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By Lillian Boyd
Farid grew up in a war zone.
“I’ve seen things people will never see in their lifetime,” Farid said. “Sometimes, I get nightmares. But all I can do is suck it up and keep looking ahead.”
But the nightmare that is ongoing in Kabul, Afghanistan is not one that Farid can wake from, knowing his friends and family now face Taliban rule.
Farid, who will be referred to by his first name for his own safety, first began working as an interpreter for U.S. military officials at age 21. He had worked to deliver supplies as a teenager, and interpreting was the next step to higher income.
Dana Point Mayor Jamey Federico, who served in the military for more than 20 years, was stationed in Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan to advise Afghan military leaders.
“We needed interpreters who could withstand high-pressure situations,” Federico previously said to Dana Point Times. He then brought Farid from the combat outposts in Taghaz to the headquarters in Lashkar Gah (both are towns in Helmand Province of Afghanistan). Farid’s translation skills came in handy during high-level military decision-making and dialogue.
“We know of several interpreters who have been killed . . . or their families have been killed,” Farid said. “It’s certainly a risk we were having to take.”
After interpreters finish their work for military officials and that military presence in Afghanistan wanes, interpreters are left even more vulnerable, Federico said.
After Federico’s deployment in Afghanistan had ended in April 2013, Farid had initiated the process to obtain a visa and emigrate to the U.S. Jamey Federico’s wife, Alexis Federico, had been doing pro bono work as a law student for the International Refugee Assistance Project. Under the oversight of a licensed attorney, Alexis Federico was able to take Farid’s case and facilitate his immigration.
When Farid gained approval to come to the U.S., he stayed with the Federicos in Dana Point for several months while he got on his feet. He worked at a security job and then was hired to do sales for Verizon—an opportunity, he says, that helped him learn a lot about the culture and current events in Southern California. He’s since earned his associate degree at Fullerton College and gained citizenship.
Looking back to Federico’s service in Afghanistan, one of the more stressful conversations that needed translation was explaining to Afghanistan’s military leadership that U.S. forces would be waning in the area.
In February 2020, the U.S. and Taliban signed an agreement that set the terms for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. At the time of the agreement, the U.S. had about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, according to a Department of Defense Inspector General report.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops is contingent on the “Taliban’s action against al-Qaeda and other terrorists who could threaten us,” then-President Donald Trump said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The pact included the release of 5,000 Taliban fighters who had been held prisoners by the Afghanistan government, which was not a party to the agreement.
When President Joe Biden took office, he initially pushed the May 31 deadline to September 11. Ultimately, his administration pushed ahead with a plan to withdraw by August 31, despite signs that the Taliban wasn’t complying with the agreement.
Meanwhile, Farid had met a woman living in Afghanistan with whom he wanted to spend his life. After notifying his mother, as is custom in Afghan culture, the families met and approved of the match.
Farid flew to Afghanistan to marry his wife in May. Following his return, the couple proceeded to fill out the necessary paperwork to allow his wife to immigrate to the U.S.
A citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States may file a Form I-130, (or what is known as a Petition for Alien Relative) with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to establish the existence of a relationship to certain relatives who wish to immigrate to the United States.
But on Aug. 15, Taliban fighters entered the Afghanistan capital Kabul. The Afghan president fled the country and U.S. diplomats were evacuated from the embassy by helicopter. Thousands of interpreters and their relatives were left behind, including Farid’s wife.
“The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Biden said in an Aug. 16 speech. “So, what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”
Thousands of people have gathered at the airport in Kabul since the city fell to the Taliban, desperate to board flights out of the country.
Federico has spent the past week trying various options through official channels, reaching out to Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, and Rep. Lou Correa, D-Anaheim, for their help in possibly expediting the processing for Farid’s wife’s I-130 application.
“The process can take up to two years,” Federico said. “The idea was that if we could expedite the process, she would have the appropriate visa to get through Taliban checkpoints to the Kabul airport, where she would hopefully pass through gates to be flown out.”
Levin submitted a formal inquiry to State Department for a status of her visa. But a response could take up to 30 days.
“I’ve lost faith in the possibility of getting her visa expedited,” Federico said.
In a statement to Dana Point Times, Levin agreed in the critical nature of evacuating as many Afghan allies as possible, particularly women and children who are most at risk from violence.
“I am encouraged by the number of evacuations of Americans and Afghans in recent days; it is clear a full investigation is needed of the withdrawal effort and the strategic decisions in the country from the Bush-Cheney Administration onward,” Levin said.
Farid and his wife still had a difficult decision to make: Should they risk an attempt for her to get to the airport without any guarantee she could get into the U.S.?
The Federicos and Farid gathered as much information as they could on which entry points and which gate to go to. Certain access points, they were told, were being controlled by Taliban. Farid’s wife would need to be strategic in her arrival.
“Through a really dedicated and loyal network of active duty and former Marines, we were able to get enough info on which gate she needed to get to,” Federico said. “We were also able to get Farid’s mother out, too.”
Farid’s mother and wife boarded a flight to Qatar out of Kabul on approximately Aug. 25—and while the departure brings an enormous relief to Farid and the Federicos, her visa status and placement remains up in the air.
“I’m hoping (Farid’s wife) is considered a visa applicant and not a refugee,” Federico said. “The biggest frustration is we go and tell Afghans to use the government process and fill out paperwork and go through official channels … that’s what we tell people who want to come here. And then the people who risk their lives are left the most vulnerable.”
The United Nations defines a refugee as someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.
Being given a refugee status could delay Farid’s wife from being reunited with her husband. While she has the advantage of knowing some English, the process of placement takes years and poses unique challenges to women who are placed in countries with a wider gap in gender equality.
Even with the long journey that still lies ahead, Farid appreciates the fortune of their escape from Kabul.
“The Taliban killed my cousin three weeks ago,” Farid said. “I’m learning that they are killing interpreters, killing relatives. It is complete chaos. You’re only seeing a fraction of it in the media.”
While Farid did not anticipate the level of crisis that is ongoing in Afghanistan, advocates such as Steven Miska, a San Clemente resident, have long been working to protect interpreters in hostile territory.
Miska, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, served 25 years in the military and served on the National Security Council for the White House. In 2007, he led a team that established an underground railroad for dozens of interpreters from Baghdad to Amman to the United States, during the height of sectarian violence in Iraq.
“I owe my life to the interpreters I’ve worked with. They risk their lives to bridge gaps in communication for us,” Miska said. “We can’t leave them behind.”
The Pacific Council has partnered with members including Miska, who is also executive director of First Amendment Voice, and Nell Cady-Kruse, risk consultant, to create the “Evacuate Our Allies” Operations Center to help evacuate U.S. allies in Afghanistan. Miska is now helping lead a 24/7 crisis hotline for it and operating out of an office suite under the Pacific Council on International Policy in downtown Los Angeles.
Volunteers have been working 8 to 12 hours per day on-site, taking phone calls and fielding emails from nonprofit partners engaged in helping to evacuate allies from the Kabul Airport to third-party countries, U.S. receiving sites, and local resettlement agencies.
“We’ve been sharing information among a coalition of networks dedicated to this rapid response,” Miska said. “It’s taken a lot of effort to network and get what each individual needs. But it’s so important that we do.”
For those interested in making a donation to support the “Evacuate Our Allies” Operations, visit pacificcouncil.org/content/rapid-response-afghanistan.
“The involved organizations don’t normally combine together for humanitarian issues, but this is a big deal in the veteran community, and we stand by our partners,” Miska said. “This is not a Biden issue. This is an American issue.”