Officially, the war in Iraq is over. And US troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan. But for some US veterans already home, their mission still continues. Recently I met three vets, all students at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.
We gathered in a small room on campus and the veterans broke out their laptops to show me documents, elements of growing case files aimed at helping their Iraqi and Afghan interpreters get US visas and out of danger. They know the threats that their former colleagues can face.
Former Marine Ben Asch remembered seeing graffiti on bridges or buildings while he patrolled in Iraq. His interpreters would translate the graffiti as conveying threats to the US military and those collaborating with it. Underneath the graffiti, Ash said there would be surreal “beautiful murals of hearts and imagery of lions.”
Former Marine officer Matthew Pelnar is also familiar with such threats and has already helped one Iraqi interpreter’s family get to safety. Now he is working on the case of an Afghan interpreter and his family. The interpreter’s father is receiving threatening phone calls at home, telling him that they know his son works with US forces and that “he needs to stop or they will kill them.”
And then there is former Army captain Mark Zambarda’s case. He is trying to get his platoon’s interpreters out of Afghanistan. The documentation he has compiled on his laptop is terrifying. He shows me a copy of a letter that was posted around a village Zambarda and his soldiers once patrolled. The threat appears in handwritten Pashto on stationary from a children’s notebook.
“It’s kind of a mandate,” said Zambarda. It demands Afghans to stop working for the US, otherwise “you will be killed.” Zambarda added that the enemy would then watch to identify the people who would take down the posted letters and “that’d be cause for people getting hurt or killed.”
In 2010, just before Zambarda left his outpost in one of Afghanistan’s deadliest areas, he typed out a letter vouching for his interpreter. “As a platoon leader, this guy was my right-hand man because he was my voice,” Zambarda said. “We really do become friends. These guys aren’t just another Afghan. They’re heroes, just the same. They did a lot of stuff for our country and they did a lot of stuff for theirs.”
Three years on, Zambarda’s interpreter is still waiting for a US visa. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan only makes their work more urgent. “I just hope they do a really good last look at this before US forces leave because it’s going to be a bad situation for those guys over there if they don’t,” Zambarda said.
But these veterans do not toil alone. They work with a non-profit called the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. Part of its mission involves collaborating with law school student volunteers nationwide and pro-bono lawyers to provide legal representation to foreigners in deadly situations, including interpreters with the US military.
Becca Heller co-founded the group while she was a student at Yale Law School in 2008, after seeing Iraqi refugees stranded in Jordan. She is now determined to break the Afghan visa backlog. Thousands of visa applications are piled up in Kabul.
Officials have stated that the US Embassy staff cannot keep up with the demand. Heller said that answer is not good enough. “I think of our organization as a broad coalition of people who know that our work in this country isn’t done,” Heller said.
She said that system in place to attend to Afghans applying for special immigration visas is too difficult to navigate, particularly “if you’re in a life threatening situation, hiding in a basement with someone trying to kill you,” she said. “I don’t know how on earth you’re supposed to manage to get your visa application to Nebraska, which is literally where it has to go.”
Heller is also not surprised that veterans are drawn to her organization. They are accustomed to US government bureaucracy and how it does not always compute in places like Afghanistan. Even mundane requests, for copies of identification or proof of US employment, can be complicated. Ben Ash defends the complexity of the process.
“I mean, this is taking people who are hired off the streets, who might not have any paperwork and then rush for proof of employment. There are obviously no W-2s.” And while he has trusted local interpreters with his life, it is an ongoing challenge, he said, to document someone’s past if only a scant paper trail is available.
So the others veterans continuously stress to their clients the legal importance of getting things down on paper. Zambarda said that his Afghan interpreter may not always understand what is needed. “He might just write, ‘Oh, yeah, I got threatened the other day.’
But it’s hard to communicate that I need you to write this out on paper, sign it, use specific dates. You know, they don’t look at calendars the way we do. They don’t have the same kind of associations that we do to that kind of form information,” Zambarda said.
Their work is also more than gathering paperwork. It is about staying connected to their Afghan clients, friends in some cases, through Skype, Facebook and email—just not leaving them in the dark. Zambarda then read an email he received from his interpreter, who was checking up on documents he had sent along for his visa case.
The interpreter’s written English remains rough, although he speaks it well, Zambarda said. It read: “Sir, here’s some others. That’s all my documents. Sir, if you could please send it to your friends who’s working on my case and tell him please try his best because it’s really hard. For, I mean, my life, it’s so hard.”
So, Zambarda pushes on. On his laptop there is a photograph of his remote Afghan outpost, 7,000 miles from California. It has since been dismantled, as the US forces begin to pullout. For Zambarda, all it takes is to look at that image to remember the dangers, and the friends, he left behind.
By Monica Campbell