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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Torpekay Farhamg: An Afghan who came to the US at 14, she now interprets for US troops in Afghanistan.
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It's a long way from Vegas.

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.

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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.

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."

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