Photo Courtesy of Matt Zeller

One Veteran’s Battle to Bring His Afghan Interpreter to the United States

I last saw my Afghan interpreter, Janis Shenwary, in December 2008 at the main gate of Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Afghanistan. Janis had come to say goodbye as my tour was nearly at its end. I thanked him for saving my life in combat and for making me feel so welcome in his country.

As he turned to leave, Janis told me that an interpreter from Ghazni (the province in which we served for the duration of my tour) was murdered by the Taliban a week before while traveling home for the Eid-Al-Adha holiday. I hugged Janis and told him “My brother, I’ll do whatever it takes to get you back to the United States.” It took every ounce of strength to let go. As Janis walked away into the busy Kabul streets, his large padding-stuffed coat held tightly around his body, I prayed that I’d one day see him again.

For the next five years we kept in regular contact over phone, e-mail, and Facebook. Janis transferred out of Ghazni for the ostensibly safer confines of Kabul. He’d e-mail every few months to tell me about his visa application efforts.

Prior to 2009, Afghan interpreters were told that if they gave the U.S. military five good years of service, they and their immediate families (spouses and children) would get Special Immigrant Visas to immigrate to the United States. The number of service years has now been reduced to one but that change did not benefit Janis.  

To apply for his visa, Janis had to secure letters of recommendation from every unit he served. An officer, like me, normally writes these letters at the end of our tours, as that’s when we can best assess our interpreters’ job performance. The problem with this process is that once I left, the unit replacing me had every incentive to withhold their support for his visa until they left. As our departure approached, word got out among our replacements that Janis was one of the best interpreters on the base. Our replacement unit’s leadership determined they needed Janis to succeed at their mission. As a result, they held off writing their letters until the end of their tour. And as they were replaced by yet another unit, the process repeated itself. Janis was too good at his job for his own good: he needed stellar letters of recommendation in order to secure a visa, and yet the letters were being withheld because he was so good.

By 2011, Janis, now in Kabul, found an U.S. Army officer willing to walk his application packet all the way to the State Department. Janis immediately set about getting an Afghan passport — a bureaucratic nightmare requiring countless bribes and numerous Afghan government officials calling in personal favors. Ironically, Janis secured his Afghan passport in less time than it took for him to get his US visa.

From 2011 until July 2013, Janis waited for word that the State Department had approved his visa. Several times the US embassy in Kabul asked him to file additional paperwork and even appear for medical and personal interviews. At every appointment Janis would ask how much longer the process would take, but no one could ever give him a more specific answer other than “months to years.”

But Janis didn’t have years. The Taliban know who he is and have had him on a kill list since at least 2006. Throughout his duties as an interpreter he helped detain and capture hundreds of Taliban fighters. And, on at least two occasions I know he personally killed enemy fighters in order to protect his American brothers.

As a result of his service to the United States, the Taliban began hunting Janis and sending him countless death threats. I lost count of the times he’d play me a voicemail or show me a letter that said “Janis, we know who you are and when we catch you we will cut off your head.” Just last week he found a note on his car that said, “Judgment Day is coming and when we catch you we will kill you and your family. You are a traitor and an enemy of Islam.” His only hope was to leave Afghanistan.

In an effort to secure a visa for Janis, I enlisted the help of my family, friends, and colleagues. Thankfully, as a member of the Truman National Security Project, I found myself far better connected than most to launch a campaign to save Janis.

The Truman Project’s Executive Director, Mike Breen, a fellow U.S. Army veteran of Afghanistan, is a founding member of the Iraq Refugee Assistance Project, an organization that provides pro bono legal assistance to SIV applicants in Iraq and Afghanitan, is now leading the sacred effort to ensure the Iraq and Afghan SIV programs do not expire at the end of September 2013 and 2014, respectively.

The Truman Project’s members – national security experts from across the country – immediately began pulling whatever strings they could within the government to expedite the processing and issuance of Janis’ visa. IRAP sent its National Policy Director, Katie Reisner, to Washington, D.C. to rally members of Congress around the issue.

With Truman Project and IRAP behind me, I started a Change.org petition in coordination with Change.org’s Deputy Campaign Director, Tim Newman, and within a week of the petition going live, Tim had secured several media interviews for me and Janis (by phone from Kabul). Yahoo! News published the first story about Janis on Sept. 6, and within hours the petition had more than 50,000 signatures.

Finally, I asked my supporters to contact their members of Congress and get these elected officials to write and call the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the State Department, and anyone else they thought could help expedite Janis’ visa for approval. At last count, three senators and five members of the House of Representatives sent letters and called the Embassy seeking answers and action.

On Sunday night, much to my surprise and joy, Janis sent me the following Facebook message: “Matt, today the embassy called me to tell me to come pick up my visas. I am now holding visas for me, my wife, and my two children.”

I called him immediately. I’ve never heard him happier. The U.S. government will sponsor his and his family’s travel from Afghanistan to America in the coming weeks. The government will also provide eight months of cash and in-kind support to help them get settled in the United States. The embassy told him to expect to leave Afghanistan within the next 60 days. We marveled at the fact that in just a few weeks we’ll get to have our first conversation in person since that cold December day in 2008 and that our children will get to grow up together.

Going through this complicated process educated me beyond imagination. I’m convinced that the current visa program, while well intentioned, cannot succeed as designed. The whole program currently lacks a leader and functions as an ad hoc amalgam of various U.S. government organizations which each have to approve a visa before the State Department can issue it.

Seldom do these organizations operate in coordination with one another. For example, for Janis to receive his visa, organizations such as the FBI, Homeland Security, and State Department all had to individually approve his visa application during their security background investigation, using their own individual opaque databases.

We must find a better way. We must fulfill the commitment we made to those Afghans and Iraqis who sacrificed so much to ensure the safety of our men and women in uniform.

The Jewish faith teaches that “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Janis saved my life in combat and for that he is my brother and I will always be in his debt. I consider him a member of my unit still in Afghanistan, and we don’t leave our brothers behind.  Thankfully after 5 years, the last member of my unit will finally come home.

Matt Zeller is an United States Army veteran of the Afghan War, a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and the author of Watches Without Time.

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