The United States promised Iraqis and Afghans that they would be eligible to come to the USA when their work was done. But many have been waiting years for their visas and fear for their lives.
AMMAN, Jordan — Iraqi interpreter Bassam Hashem was having lunch with colleagues at the Loyalty Camp in Baghdad, a U.S. military base, when an Iraqi colonel in the federal police force turned toward them from the next table.
"'We will get you when the Americans leave,' he told us," said Hashem, 29, noting the colonel was at the camp to receive training. "And he was laughing. 'We will get you all,' he said."
Mohammad Janis Shinwari's warning came scratched on his car. "Your judgment day is coming," was the message to Shinwari, 36, who said the Taliban has been looking to get him for years.
"They know I saved a U.S. intelligence officer's life and have killed Taliban," he said. "They are trying hard to find me – it's just a matter of time."
Two countries, two conflicts and one common fate shared by thousands of Iraqis and Afghans such as Shinwari and Hashem: Because they worked with the U.S. military, they are marked men by militants.
The United States has long been aware of the danger such men put themselves in by helping the Americans. So it created a special visa for them to come to work and live in the USA once their assignment was up.
Instead of receiving the visas they have been promised, they have become snared in a bureaucratic tangle that has forced them into hiding while they wait for apporoval.
Kirk Johnson of the group List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, said the U.S. visa system for interpreters is a web of delays in which no one is held responsible.
The process is designed to reject them or make them wait," said Johnson, author of To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind. "It is as low a moment as it gets for both the Iraqi and Afghans."
The U.S. State Department said it understands the threat faced by local hires who work for the U.S. government in both countries, but it is necessary to balance those concerns with protecting national security.
"We take these threats, and the concerns of those who work with us, very seriously, and we are committed to providing them with the benefits for which they are legally eligible," State responded in an e-mailed statement. But "we need to be sure that those who wish to do us harm are not able to take advantage of the program."
The State Department insists it has improved wait times for responses to requests for the special visas. If so, critics say, it is not good enough.
Of the 25,000 visas allocated by law to Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government, fewer than 6,000 have been issued since 2008, according to Katherine Reisner, national policy director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City. Of the 8,750 available for Afghans, fewer than 1,200 have been granted.
Thousands of these Iraqi and Afghan hires deal with escalating violence in their countries while the visa process, when it works, can take upward of four years.
The program for Iraqis expired Sept. 30 but was granted a 90-day extension last week and is due to be extended again for a year. The Afghan program expires next September.
Johnson was among those who lobbied Congress to establish the special visa programs. When they became law, he said, he was thrilled that America had recognized an obligation to interpreters.
"I never imagined that five years later, we would be looking at the expiration of the program with so many unused visas and an even worse predicament for the Afghans," he said. "And when you look at the number of Iraqi cases still left to process, it would take 17 years to dole out those remaining visas at the rate we have been going."
Some members of Congress have tried to push the issue, sometimes pressuring State on particular cases, but Congress cannot overrule a process that is the authority of the State Department.
Hashem knew from the beginning that it would be dangerous to work with the Americans. But there was little work in Baghdad, and he lacked connections to get the few jobs available, so he decided to respond to the pleas from the U.S. military for help from locals.
He was hired as a translator and began working in January 2009. He worried about becoming a target for the well-armed Shiite militias that lurked in most Baghdad neighborhoods.
He took precautions. He avoided the five-minute walk to his mother's house from the camp and instead took taxis to distant parts of the city in a roundabout journey home that took three hours but would lose anyone following him.
"The local militias have their eyes on who is going in and out of the camps, following the Iraqis that work there, kidnapping and killing some of those people," he said.
Six months after he started the job, an elderly neighbor who has regular contact with the Shiite militias warned his mother: "We know your son is working with the Americans – your son and your family will be killed."
His family left for Jordan a week later. Hashem stayed behind and lived at the camp, where he was safe until April 2010, when he lost his job and needed release papers or a transfer order from the military to work at another unit. He waited for three weeks, hiding at the homes of friends until he could get out and to Jordan where he waits for the visa he applied for in March 2010.
He received a preliminary approval a year later to his delight, but the visa was revoked with no explanation in late 2011.
"I was devastated," he said. "I thought, they must have made a mistake."
He blames the arrests in 2011 in Kentucky of two Iraqis granted refugee status who were caught trying to send weapons to insurgents in Iraq. As a result, all Iraqi applicants are under deeper scrutiny, he said.
Johnson said he has often hectored U.S. officials at State and Homeland Security about stalled visas and is told the delay is due to security concerns.
"But the truth is, when we have wanted to help high-priority refugees in the past, the only time that happens is if the American president is involved," he said. "If he doesn't provide cover, no bureaucrat is going to stick their neck out or act with any urgency."
Yet some of the interpreters stuck their necks out for Americans, as Matt Zeller can attest.
Zeller, a former CIA intelligence officer and U.S. Army captain, was serving in Afghanistan in April 2008 when his unit came under attack by a group of Taliban fighters in Ghazni province.
He said he was pinned down when Shinwari came running up from the rear, firing his AK-47. Shinwari killed two militants and saved Zeller's life.
Zeller said he spends a great deal of time trying to return the favor – calling congressmen, State Department officials, the media, everyone he can think of to pressure consular officials to get Shinwari his visa.
"These people haven't been among these people, living on the local economy. They haven't served in combat, they don't know what it means when someone saves your life," he said of State Department officials he blames for stalling Shinwari's case. "I am honor-bound to do whatever I can to save him and his family."
Shinwari applied for his visa in 2011, but his situation took on a new urgency after it was announced that his unit would withdraw in October and the interpreters would lose their jobs. After months of lobbying and putting together a petition signed by more than 100,000 people, Shinwari was granted permission Sept. 8 to emigrate.
A few days later, the visa was revoked.
The State Department, which said it cannot comment by law on a specific case, said it has a right to revoke visas, "based on information that comes to light at any time."
Zeller said that is "insane."
"They are hiding behind reasons of national security, but that is an insult to the entire process. This guy had been signed off by everyone, CIA, Defense, you name it," Zeller said.
"Afghans just shake their head and say, 'You have put a person on the moon. How is it possible that you can't process some paperwork,' " said Marine Lt. Col. Ty Edwards, who had been trying to get his interpreter out since 2009. Edwards was shot in the head and nearly died in 2008 after an ambush by the Taliban in Kunar province. What saved him, he said, were the actions of his interpreter, who shielded him from gunfire.
"A lot of interpreters wouldn't have saved my life, but he did, and we owe him," said Edwards, 45, of Tampa, who is partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair as a result of his wounds.
After intense pressure, Edwards said, his interpreter finally received a call from the U.S. Embassy in late September to come in for processing – four years after he applied for the special visa for interpreters. He got a call last week telling him he had been approved.
Now he waits and hopes nothing goes wrong.
Retired Marine major general Jarvis Lynch, who visits Edwards weekly and has been helping to push his interpreter's case, said it is important that Americans remember the lessons of the past and do the right thing.
"This is what we did to the Vietnamese who had cooperated with us and did what we asked them to – we basically abandoned (many of) them to re-education camps and/or death," said Lynch, who served in Vietnam. "We shouldn't have a repeat of that grievous sin."
The State Department said it has "redirected and increased resources" to improve processing times, which have improved "significantly" in the past two years.
"Across the U.S. government, every effort is being made to ensure qualified applicants are processed in a timely fashion," the statement said.
Advocates for the interpreters say the United States should do something to ensure their safety. They say people at risk for retaliation should be allowed to stay in safe facilities outside Afghanistan or Iraq until they hear from State.
There is precedent for such a move. The United States airlifted many local hires out of Vietnam in 1975 to process them in secure facilities. About 7,000 Iraqis were airlifted out of Iraq in 1996, and three years later, 12,000 Kosovars were brought to Fort Dix in New Jersey for processing.
The threat is real, Johnson said.
He recalled the case of a man in Kirkuk, Iraq, named Omar, who applied in 2011 for a visa and had to keep changing housing to avoid Ansar al-Sunnah, al-Qaeda's Iraqi arm.
On June 9, 2012, Omar's body was found near his home, decapitated. His family continues to be threatened and awaits word on its visas, Johnson said.
Zeller worries his interpreter may meet the same end.
"We used to have the body parts of captured interpreters sent to our base – hands, feet, fingers, toes – a warning to our interpreters about colluding with Americans," Zeller said. "It sickens me that we would just resign him and all the others to that fate."
These days, the Iraqi interpreter, Bassam Hashem, works as a translator in Amman and continues to write letters to consular officials asking for an answer to his request to go to the United States.
"I feel betrayed," he added. "I have lost hope for the future. All my efforts had revolved around finding a safe place to live and to begin my life again — now I am stuck."
Following the initial visa approval last month, Shinwari quit his job at Camp Blackhorse, and sold his house, his furniture, his children's toys. He was called back by consular officials Sept. 30 to restart the process.
"My wife is crying because we have lost everything," he said. "And my children are crying because they are prisoners — they can't play with the other children because I am scared they will be kidnapped."