sometimes the missions lasted for days without food or rest, Hashimi recalls. They worked seven days a week for 12 hours a day and were required to be on call 24/7.
“There were many times like that where we were facing an ambush and arrested Taliban spies,” Hashimi says. “I was on a mission where the Taliban shot an RPG at a helicopter, there was a soldier trying to jump out, but he and 11 other soldiers ended up dying.”
He wore a bulletproof vest and helmet and carried an AK-47, despite the fact that he’d never held a gun before. He says it wasn’t the policy of his company to carry weapons, and they only get a week or two of training on military organization—not on operating in battlegrounds. Soldiers gave them guns anyway because of dangerous conditions and the fact that translators were often considered traitors by the Taliban—and thus targets.
The nonprofit International Refugee Assistance Project estimated that in 2014, an Afghan interpreter was killed every 36 hours. Having moved to the U.S. just last year, Hashimi says he wants people to remember his Afghan co-workers who have died serving the U.S., and also their families, who often do not receive any government support beyond a few thousand dollars—a modest amount compared to the $100,000 that U.S. military service members families are eligible for as part of a death gratuity program and other allowance programs.
“I saw thousands of young Afghan soldiers die or get seriously injured, losing their hands and feet,” Hashimi says. “Facing that all, that sacrifice, was hard. But you have to lose some things to get some things. I live here now and am trying to not be a part of those days anymore. Now, I want to help the families whose sons died on the missions.”
Hashimi was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. His family fled to Pakistan to escape the Taliban in 1992. One of nine children, he helped his family operate a grocery store in Pakistan before they returned to Kabul five years later. He was in fifth grade when they returned, and eventually took a Youth Exchange Study exam in hopes of traveling to the U.S. as an exchange student. After failing the exam, he says his only other option was to join the special forces and hope that they would eventually grant him an American visa.
Hashimi signed up for MEP at age 19 in 2011. He waited a year to apply for his visa, leaving his job as a translator in December 2014 once it was granted. He was one of 7,000 Afghan natives granted such a visa in 2014, over 2,300 of whom came to California. Hashimi found his way to Santa Cruz after a stint in Fremont, where he has extended family. Even getting here seemed like a huge risk, but one worth taking.
“I saw that I could fight for the country, and if I stayed alive, then I could go to the United States,” he says in an interview.
MEP, now known as Mission Essential, is a government contractor serving intelligence and military clients. As one of the primary companies providing translation services for the U.S. government, MEP has been responsible for recruiting and screening thousands of interpreters headed for the battlefield. It pays them a maximum of $900 a month to accompany front-line troops into action.
Although, Hashimi says for the times that he wasn’t on active, hazardous missions, he got paid a salary equivalent to about half that amount, $450 a month. In the past, MEP has been accused of abandoning wounded employees and sending physically unfit interpreters to the front lines. “Those classmates that I had signed up with, a week or two after they saw the battlefield and soldier injuries, they quit,” he says. “It was just me left between us four friends. I stayed because I wanted to help my family, fight for my country and eventually come to America.”
Afghans are increasingly the top recipients of special immigrant visas. According to the Refugee Processing Center, more than 97 percent of the 3,234 people who immigrated to the U.S. under the special visa program since Oct. 2018 are Afghan nationals. The highest number of Afghan special immigrant visas awarded in a year, more than 16,800 visas, was in 2017. The 2019 U.S. federal budget authorized 4,000 more for Afghan applicants.
These numbers only tell part of the story. Many of the people who thought they would be able to move and begin a new life in the U.S. because of their service will be severely delayed or unable to. Increasing scrutiny—and at times intense cynicism—of immigrant and refugee motives has become a hallmark of the Trump administration, which has impacted visa applicants from Syria to Venezuela. Yet there is little data to back up claims that recent immigrants pose any increased threat to homeland security.
Hashimi says he knew of many translators who were stopped or killed by the Taliban for working with the U.S. He remembers one instance in particular, where a suicide bomber actively sought out a translator to kill.
“I try not to talk about it,” he says. “It makes me hurt.”
Although they are often eligible for much more, Afghan and Iranian families typically receive a one-time payment of $2,000 to $5,000 for a family killed in action, says Michael Silverman, associate at Military Justice Attorneys. But under the U.S. Department of Labor Defense Base Act, Afghan translators working for contractors like MEP are insured and eligible for more workers’ compensation if injured or killed.
“In a nutshell, anytime an employee is injured or suffers a psychological injury, these insurance companies are responsible for it, and that is also the case for the death of an employee,” Silverman explains. “What we have found is that many times the employer will pay a small stipend for an interpreter who is killed and not inform the family that there is insurance that will cover it.”
Silverman says his firm represents many clients from Afghanistan and Iraq who are eligible for compensation, they never received.
Hashimi laments the injustice of their plight. “The people that die,” he says, “if they are not Americans, then the government forgets them.”