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We Are Not Just Refugees


ISSUE:  Summer 2009
The interior of a Church's Chicken, with an empty counter and glowing menu on the wall.
Ryan Ozawa / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The sad looking man with the forced smile works the counter at Church’s Chicken.

He takes orders, sweats in the numbing glare of heat lamps.

His dark, lined face strains. He has an engineering degree from Kabul University. He was an interpreter for the US Army in Afghanistan. At thirty-one he should not be working here.

“Spicy or regular chicken, sir?” he asks a customer in a monotone voice weary from repeating the same question over and over again.

“What?”

“Spicy or regular, sir?”

“Spicy.”

His coworkers call him Sam, a crude shorthand of his Afghan name. He prefers it that way. Have you known fear? he asked them when he was hired. If some bad people back home know where I am, no matter how slim the likelihood of that, the family I left behind will be in danger. Do you know that kind of fear, sir? Of course, they do not. The less they know about him the better.

“Drink, sir?”

“A regular Pepsi.”

“Would you like a side with your order, sir?”

“What?”

“A side, sir?”

“Fries.”

Sam works between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., five days a week for seven hundred dollars a month. He wipes tables, mops floors, serves food. Between customers, he wrings his fingers with frustration.

“I can’t make out your accent? Where’re you from?” the customer asks.

“Kabul City, sir.”

“What?”

“Afghanistan, sir.”

“Damn. Hey, give me one regular and one large drink.”

Sam waits for a girl to pour the sodas. The kitchen ovens roast him.

“Get the spicy strips!” his manager yells.

Sam retrieves them the desperation of his servitude cutting through his eagerness to please.

*  *  *  *  

Sam arrived in the United States in January 2008 on a Special Immigrant Visa. The visa was created specifically for those Iraqi and Afghan nationals whose lives have been threatened because of their work for United States forces. The Iraqi translators, drivers, and assistants of all sorts face near-certain death, at the hands of one militia or another.

At least two hundred and sixty four interpreters serving troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were killed from 2003 to 2008—targeted by militias, assassins and kidnappers. Causes of death ranged from booby traps to evisceration. Another four hundred and three were seriously wounded. Many lost limbs. Some lost their eyesight.

According to the State Department, five hundred Special Immigrant Visas for interpreters are available this fiscal year. Next year, that number will be reduced to fifty available visas.

Since the special visa for interpreters was created, 1,735 of these cases have been approved, although US officials concede that they have not met their target goal for taking in Iraqi translators and interpreters who are under threat for working with the US authorities in Iraq. A total of 821 of mostly Iraqis translators, interpreters, and family members were admitted to the United States from September 2006 to September last year. An extra thirty-nine Iraqis were admitted under the special immigration visa program in October 2007. The number falls far short of the rate needed to meet the goal of 12,000 by the end of this year.

The special visa allows translators and their immediate families to gain admission to the United States, apply for permanent residency and eventually acquire US Citizenship without jumping through the innumerable hoops that other refugees must. However, an applicant has to navigate a string of different hurdles. They must be a national of Iraq or Afghanistan, have worked directly with the US Armed Forces as a translator for a period of at least twelve months, have obtained a favorable recommendation from a general or flag officer, and have cleared a background check and screening required on a case-by-case basis.

If approved, still another set of challenges awaits them. A refugee without special status is automatically referred by the US government to a social service agency before their arrival for assistance with housing, employment, English language classes, and other necessary needs. A refugee with a special immigration visa, however, has no government liaison and must rely on contacts they made among their American employers in Iraq or Afghanistan for help once they arrive in the States. Otherwise they could easily be left stranded at the airport essentially homeless.

“These people risked their lives, put their families in jeopardy,” says Vu Dang, director of the Washington DC regional resettlement office for the International Rescue Committee. “I do think that when they come to us holding a special visa it heightens expectations. It’s hard to adjust to that reality.”

Larry Warren, director of refugee and immigration services, Lutheran Social Services, Silver Spring, MD, agrees.

“The term special is misleading,” he says. “We’re under pressure from the government to get them employed as soon as possible. That usually means entry-level jobs. Real basic jobs they don’t like.”

Adds Rachel O’Hara, director of refugee resettlement and employment for the US Committee For Refugees in Washington, DC, “I do think the special visa heightens expectations. We get a lot of Ph Ds, you know, engineers who had solid careers in place before they arrived. But they may not speak English. It is not possible to secure them a professorship. That is their expectation but it doesn’t happen. They find out very soon they are treated like anyone else.”

*  *  *  *  

Sam lives with another Afghan interpreter, thirty year-old Ahmadi, in a spare, two-story house in east Kansas City. It is owned by Janet Dean, a single woman who, until she met Sam, had lived alone for nearly thirty years. He was walking with his wife and son on a January afternoon and saw Mother Dean as he now calls her kneeling in dirt planting flowers. He waved and she waved back. He asked her, Madam, do you know of a park where I can take my son? By his accent, it was obvious he was not American. She took a long look at him and heard God tell her he had a need.

Sam told her he had been living for three months up the street a few blocks from her house in the basement of a soldier who had befriended him at Bagram Airbase, a former Soviet military installation occupied by American troops outside Kabul. They shared the house with eight other people. It only had one bathroom. The basement was cold at night. She told him his family could move in with her. Instead of rent, he would help with the upkeep of the house. One morning later that month, Sam awakened her. Mother, he said, my wife is very sick. They drove to a hospital and she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Six months later Ahmadi, Sam’s neighbor from Kabul, Ahmadi’s two boys, and his pregnant wife moved in.

At sixty-one, Janet Dean, a short, stocky woman with large eyes that loom out behind round glasses was set in her ways when she offered her home to Sam. When she found cereal and marshmallow crackers on the floor from one end of the house to the other, she got irate. Ahmadi’s children used to swat at her cats. No hitting people or cats, she told them in a no-nonsense voice with hints of taffy-toned southern drawl. The kids know how to say good morning and that’s about it. They now say good morning to her morning, noon, and night. In the evenings, she sits at her kitchen table and bounces Sam’s baby girl on her lap. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s irritating. She has her moments, but she reasons life is one constant adjustment. Isn’t it?

*  *  *  *  

Sam and Ahmadi bicker like an old married couple. For instance, on this summer evening, Sam forgot to stop at a supermarket to pick up some bread after work, and Ahmadi scolds him when he walks in the house. Ahmadi arrived just ten days ago. He does not have a job or a car yet and resents his dependence on Sam and Mother Dean. In the morning he will stop by Jewish Vocational Services, a refugee resettlement agency in downtown Kansas City. His case manager there was an Iraqi interpreter for the US Army in Mosul and goes by his Army nickname of Bob. Bob has advised Ahmadi to move to Timberline, an apartment complex closer to his office and other social service agencies, but so far Ahmadi has refused. He wants to stay near Sam.

Sam also has an appointment with a caseworker. He hopes to attend a local university and get a degree, perhaps in business management so he can find a better job. He does not want his children to see their father serving chicken.

In Afghanistan, he lived in a tall, square six-bedroom house with his mother, father, three brothers and their wives and children. They owned another house about fifteen miles outside Kabul. He had attended private schools where he learned English and engineering. He had recently graduated from Kabul University when New York and Washington, DC were attacked on September 11th. He and his family watched bombs fall on the outskirts of Kabul after a US-led international military coalition attacked Afghanistan in October. It surprised him how quickly the Taliban fled.

A neighbor working at Bagram Air Base told him they needed translators and Sam began interpreting for the US Army. He followed soldiers into caves in Helmand province, a former Taliban stronghold. Afghanistan was not dangerous then, in the spring of 2002.

But gradually, year after year, a resurgent Taliban emerged. Outside Kabul, suicide bombings, kidnappings, roadside bombs, and violent crime became a part of everyday life. The renewed violence killed an estimated eight thousand people last year, quadrupled the rate of insurgent attacks, and frightened away many foreign investors.

Increasingly, Afghans who worked with the Americans were called infidels and traitors. Sam sensed a bad future. US-backed Afghan president Hamid Karzai had problems. Under the Taliban, northern people such as himself had been targets. Under Karzai, interpreters were now the target. Sam stopped telling even his friends that he worked for the Americans. It was getting too dangerous to stay.

He can’t begin to explain how difficult it was to leave Afghanistan. He had always lived in Kabul. He had never left his family for more than ten days. He was crying so hard when he drove his family to Kabul International Airport that he did not remember how he got there.

A Pakistani man he met at a Kansas City restaurant managed a Church’s Chicken restaurant and told him about a job opening. Sam began work the next day. At first he was instructed to clean tables with a rag. What do you do? his wife asked him when he returned home from his first day at work. He didn’t answer. He cried for three, four hours. But he went back the next day.

*  *  *  *  

Like Sam, Ahmadi arrived on a special visa. He started looking for an apartment immediately after he settled in Mother Dean’s house. He paid dozens of thirty-dollar application fees only to be told by prospective landlords that he could not move in because he had no rental history, no credit, no job. Why, he wondered, didn’t they tell him this before they took his money?

Finally one landlord offered him an apartment and Ahmadi gave him a deposit, but he needed more money to cover the first month’s rent. Bob told him not to worry. He would receive a federal assistance check specifically for refugees. Ahmadi waited three or four days but the check never came. The landlord said he would not wait for him any longer and gave him back his deposit but kept the application fee.

Ahmadi had been an English teacher and an interpreter for international aid organizations in Afghanistan before he began working for the army. He read a flyer distributed by American soldiers in Kabul promoting jobs to English-speaking Afghans for eight hundred dollars a month, much more than he had ever earned before. He recalls the arid mountain villages where he interpreted on behalf of sergeants, captains, lieutenants, generals. He met with powerful warlords. He would stay with the army for months and then go home. He thanks God he never saw combat. Never saw death.

He will never forget his house in Kabul. Seven rooms. Dozens of carpets on the floor. Visiting with friends like Sam. He wept when he said goodbye to his family. He chose Kansas City because Sam lived there. The people are very nice, but he feels strange, alone. Not too many Afghans here. The mosques are too far to walk. The summer air is wet and sticks to him. He misses Afghanistan, despite its dry heat and dust and dirt and fighting. I love my tired country, he says. In Kansas City, he notices how clean everything is. Fragile. What can he touch without making it dirty? Neighbors don’t visit neighbors as they do in Kabul. No one checks on anyone. When Mother Dean was sick with flu no one came by to see her.

When Ahmadi taught English in Kabul, he enjoyed the look in his students’ eyes when they began to grasp the language. A sense of possibility emerged that was much bigger than words. When he interpreted for the army, he earned enough money that he did not charge his students. He would like to teach in Kansas City but no university will accept his Afghan teaching credentials. He applied for a social security card so he could look for some other work. His application was lost, however, and he must reapply.

Ahmadi does not understand why he needs a social security card or a job other than teaching. A professional teaching certificate should be honored no matter what country issued it. But look at Sam, an engineer. He serves chicken. Ahmadi no longer trusts that the government will help him. He loved teaching, but maybe he, too, will clean tables.

*  *  *  *  

Ahmadi, an impossibly thin, stooped-shouldered man in sweat pants and a Bass pro fishing t-shirt much too big for him, walks upstairs to his room for his laptop computer. He visits Islamicfinder.org (“Prayer Times For 6 Million Cities Worldwide”) and listens to the voice of a Mullah rise out of his speaker. He kneels on a bath towel and prays. Islam is a very nice religion, he tells the Americans he meets. The Taliban did not understand it. He was fortunate to avoid them for the most part. When the Taliban governed, Ahmadi worked in the countryside teaching English to Afghan doctors employed by Western aid organizations. After six, seven months he would come into Kabul to visit his family. Then he would have problems. Taliban police suspected him of trimming his hair and beard, a violation of their interpretation of Islam. He was jailed. He told them they defamed Islam and they beat him.

Sam waits for Ahmadi in the backyard. Jets of water burst from sprinklers hidden in neighboring yards, hiss, hiss, hissing as they make a circular rotation. Bugs buzz above his head, darting in and out of drifting cottonwood seeds. Sam listens to the soothing pulse of the water and lets his mind wander to escape the greasy odor of his clothes.

He cannot thank Mother Dean enough for her kindness, but he yearns for independence. Three cats. Dirty carpet. Small house. How long, he asks himself, will we be housekeepers? For how long will I clean here and at the restaurant? He translated for the US Army. He met with ministers and generals. We are not just refugees, he says of Ahmadi and himself. We are special.

Sometimes he awakens in the night after dreams of his life in Kabul. He had good friends. On Friday nights they came over to his house and stayed into the early hours of the next morning. A friend called recently from a wedding party. We’re all together but for you, he said. You are not with us.

Awake, Sam wants to make tea but instead stays in bed and waits until he hears Mother Dean stir. She works as an insurance adjuster. He does not know what that is but it requires her to get up early. He doesn’t want to disturb her walking down the creaking stairs while she sleeps. Sometimes she gets angry and Sam thinks he has made a mistake. What has he done? Did he dirty the carpet? Did his son break something? No. It is not about him at all. She is angry about something else. Still, he stays in his room. Stays very quiet and worries.

*  *  *  *  

Outside Kansas City in suburban Gladstone, Bob sits in front of his laptop computer, barefoot in t-shirt and shorts, and lets the time pass before he goes to bed. Framed certificates documenting his work with the Army hang from his walls. For exceptional service as an interpreter. A copy of The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom by TV personality Dr. Phil McGraw gathers dust on an end table 


“I like Dr. Phil. He’s a smart doctor,” Bob says.

He checks out YouTube and listens to rock ’n roll. He contemplates digital photos of his time with the Army.

“This guy was shot and sent to Germany,” he says of a US soldier in sunglasses smiling for the camera beside a Humvee.

He doesn’t know what to say about Ahmadi. Bob showed him a couple of apartments besides Timberline but he didn’t like them. They were too far from his mosque, too far from Sam. He’ll need a job once he settles in a place. Hotel, factory, restaurant work. Ahmadi wants more but he needs to begin somewhere. Bob knows he was fortunate as a single twenty-seven-year-old refugee to settle in so quickly with a job that made good use of his education and experience.

Maybe he wants a five-star hotel or a mansion, a co-worker had joked of Ahmadi.

Bob did not laugh. He understands the difficulty adjusting to America. At first, he was confused too: stunned, a little fearful, trying to take in all the different sights, odors, sounds. He didn’t know anybody. In the three short months he has lived in Kansas City, Bob has learned to be very aware. There were no rules in Iraq. Here you have to be on time. Time is very important. He learned that in the Army. You have to drive a certain speed. You can’t go fast. You have to look at people when you talk to them even though in Iraq that would be considered disrespectful. Strangers ask him where he is from. Iraq, he tells them. They don’t know what to say. What religion are you? they ask, Muslim? They think he’s bad. A terrorist.

“This is a photo of soldiers giving candy to kids. They take but they still hate us.”

The insurgents had very good intelligence. One day another interpreter told Bob his photo was found among captured insurgent documents. He was shocked. He didn’t know how they got the 2004 picture of him partying with other interpreters in one of Saddam Hussein’s many palaces. It didn’t matter. He had to leave. With the recommendation of his commanding officer—his ability to convey the intentions of Coalition Force patrols helps ensure the safety of the people of Mosul, and he wishes nothing more than to become a citizen of the US—Bob secured a special visa in three months and left Iraq in March 2008. He stayed with an American soldier he had worked with. The soldier told him about Jewish Vocational Services. Staff there helped him find a one-bedroom apartment in Timberline. They hired him as a translator and caseworker for the increasing number of Iraqi, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian families coming to Kansas City.

Bob studied English in school. He had trouble with American slang, but those words were not part of the army’s oral and written examination when he applied to be an interpreter in October 2004, for eight hundred dollars a month. He passed easily. They put him with American combat units. Daily patrols. How do you like it with Americans here? he was instructed to ask Iraqis. They were very happy, they told him. US soldiers were invited to lunch, dinner. They were given flowers. Then it started getting bad.

“Here we are at a university searching for munitions,” he says of a photo of US soldiers searching a room of overturned desks.

He wore a mask to conceal his identity. He looked in the mirror and thought he resembled a burn victim. You want a nickname? his commanding officer asked him. To protect your identity? Yes. We’ll call you Bob. The mask sucked, a slang word he had picked up. Hot as hell. Sometimes when he was in a Striker combat vehicle, he would take it off and throw it away. At night, when no one could see him, he didn’t wear one.

One time his patrol captured an Islamic man they thought might be terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and brought him to a jail for questioning. Six months later he was with a different unit and they stopped the same man. Don’t you remember me? he asked Bob. You arrested me before. Despite the mask, the man had recognized Bob’s voice.

Iraqis hated interpreters more than the Americans. Without interpreters, the Americans would be helpless. Like turtles without shells. Bob could see the hatred in their faces. When he visited his village home in Sinjar on leave, he told friends he had been abroad studying or that he had a job in another part of Iraq. Something like that. Whatever appropriate deceit popped into his head.

By the time he left Iraq, his patrols had been hit with twenty-five improvised explosive devices, two car bombs, and three suicide bombers. Heads here, arms over there, patrol after patrol. Snipers were the worst. You couldn’t see them. They hid in the trunks of cars and shot at you through the rear lights. A soldier would just fall down. At first Bob thought the prostrate soldier was just dizzy from the heat until he saw the blood seeping from his head.

“This day we found a huge weapon cache,” he says of a photograph of guns, mines and mortars.

One afternoon his patrol received word of a suspected suicide bomber. They shot a guy matching the description. They checked his ID. He was not the guy. Shot in the forehead. He was sixty-something. An old man out shopping. Bags of fruit and bread were in his back seat. It surprises Bob not to hear gunfire in Gladstone. He enjoys living in a place without fighting. Here, he likes the quiet. He will help Ahmadi appreciate his new country. Bob can’t speak for Afghanistan, but in Iraq it was dirty all the time. Very dusty. Very hot. Very loud. He doesn’t miss it like Sam and Ahmadi miss Kabul. He would like to bring his parents to Kansas City. He won’t tell other Iraqis here that he worked for the Army. They might be sympathetic to the insurgents and report him and threaten his family. It makes it difficult to have friends. When he sleeps he dreams of blood.

*  *  *  *  

The following morning Sam drives with Ahmadi the thirty miles from Mother Dean’s house to Jewish Vocational Services. Long drives wear on his 1994 Dodge. It died shortly after his army friend gave it to him for $1,200. Sam spent $1,600 getting it repaired. In addition, he spends about $200 a month on gas and $550 a year for insurance. I give you all I have, he tells the car.

“I have no money,” Ahmadi tells Bob when he enters his office. “You said I’d be getting a check.”

“Let me see,” Bob says.

“Shit,” Ahmadi says.

Bob shuffles through some papers. Sam asks for his caseworker.

“I don’t know where he is,” a woman tells him.

“He said to meet him here today.”

“So was he planning to talk to you today?”

“About three, four times we’ve scheduled meetings. This is not effective. I need a plan.”

“Sure. Of course you do.”

Sam looks at his watch. He has to be at work in twenty minutes. Bob calls Ahmadi back into his office.

“You are employable,” he says, “and eligible for a six-month federal matching grant for refugees. Two-hundred a month and forty dollars each for your two children. Your wife gets seventy because she’s unemployable.

He punches a calculator.

“That’s eighty seven and a half dollars a week. Wait.”

He sorts through some forms and then consults with another caseworker.

“Okay there’s no money for unemployable. Just you and two kids. Your wife’s not eligible for this. Sorry.”

“Shit.”

Sam approaches another caseworker and asks about his appointment.

“He will see you,” the caseworker says pointing to an empty chair. “He’ll be here in a second.”

“I have to go to work.”

“Then come back. Forget your problems for now and enjoy the day.”

Sam steps into a corner sliced with shadows. At this rate, he feels he will wipe tables and serve chicken forever. Families from Africa and Burma stand nearby and squint in the glare of the hot afternoon sun as they wait to be seen. Ahmadi walks over to Sam while Bob uses the phone to make an inquiry. They huddle together. What are you going to do? they ask one another. I don’t know, what are you going to do? Sam looks at his watch, shakes Ahmadi’s hand and leaves for work.

“Ok, I just called Timberline,” Bob tells Ahmadi. “They have an apartment but it won’t be ready for two weeks.”

“I can’t wait. I want to rent near my friend.”

(Four seventy-one please, sir, Sam tells a customer. For here or to go, sir?)

“We know Timberline. They work with us. You don’t have rent history. Other places, they just want to take your application fee and waste your time. That happened to me. We can’t rent to you, sorry. But they have your money. Timberline is much better. I stayed two months at Timberline. It’s close to here. They pick you up and take you where you have to go.”

(Do you want a side, sir?)

“If I take it, how will I get appliances to cook?”

“They provide all that.”

“Do I have to wait in an empty room until they provide it?”

“No.”

(Ten piece seven ninety-nine plus tax, sir. Here or to go?)

“I don’t want to wait.”

“This is your fault. I showed you Timberline before when they had an apartment but you didn’t want it.”

“Is it safe and quiet?”

“Yes, but you didn’t like it. I think you should take it. As soon as an apartment opens up we will get you the rent money. What are you going to do?”

(Anything else, sir?)

“Shit.”

*  *  *  *  

That evening, Ahmadi and Sam resume their spots in the backyard of Mother Dean’s house. She organizes dinner in the kitchen with their wives. Not a crumb on the floor, she noticed when she came home. Sam’s six-month-old baby lies asleep on the living room rug between fallen sofa pillows, undisturbed by the clatter of a washing machine. Ahmadi’s toddler runs through the living room. A gray cat flees.

The smell of barbecue filters above the heads of Ahmadi and Sam, hinting at the Fourth of July celebrations to start on the weekend. Neither Sam nor Ahmadi quite know what the holiday means for them yet. They have security with Mother Dean but not independence.

Sam will try to see his caseworker another time. Ahmadi has decided to move into Timberline, as Bob suggested. Sam will visit him, and when Ahmadi gets a car he will visit Sam. He would prefer to stay close to Sam but Americans, he has come to understand, don’t live with family or near their friends. For now he and and his wife and children will remain with Mother Dean until he gets his check.

He considers the absurdity of his position. He can’t rent an apartment because he doesn’t have any money. He doesn’t have any money because he doesn’t have a job. He doesn’t have a job because he doesn’t have a social security card. He shakes his head. He had friends who came to America and then returned to Afghanistan. Why did you come back? he asked them. Go and you will see, they told him.

He and Sam cannot return to Kabul. Their work as interpreters puts them and their families at too much risk. Insurgents might consider them important enough to kill or kidnap. Others might consider them traitors. You worked for the infidel people, they would say.

If it were not for Sam and Mother Dean, it would be very hard for Ahmadi. He has no place at the moment other than her house, no friend other than Sam. He must live where he can find an apartment, work where he can find a job, even if it means wiping tables. It is not good or at all special but for now here in the United States, it is enough.

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