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Afghan interpreter fearful for future in US under Trump


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Ziaullah Zia Anwari sat in a balcony at the West Virginia Capitol watching as newly elected senator Richard Ojeda was sworn in along with the other state lawmakers.

Ziaullah Zia Anwari, who served for more than eight years as an interpreter for U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, is presented with a coin for his service. Ziaullah immigrated to the United States in 2013 under a special visa program for translators who worked with U.S. forces.
(Submitted photo)

The 23-year-old native of Afghanistan had driven more than three hours to make sure he was in attendance when his friend took the oath of office, but he didn’t expect the eyes of West Virginia’s highest legislative body would be turned to him that January day.

Following the lead of other senators, Ojeda, a 24-year Army veteran, turned on his microphone and stood to announce his family and his special guest, who — starting at the age of 10 — served as an interpreter alongside U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.

Ziaullah’s introduction elicited a long round of applause as Democrat and Republican lawmakers alike stood to recognize him and the dangerous work he had done for more than eight years as the longest war in United States history slogged on.

Now, a little more than two weeks later, Ziaullah is back in Dayton, Ohio, where he lives with his two brothers and is taking college courses in business and electrical engineering.

The sounds of applause that he was greeted with in West Virginia have faded and have been replaced by a sense of dread, as Ziaullah began to fret over what President Donald Trump — a man who called for a ban on Muslim immigrants during his campaign — could mean for himself and his family.

Afghanistan was not listed as part of Trump’s controversial immigration order last week that halted all refugee travel for up to 120 days, froze travel for people from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and banned refugees from Syria indefinitely.

But the immigration order and the dialogue that has followed — including White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus suggesting more countries could be added to the list — has Ziaullah concerned about his family’s future in the country he has called home since 2013.

“It’s quite frightening that this whole Donald Trump thing happened,” Ziaullah said earlier this week. “It’s quite frightening.”

As Trump’s executive order was rolled out over the weekend, news reports highlighted fellow Iraqi translators being detained in U.S. terminals and being blocked from boarding flights to the United States in airports abroad.

Ziaullah is a green card holder, giving him permanent resident status in the United States, but his brothers — 18-year-old Gullzada Anwari and 28-year-old Ashoqullah Anwari — currently are only visa holders.

Both of them fled Afghanistan after Ziaullah obtained his visa under a special program designated for Afghan interpreters who helped U.S. and allied troops.

Gullzada, who is now in high school in Ohio, left Afghanistan after his school was closed due to security reasons, leaving behind his parents who still live in the war-torn country.

Ashoqullah, who also served as an interpreter for U.S. forces, had a longer fight to get to the United States. He fled Afghanistan to Mongolia, where he was imprisoned for a time, before being released and eventually approved for travel to America, where he hopes to be approved for a green card.

Ziaullah’s biggest fear is that Gullzada’s visa will not be extended and he will be sent back to Afghanistan, where the Taliban continues to retake territory and reinforce its control.

“I can’t see him go back, because if he goes back he’s going to get shot,” Ziaullah said. “This situation is getting very dire right now and it’s getting very frustrated and annoying.”

Before Ziaullah left Afghanistan, he and his family were receiving death threats because of his work with American and allied troops. His parents had to flee their home village and seek refuge in another part of the country.

The threat to their lives is noted in the letters of recommendation that military veterans wrote to U.S. immigration officials on Ziaullah’s behalf.

“Mr. Anwari and his family have received credible direct threats from those who seek to undermine the Afghan state,” one letter reads. “Letters have been delivered to his personal residence indicating that insurgents intend to seek revenge for his service to the coalition.”

“I not only put myself at risk,” Ziaullah said, reflecting back on his service in Afghanistan. “I put my family at risk, too.”

Translators, like Ziaullah, signed on to do the life-threatening work with the U.S. military, often with the promise that they would be approved to live in America afterward.

Ziaullah just wants to make sure that his service will stand for something in the future. He says he can understand why Iraqi translators would be angry at being detained or stopped from entering the United States on the visas they were promised.

“Where is the loyalty in this? Where is the integrity in this? That is what pisses me off,” Ziaullah said.

Ojeda, the West Virginia senator from Logan County, said Ziaullah’s service record is unquestionable. With around eight years of service, Ziaullah watched wave after wave of U.S. troops begin and end their tours of duty. He remained.

During his months of service with Ziaullah, Ojeda said he often requested Ziaullah personally for missions because he was able to keep his cool even in the most dangerous villages and mountain passes where U.S. troops were working.

“The guy was fearless,” Ojeda said.

The U.S. Army veteran said he is just as frustrated by the fear and apprehension that has invaded Ziaullah’s new life. In a perfect world, he said, Ziaullah and other translators would be welcomed to the United States at the same time as returning American military forces.

But Ojeda said he doesn’t believe that decisions by Trump or members of his new administration will lead to Ziaullah or his brothers being sent back to Afghanistan.

Like more than 68 percent of the voting population in West Virginia, Ojeda supported Trump during the presidential election. He said he has confidence that James Mattis, Trump’s new secretary of defense, will ensure that foreign translators will be accepted and welcomed into the United States.

“I defer to General Mattis,” Ojeda said, referring to the retired Marine Corps general who voiced concern over Trump’s previous proposal for a Muslim ban during the campaign.

The executive order, as it stands, isn’t a big problem, Ojeda said.

“There is nothing wrong with a 90-day notice to make sure we get all of the bugs out of the system,” Ojeda said.

In response to Trump’s immigration order, the Defense Department has reportedly started to gather a list of Iraqi translators that they hope to get cleared from the 90-day ban. But nothing has been decided yet, leaving many of those individuals in limbo.

Ziaullah compared the politics he is witnessing in the United States to combat.

During war, soldiers battle the forces that are pushing against them, he said, but in politics people allow themselves to be swayed by whatever forces are strongest at the time.

“Every politician follows the force of gravity,” Ziaullah said. “It really sucks. They don’t care if they hurt people who have put their life on the line.”

Ziaullah trusts Ojeda and the other men he served with implicitly. He just hopes that other people in his new country are willing to empathize and put themselves into somebody else’s shoes.

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