ITHACA, N.Y. — Every day is dangerous for Muhammad, a former Afghan interpreter for U.S. military on the Taliban’s “kill list.” He is holding out hope he will be able to start a new life in the U.S., and with the advocacy of a woman in Ithaca, he may find a way out.
Muhammad worked with the U.S. military for about a decade before he fled Afghanistan to hide in Pakistan with his wife and daughters. By chance, he connected with a Ph.D. student at Cornell University, Kristy Perano. For months, she has been fighting to find a way out of Pakistan for Muhammad. She met Muhammad at a point when he was almost ready to give up after being denied entry to the U.S. as a refugee twice.
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Editor’s note: The Ithaca Voice is only publishing Muhammad’s first name and part of his brother Zamanzai’s name to protect Muhammad’s identity while he is in hiding. The subjects in this story believed it was safe for The Ithaca Voice to publish certain photos of Muhammad.
Perano and Muhammad connected through social media in January. Perano was looking to volunteer with a nonprofit organization called No One Left Behind, an interpreter assistance and advocacy program that has a chapter in Rochester.
Just before President Donald Trump’s first executive order in January to temporarily bar entry to people from several predominantly Muslim countries, many Afghan and Iraqi interpreters were concerned about how this would affect them — though the ban ultimately did not include Afghanistan — and flooded No One Left Behind’s Facebook page with questions, concerns and pleas for help.
A post from Muhammad caught Perano’s eye. He said his case to come to the U.S. as a refugee had been denied, and at that time, his appeal had not yet been reviewed. Perano saw that no one had replied to him, so she replied, directing him to some resources.
Within a few hours, she said they began talking; Muhammad sent her almost a dozen documents as proof he was an interpreter, such as ID cards, certificates, photographs with soldiers, and even threatening letters from the Taliban.
“He really wanted to find someone who could help him, and so I didn’t really know what to do, but I knew that No One Left Behind said you can get congressional offices to try and help refugees. I said OK, I’ll write a letter to the congressmen for you,” Perano said.
Perano is not a lawyer or an immigration expert. She technically wasn’t even a volunteer with No One Left Behind when she began helping Muhammad, though she is now. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering at Cornell. Regardless, she felt compelled to help.
Perano did find two congressmen to contact United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, but by the time they did contact USCIS, it was too late. Muhammad’s appeal had been denied for “discretionary reasons.”
“(Muhammad) was really heartbroken, and he was at the point where he was about to just let go, surrender to the Taliban because he was, like, ‘I have no way to get out of here,’” Perano said.
How an Afghan interpreter helped U.S. troops work against the Taliban
Muhammad is in his early 30s and began working for the U.S. military around 2003. He is the fourth of five brothers and has a wife and four daughters between the ages of 2 and 8. Muhammad and his family are from Nangarhar Province in East Afghanistan on the border of Pakistan.
Growing up, Muhammad’s family had been fairly wealthy. His father owned a clothing business and had a lot of land. His family’s wealth allowed him to get an education and learn English. He also knows four other languages.
Muhammad’s fluency in English and other local languages made him an ideal candidate to be an interpreter. He was young when he began working, around 17 years old, but he said the U.S. military accepted him because they had an immediate need for interpreters.
When Muhammad first became an interpreter, the U.S. military had been in Afghanistan for two years and the number of troops was climbing. In 2003, there were 13,100 troops in Afghanistan. In 2004, that number swelled to more than 20,000, according to a timeline in Military Times.
Muhammad said he was drawn to working for the U.S. because he supported its mission to fight terrorism and the Taliban.
He was not the only person in his family to become an interpreter for American troops, but he was the first. In a phone interview over WhatsApp, Muhammad said he did not ask his father for permission before becoming an interpreter, but his father approved of the job later and just told him to be careful.
“I like American forces and American people, so I started to work with them, and their work was good because they were working … for the security of the people,” Muhammad said.
Terrorism is not the “friend or religion of anyone,” Muhammad says.
When Muhammad first began working with U.S. forces, he said he trained other interpreters, but after about a year he started to go out on missions alongside U.S. troops as they arrested members of the Taliban. He would also help translate for other scenarios, like when they would go into villages, meet with officials, or decipher what members of the Taliban were saying over radio channels.
Muhammad has worked with several branches of the U.S. military including the Navy, Army, Special Forces and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He also worked for the United Nations for a year.
Recommendation letters from the Army, Navy and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime describe Muhammad as a reliable, talented and hardworking interpreter.
A Navy lieutenant who was stationed in Gardez, Afghanistan, recalled working with Muhammad. For about six months in 2006, Karsten Daponte worked with Muhammad weekly and sometimes daily while stationed at Camp Lightning, a base that was about two hours south of Kabul.
Daponte served as an operations and security adviser for the Afghan officers who ran their portion of the base. He also helped on a few humanitarian-type missions, like delivering shoes, clothes or books to local communities. Daponte said Muhammad and other interpreters were “absolutely critical” to their work.
Naturally interpreters helped U.S. forces overcome language barriers, but they also almost served as a guide to the country by helping translate cultural norms, customs and even signals from people.
“When we engaged with the local community, an interpreter could also be a mediator to explain to local citizens what our American forces were trying to do — as a sort of unofficial intermediary,” Daponte said.
Perano recently connected with Daponte, who now works at a software company in Arlington, Virginia. Once Daponte verified it was the same person he had worked with, Daponte agreed to write a letter for Muhammad’s humanitarian parole case.
“I think we owe it to these interpreters to help, if we can, given the commitment they made to us in their own country’s interest,” Daponte said. “They had to commit to helping us in order to do that. As a result, they put themselves and their families at significant risk. I think they’re owed a lot of credit for that.”
Muhammad continued to work with U.S. troops as they began to pull out of Afghanistan. But, when the situation became unsafe for him and his family, he fled to Pakistan. Though he had received threat letters from the Taliban, what finally prompted him to leave was an assassination attempt by the Taliban on his brother and nephew.
Other members of Muhammad’s family also fled to Pakistan. He knows that his brother and a nephew made it to the U.S., but he does not know where other family members are. If he gets to the U.S., he says he will try to search for them.
Muhammad, who has been in hiding since 2014, says the lives of interpreters are “worse than jungle animals.” He says he does not know how long he will be able to keep himself and his family safe.
Staying in hiding is like being in prison, Muhammad says. He is unable to work for fear of being discovered, so he spends his time at home with his wife and daughters. He teaches his daughters English and has a couple books to keep him occupied — on the subjects of history and international relations.
“Right now I am in a situation where my hands and feet are tied. I cannot do anything. I have my hands, but I cannot use. I have my feets, but I cannot use. I have my eyes but I do not use,” Muhammad said, talking about being cooped up all day.
Muhammad has to change houses every few months. He has a friend that will send him tips when there will be police or Taliban raids, when they search homes looking for Afghans. If they discover he was an interpreter and worked for Americans, it’s a death sentence. Once, his wife and children were home during a raid, and the police beat his daughters, he said, and took all of their money.
Now when he gets tips, he takes his oldest daughters and hides nearby under trees in a tall, grassy field while his wife and younger daughters hide with a friend. They leave in the morning and wait 13 to 14 hours until it’s dark to head back home. Sometimes they don’t know the exact day there will be a raid, so they hide away from the house like that for 15 days or more.
The same tipster also brings him groceries every few weeks.
“I am very tired of … this life,” he says.
But working with Perano has given him hope. He dreams of coming to the U.S. where his daughters can go to school and later college.
“And if I have the time, if I get the chance, I will study,” Muhammad said. “And if not, I’ll just work for my kids, for my daughters so that they can study.”
Coming to the U.S. as a refugee is not the only route for interpreters to get to the U.S. Often interpreters apply for a Special Immigrant Visa, a program launched in 2007 that is designed specifically for interpreters from Afghanistan and Iraq. To apply, however, interpreters need a letter from a high-ranking military official. Since Muhammad has fled to Pakistan, he has had trouble reconnecting with people he worked with on Facebook. Perano has been able to locate a few, but has not been able to find anyone high-ranking enough to write a letter.
Perano is now working with a lawyer in Seattle to help Muhammad apply for humanitarian parole. People can be approved for parole if there are “urgent humanitarian or significant public benefit reasons,” according to USCIS. To decide if Muhammad is eligible, USCIS will examine whether his circumstances are pressing, the effect of the circumstances on his welfare and the degree of suffering that may result if parole is not authorized, USCIS states on its website.
Muhammad and Perano have shared dozens of documents with The Ithaca Voice, showing certificates of his participation with USAID, recommendation letters from the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and United Nations. He also has shared interpreter badges, identification cards and numerous photos of himself on missions with U.S. soldiers.
An interpreter that worked with Muhammad, Mohammad Wali Stanikzai, confirmed that he worked with Muhammad for a USAID-funded project around 2010. Mitra Khaleghian, a supervisor for the USAID-funded project in 2010, also confirmed that Muhammad worked for her.
An ‘automatic death sentence’: 13,000 interpreters live in hiding
Like Muhammad, many interpreters must hide while they await visas or another way out.
Trevor Railey, director of Operation Lost in Translation, an arm of No One Left Behind, estimates there are about 13,000 interpreters who are trying to find a way out of Afghanistan.
If an interpreter is caught by the Taliban, it’s an automatic death sentence, Railey said. The Taliban is known for targeting interpreters, considered the eyes and ears of the military. In 2014, one estimate said an Afghan interpreter is killed every 36 hours.
“I can’t stress enough the danger these guys are in,” Railey said. “The men and women and even their children are in due to their service to this country. And, we speak with Afghans on a daily basis that are in hiding, that don’t leave their house, that have taken their children out of school.”
Before Muhammad left Afghanistan, his family received threatening messages from the Taliban warning them to stop working for the U.S. He said members of the Taliban warned people in Muhammad’s home village not to have any relationship with him or other family members. They also spread lies saying Muhammad has converted to Christianity.
In a letter, provided to The Ithaca Voice with a certified translation by Day Translations, the Taliban said:
“The Islamic Emirate of Nangarhar Mujahidin inform you, Muhammad (last name and family members’ names redacted), to stop spying for and cooperating with the infidel occupiers and attackers as soon as possible, and come meet the commander of Taliban of Chaparhar District immediately so that a decision and judgment can be made about you to pay atonement or penalty according to the Islamic rules.”
Before Muhammad fled, the Taliban captured and tortured his family’s business partner, breaking his hands and feet. They also captured an interpreter friend until he agreed to give them Muhammad’s information, including a phone number and pictures.
Muhammad fled in 2014, the year American troop numbers began to dwindle after former President Barack Obama declared the U.S.’s combat mission was over and announced that he would pull almost all troops out of the country by the end of 2016. However, U.S. troops remain as “terrorist groups remain active inside Afghanistan,” the U.S. Department of Defense said in a news release earlier this month.
There are about 8,400 military personnel in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, and more troops are on the way.
‘We were so happy in our lives’
Two of Muhammad’s family members that worked with U.S. forces did get approved to come to the United States.
Muhammad’s younger brother, Zamanzai, 32, currently lives in Savannah, Georgia, with his wife and five boys. He works a night shift at a local hospital to provide for his family as a support technician.
In a phone interview, Zamanzai said his last job with the U.S. military was working as a supervisor near their home village in Nangarhar Province. There, Zamanzai said he was well known as an interpreter and others would ask him for a job. He said he also brought Muhammad there, where he said it was safer.
When Zamanzai and Muhammad lived in Afghanistan, they had a beautiful house, Zamanzai said. They were able to live well off of their salaries as interpreters. Zamanzai said he was making about $1,700 per month, a lot at the time. The family including Zamanzai, Muhammad and their nephew all lived together in a house with their families.
“We were so happy in our lives,” Zamanzai said.
Muhammad said when he became an interpreter, he had no intention of ever coming to the U.S. Zamanzai said the same. They supported what the U.S. was trying to do and wanted to see their country improved for the better.
Eventually, Zamanzai said, the Taliban got tipped off that two brothers in the same family were working as interpreters.
One day, Zamanzai said his nephew called him and asked him to use his car to go into their home village to visit his sister from the military base. The nephew and an older brother (not Muhammad), borrowed the car and headed into the village. But, along the way they were ambushed by the Taliban, Zamanzai said.
“The Taliban was thinking that was me,” Zamanzai said. “They got ambushed and they started shooting them.”
Zamanzai said his nephew was shot three times — two times in the right arm and another in the left leg. His brother was also shot in the leg, Zamanzai said. Both survived.
After the ambush, they had to leave everything behind and flee to Pakistan, Zamanzai said.
Zamanzai and his family fled Afghanistan in 2014, around the same time as Muhammad. Though it wasn’t easy, Zamanzai was able to get to the U.S. as a refugee.
Supporting our troops means supporting interpreters
If Muhammad is approved to come to the U.S., he plans to go to California to be close to Perano’s family, who would be a co-sponsor for him along with Zamanzai. She intends to move back to California after finishing her degree. If everything goes well with the parole case, Muhammad and his family could make it to the U.S. in as little as four months.
When asked why she has worked so hard to help Muhammad, who she has never met in person, Perano said she could not live her life knowing she might have been able to save them if she had put more effort into his case.
“I do believe, and many others at No One Left Behind can confirm, that staying in Pakistan is a death sentence for Muhammad since he is being hunted by the Taliban and by the police and military of Pakistan, any of which will kill him if they find him and figure out who he is and that he worked for the U.S. military. And his wife and daughters will have no way to support themselves without him. So their fate will not be any better, if he is killed. I don’t want to live my life knowing I might have been able to save them but didn’t put in the effort it would take,” Perano said.
Perano also said it is “unconscionable” for the U.S. to leave behind interpreters who risked their lives and served the U.S. for years “to be slaughtered by the same terrorists they faithfully fought against.”
She said she is doing everything she can to get justice for his family. Despite everything Muhammad has been through, Perano said he is not bitter.
“The very first time I texted with him, he simply said that someone must make sacrifices for good to prevail over evil and he and his family had to make sacrifices. But he wanted to save his daughters even though he didn’t know how, because he does not want them to suffer because of his job,” Perano said. “He is also a kind person who loves to help others and did a lot to help others when he had the chance. He was paying the medical school fees for six medical students who couldn’t afford it and paying for school supplies and helping with tutoring for poor children from his village. So I know if his life is saved he will help others again in the future and be an asset to our society. And if roles were reversed I am sure that he would be trying just as hard to help me as I am trying now to help him.”
No One Left Behind has been a strong advocate of getting more Special Immigrant Visas. Since 2014, 11,000 Special Immigrant Visas have been allocated for Afghans, according to the U.S. Department of State. Whenever more visas are allocated for interpreters, they run out within months.
Railey said he does not believe the U.S. government is doing enough for the interpreters who worked with U.S. troops. Railey asked why a potential ally would support the U.S. in its next conflict if they know interpreters have been left behind in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“If we’re just going to use and abuse these men and women and then leave their families to get slaughtered, then we’re no better than the people that we’re asking them to fight. And believe me when I say this, they would much rather stay in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they can’t,” Railey said. “Even in the most difficult place to build an argument for immigration or refugees, people agree because it comes down to protecting our troops, supporting our troops, and it comes down to us keeping our word. … There’s nothing more American than that.”