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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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Take a random week last month. Farhamg spent a day at the in-camp clinic, a day playing a rape victim during a training exercise for local police, one flying by helicopter to a remote village to hand out winter clothes. The rest of her time she spent at the Kalagush base's front gate, receiving local visitors in between swatting flies and applying the ruby red nail polish her best friend Latifa sent in a care package.
At many bases, the terps create a little world apart for themselves, centered around cooking and eating together. They are welcome to eat in the mess halls, or to share in the Meals Ready to Eat (MRE), but often prefer to cook Afghan dinners with fresh ingredients brought on base by the local interpreters or day laborers.
At Kalagush, Farhamg's cooking has made her something of a celebrity, with soldiers angling for invitations to sit cross-legged in the caravan with the interpreters and sample her eggplant, meat, cumin, and raisin rice specialties. The few female troops on base will often stop by for motherly advice, a hot chai, and a squirt of her Clinique perfume.
But beneath such semblances of normality at bases, there is also an acute sense of frustration and disappointment, as well as fear for the terps.
"My parents were so excited that I came here, but everything has been disappointing. I don't even want to tell them how sad it is," says Barak, who grew up in Kabul before coming to Arizona at 25 as a political refugee. "We threw out one group of bad guys and brought in another.
"America is trying, but corruption is insane. Worse than ever before," he continues. "Billions of dollars are pouring in, but warlords in Kabul are living in mansions while people there still don't have electricity half the time – and the roads everywhere are collapsing because contractors stole the money. It's far greater a challenge than America expected."
"We are doing small projects, a road here, a school there – but regular people see corruption at top levels, and they just don't like us. And this helps the Taliban get strong again."
Mujeeb Saify, a local interpreter, nods sadly. He is supporting his family with his salary, and admires the soldiers he works with. But, after three years in the job, he does not go home to visit his parents and siblings in Jalalabad anymore, for fear of putting them at risk. And like others here, he wears sunglasses while out on a mission to mask his identity.
While there are no statistics provided by coalition forces on the number of interpreters who have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan, the numbers are reported to be in the hundreds, with many locals killed as punishment for working with the US.
Mr. Saify's best friend, Hayat Khan, a fellow interpreter, was forced to flee after the Taliban put out word that he was to blame for the killing of civilians at a wedding party mistakenly hit by an American bomb. Two other friends from English language school were also killed – the Taliban calculating how much they had made as interpreters over the years and demanding that sum from their parents in return for the bodies.
Saify's dream, he says, sitting on the stoop in front of his tent and leafing through a worn TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) book, is to become an American like Barak and Farhamg, and go to college. Five months ago, he applied for one of the 50 visas allocated every year to interpreters wanting to come to the US.
"Brittle. Broom. Brothel. Bully," he mouths, going over vocabulary words. He can't decide if he wants to study political science or engineering. "Tolerant. Torture. Touchy. Tranquil." According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, close to 500 Afghan interpreters have already applied for the visa slots this year.
"One thing is for sure," says Barak, watching Saify. "I have a new appreciation for being an American. I miss that place now."