Translator promised assistance in America receives little

SILVER SPRING, Md. (WUSA9) -- In war, there are gains and there are losses.

"I'm in a situation that I'm lost and I'm thinking of what I lost and what I gained," said Hameed, who asked to be identified only by his first name to avoid possible retribution against his family in Afghanistan.

For seven years, Hameed served as an interpreter, translator and cultural adviser for U.S. and coalition forces during the War in Afghanistan. Because of his advanced English language skills, he was assigned to the second highest command post in Kabul, Afghanistan.

"I was inspired because it was good for the country and it's still good for the country there of mine in Afghanistan," said Hameed, through his ever friendly and perpetual smile.

"America was the only country that could save us and survive us and have a peaceful end and a good life," he continued.

That search for "a good life" nearly cost him his life. But Hameed was well aware of the risks of helping American troops.

"We were hearing a lot about our fellow interpreters being assassinated and killed by Taliban and insurgents," explained Hameed.

Then one day, a Major General with the Afghan National Army approached Hameed with a warning that he should "be careful" because he was on the radar of the Taliban. Soon after that came a direct threat.

"We received a note at our family business in Afghanistan," said Hameed. The note was clear: he and his family were now targets.

Matt Zeller is an Afghan War veteran. His Army unit worked with another Afghan man who translated for them on their missions. Zeller said the translators were "As important as our weapons."

"If you kill the interpreter, then our unit becomes almost mission incapable because we can no longer communicate with the local populations, we can't tell them to stay inside if there's a bad deal going on or that we're here to build a school or a well. We can't communicate," said Zeller.

After the threat, Hameed approached his American superiors. They informed him about a U.S. visa program that aims to relocate Afghan translators whose lives are in danger because of their efforts to help coalition forces. The program was modeled after one for Iraqi translators who helped U.S. troops during the War in Iraq.

Enrolling in the visa program would require Hameed to uproot his family for another country, but it would also save their lives.

"Because of my safety and my family's safety, that was the only choice that we had," he said.

But despite the immediate threats to his life, it took years for Hameed to be granted a visa by the U.S. State Department.

He applied in 2008. It wasn't until January of 2014 that he and his family would finally arrive in the United States, after paying their own way to get here. It was hardly a hero's welcome.

Despite promises of financial, housing and employment assistance, Hameed, his wife and two children - ages three and six - received little.

He was connected with Lutheran Social Services, an aid organization that assists people in need and, like several similar organizations across the country, is contracted by the federal government to handle these sort of replacement cases.

The group gave Hameed and his family $480 a month for three months, but no furniture for the Silver Spring apartment he found and, by his account, little in the way of employment assistance. This has proved to be crippling for an immigrant unfamiliar with what it takes to prepare and hunt for a job in America.

"Since we don't know anyone here or the way or method to find a job to support our family, [the social service's] help was not sufficient. The real thing for us is finding us a job," stressed Hameed. "The interpreters willing was to have a job and stand up on our own feet to support the family."


The visa relocation program was an admitted initial failure by the U.S. State Department.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged as much in an Op-Ed he pennedfor the LA Times in June.

"The effort got off to a slow start... Bluntly stated, the process wasn't keeping up with the demand... Some deserving people were simply falling through the cracks," wrote Secretary Kerry, who also cited "delays in processing applications and lack of transparency in making decisions" as major problems to the program, problems that Hameed knows all too well.

"The social workers were not communicating with us all the time, they would be ignoring," he said.

Hameed's initial experience in the country he had such high hope and expectations for came as a shock.

"In America, in a great nation, the greatest country in the world, we never thought about something like this happening here," he said, still wearing his friendly smile while trying to pick his words carefully.

"He is a prime example of how the system that was put in place to help - and I don't fault anyone, it was done with the best intention - but it has failed," said Matt Zeller, President of No One Left Behind, an organization Zeller created in 2013 to help translators, like Hameed, who have struggled to find footing in the U.S.

Zeller described his organization as one of "last resort."

"We come in when the other organizations have stopped taking care of them, have stopped paying for their housing, when they've provided them with horrible furniture and done nothing to get them a job," said Zeller. "These people are not being taken care of the way that we promised them. They're being brought to our country and basically being dropped off in slum housing and then they're being dropped off at community employment centers where they're told that job training is a Google search all day."

Along with Zeller, other Americans have stepped up where they say their government has failed.

"I will never, ever forget a call from a man named Keith Saddler, who I never met in my life, telling me, 'Don't worry, Hameed, we're going to help you,'" recalled Hameed.

Saddler, with the Northern Virginia Military Ministry Outreach, a coalition of 10 churches in northern Virginia trying to help Hameed and others like him, described the first time he met Hameed.

"We walked in the door of this apartment and there was nothing in there. There was a mattress, not in the best shape in one of the bedrooms, and that was all they had," said Saddler. "I look at Hameed, he was in harm's way [in Afghanistan] but he didn't get to rotate back home. He did it for year after year after year."

Saddler and the ministry outreach have since provided Hameed and his family with furniture for their apartment and, though they struggle to do so, they continue to scrape together anything from toys for the kids to employment assistance. Bill Shugarts is also involved with the ministry outreach.

"[One of our churches] helped Hameed do his resume. The same church helped him get leads for his job search," said Shugarts.

While Hameed holds degrees and certifications from Afghanistan, they are not recognized in the United States, and so goes the story for many translators who have relocated.

But they insist that it's not a handout they seek, just an opportunity.

"Looking for a job is [Hameed's] 24 hour, seven day a week obsession," said Zeller.

That obsession would allow Hameed to take care of his other obsession: his family.

"I still know that I have to try my best to do better for my family," said Hameed.

Despite the hardships, Hameed continues to smile and see the hope and promise that inspired him to join the American cause years ago in Afghanistan.

"I'm blessed having my new friends help me and my family settling in my new country," said Hameed.


For Army veteran Matt Zeller, the American debt to Afghan interpreters is a personal one. Zeller owes his life to his Afghani interpreter, Janis Shenwary.

"I wouldn't be sitting here right now if my interpreter hadn't saved my life in the war - literally. Janis shot and killed two Taliban fighters who were going to kill me in a fire fight," said Zeller. "I look at every one of these men and women as fellow veterans, as a fellow soldier who served our country in war. They literally wore our uniforms."

If the debt to Afghani translators remains unpaid, Zeller fears it could become a national security issue. Secretary Kerry agrees, writing in the LA Times that it could damage "our national credibility the next time we have to rely on local knowledge."

"This is the credibility of our word on the line. We told them if you gave us a year of honorable and faithful service, and that if they found themselves in duress because of that service, so long as they could pass a national security background screening, we would get them here and take care of them and their family. What that means is that they are holding us up to the standards that we held them up to in their country -- and they were the greatest friends and hosts that we could have asked for. We're simply not returning the favor and we need to do better," said Zeller.

According to the State Department, after their initial failures, they have done better in recent months. From, roughly, October 2012 through October 2013, nearly 1,600 Afghans received U.S. visas. But in just the last 10 months, that number has more than tripled. From October 2013 to July 2014, nearly 5,000 Afghans have received U.S. visas.

But it's the U.S. Congress that many insist can have the most significant impact.

"We need urgent help from Congress to continue that progress and fulfill our obligation," said Secretary Kerry.

"They have drastically cut funding," added Zeller. "They need to start funding the existing program far more substantially."

While Zeller's lobbying of Congress members is beginning to receive some bi-partisan traction, he said it's currently not enough and only going to get more dramatic.

"When all the visas for program are exhausted, we will have brought over here roughly 40,000 Iraqis and Afghanis," explained Zeller.

Because of the proximity to aid and relief organizations, added Zeller, the greatest number of these new immigrants will settle in the D.C. area, like Hameed, in search for the promise of a new life and an American promise fulfilled.

But even knowing what he knows now, the struggles he and his family have endured, Hameed insisted that he has no regrets about his decision to help and fight alongside American troops.

"My idea would be the same. My faith would be the same. I would do whatever I was responsible for again," said Hameed, without so much as a blink, let alone a hesitation. Still wearing his friendly smile, hoping the future holds more to smile about.

For more information about No One Left Behind, the effort to help Afghani and Iraqi translators, and to learn how you can help, visit

If you are interested specifically in Hameed's story, click here


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