Trading a life in Vegas to speak for troops in Afghanistan
Some 250 US citizens of Afghan origin have made unlikely career changes to become military interpreters.
Kalagush Forward Operating Base, Afghanistan
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For the past three years, Torpekay (Peggy) Farhamg, a longtime security guard and dealer at the strip's Imperial Palace, has been living behind concertina wire with American troops in Afghanistan. Ahmadullah Barak, who until recently was a used-car salesman at his cousin's dealership in Jamaica Heights is here, too, daydreaming about a slice of New York thin-slice pizza.
The two are among some 250 American citizens of Afghan origin who have made unlikely career changes and become Pashto or Dari military interpreters here – working as intermediaries between foreign troops and the locals they meet, collaborate with, and fight against – and making big bucks along the way.
Most easily admit it was the generous remuneration offered by the contracting agencies – up to $225,000 a year for those with the highest security clearances, they say – that convinced them to give up comfortable lives and join a war effort in the dusty land they long ago left behind. But there is a sprinkling of idealism as well.
"If they didn't pay well, who would even consider it?" asks Mr. Barak. "But I was excited, too. I thought the Americans could do good here."
The American "terps," as they are known, are paid far more than $800 a month typi- cally given to approximately 3,000 locally hired interpreters. But they also abide by a stricter set of rules.
They may not leave their base, unless on patrol or another mission. They could be prosecuted as traitors if found acting against US interests. And they are not allowed contact with relatives or old friends.
When Farhamg's three nieces, whom she had not seen since she left Afghanistan as a 14-year-old bride 30 years ago, came to the gate of the base one day to greet her, they were turned away.
"My kids think I have lost my mind," admits Farhamg, who today has siblings, grown children, three grandchildren, and a home back in California. "And I am pretty tough ... but when I got here, I cried all the time. I missed everyone and I felt locked in."
The daughter of a well-to-do Kandahar family, Farhamg was brought to the US by her first husband, a cousin who had secured a green card. They lived in Queens, where he worked as a doctor's assistant and she went to beauty school. They had four children before opening a pizzeria. Slowly, she managed to bring most of her family over to join her.
When Farhamg's husband died, she moved her family to Las Vegas for a decade before setting off for California with her second husband, an Afghan widower she met near the slot machines and married, in a traditional green Afghan wedding dress, at Graceland Chapel.
Post 9/11, her eldest son, a high school teacher in San Diego, began dabbling in extremist Islam, traveling to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia for militant training. Five years ago, he was killed in Mexico. While the case was never solved, Farhamg believes he was murdered by his own mentors and friends after refusing to carry out a suicide attack.
"I can't explain how this happened. He grew away from us," she says, speaking softly. "We are Americans."
After her second marriage fell apart and she needed money, she was talked into returning to Afghanistan by a recruiter. "I had to pay the mortgage. That's why I came here," she admits. "But I have come to find it interesting. I would do it again."
Within constraints, "terp" days can be surprisingly varied. One morning an interpreter might be at a meeting with local shura, or council, members, the next out on a firing range with the Afghan National Army, patrolling with a special force unit in the mountains, or sitting at a computer translating Taliban websites.