Among the Lucky Ones

Hassan is tall with a slender build and a delicate smile. Though his presence is gentle, it carries with it a sense of power. He looks put-together: A wrinkle-free shirt is tucked into his pleated trousers.

Sitting on the patio of a Starbucks in Oakland, it’s hard to imagine the 32-year-old trapped in the depths of rural Afghanistan, amid Taliban rule and American intervention. But that is the land to which he was born, and it is where resilience was borne in him—during “the dark days,” which he describes as a wounded world with a failed government and an absent military; a place where propaganda substituted for news and education focused only on Sharia.

“When I was living in the village, always you could see darkness. There was tribal fighting, political parties fighting, and there was no hope for a future,” Hassan says. “I always wondered what is a good way to leave—you have a short life, you at least want to enjoy your life.”

The scenes watched in movies or read about in books, Hassan witnessed in live performance. He described the death of his uncle in 1997, who was shot while fighting against Taliban insurgency. “He died because of a simple injury: He had a bullet in his leg, and he was bleeding too much.” But in the village, urgent treatment options did not exist. “It’s not good psychologically to see this, but it was happening right in front of me.” He was 13 years old.

To shield themselves from the horrors of war, Hassan’s family fled the country, hiding in the mountains before arriving in neighboring Iran. They did not return home until 2004. Yet, while his homeland was invaded by war, his mind never was. There’s a happy story hiding behind Hassan’s kind eyes. He takes a sip from his cold-pressed orange juice before sharing it.

Hassan recounts his time with the United States Military outside of a Starbucks in Oakland, Calif. / Salina Nasir

Raised in the Qarabagh district of Afghanistan’s southeastern province of Ghazni, Hassan would often stare at the open sky, following airplanes and wondering about the theories behind flight. He would conclude that there’s a little bit of magic in mysteries. “I think I was thinking a little bit in a crazy way at that time,” he says. “But I began thinking I’d become a pilot. This wasn’t a dream, just something to wonder about.”

Fast-forward a decade, and that same starry-eyed child that dreamed of airplanes finally boarded one in 2007—not as a pilot, but as a Pashto and Dari translator and cultural specialist with the United States Army. He was setting out on a mission alongside a convoy of U.S. troops, something he would continue to do a thousand times over.

“As a translator and specialist, I would understand the culture dynamic and advise the commander of the brigade how to approach certain areas during missions,” Hassan says. Such a job never entered his mind until 2006 on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-Fall when he met an American for the very first time.

“I was taking a nap at around 2 p.m., and the loudspeaker went off from the mosque,” Hassan explains. “The mullah announced that the Americans are here.” He hurried to the village center on his brother’s motorcycle to find a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) from the U.S. military conducting an assessment on the land. PRTs were tasked with “reconstructing the area and building more infrastructure.”

“I saw the convoy, and I offered them food. I’m a village guy, I had to,” Hassan says, chuckling. “Are you guys hungry?” he asked the Americans, whom he remembers as having friendly faces and broad shoulders. “Food? Tea?”

While the PRT continued with its work, Hassan tagged along, wearing a friendly smile and speaking in bits of broken English. “I helped them navigate by showing them the road and how to get back,” he recalls.

Patrick Dunleavy, an engineer and chief petty officer in the Navy was there that day. He describes Hassan as a “good-looking” young man who stood out. “You can just tell right away that Hassan has this certain something about him that just draws people to him,” Dunleavy says.  

Hassan’s presence left a positive impression on Dunleavy, whom Hassan still calls “boss.” Hassan remembers hearing, “You want a job? Call this number.” He let out another chuckle. “All I understood was the word ‘job,’ but when I saw the number, I knew what to do.”

As the only person from his village who was offered a job, Hassan was excited—but he was convinced it was “just a trial.”  With no hint of a plot or narrative, Hassan set out for what he believed would be a week-long stint at the U.S. base in Ghazni—but the days did not just saunter past; they rushed by at rapid pace until one week became eight years, until the base became his new home.

“I remember the first day,” Hassan says. “Boss came and picked me up from my village.” A four-hour drive on unpaved roads finally ended at the “big base,” where Dunleavy gave Hassan a tour.  “At the end, Boss gave me a paper and said, ‘You’re hired. Come back next week.’”

He began working first at the dining facility of the base, where he mastered his English by interacting with soldiers and supplementing his learning with chapters from “Chicken Soup for the Soul” and episodes of “Friends”. A year later, he became a translator and cultural specialist who embarked on more missions than he can remember—more than one-thousand.

The missions varied in length, some lasting several hours and others spanning the course of weeks. Sometimes the convoy would be tasked with assessing clinics in villages to gauge what medication and supplies were needed; other times they would work to establish school contracts. One thing remained constant: Each mission was life-threatening, yet he was among the lucky ones, he says, as he returned from each one unharmed.

But then there was stillness in the air as Hassan remembered death’s authority during one specific mission. “Sometimes we didn’t come back as a team. The nature of the operation is like that.” Hassan explains that troops can have a successful mission only to be hit by a roadside bomb on the way back to the base.

During one mission, Hassan suffered dehydration on the way. “I was in the first vehicle and I told my commander that I’m sick, and that I cannot translate.” Hassan was advised to switch with another translator who was riding in the last vehicle. As floods blocked the convoy from returning on the same path it had arrived on, the troops were forced to choose a different path home.

Hassan’s memory is interrupted by a train horn blaring in the background. Alarmed, he looks around, then pauses before continuing: “The first vehicle blew up, and we lost the translator. We lost three other American soldiers too.” He doesn’t say much after that; he keeps his gaze lowered and mutters, “You know, if that day I was not sick, I would have been burn down right now.” He later added that he wished translators would be treated more like veterans.

As each year passed, Hassan’s responsibilities increased and so too did his support for the American military—even as anti-Americanism was rampant. He eventually transitioned to the State Department where he served as a political assistant working to coordinate elections and secure education for women.

When other locals continued to question American presence, Hassan advocated for it: “There are 15 years of Americans in Afghanistan, and that 15 years is worth 100 years.” He says America released Afghanistan from the “prison of Taliban regime” by giving the country democracy and funding its military. “If you compare now to those days, it is way much better.” Hassan breathed a sigh of relief. “Way much better.”

He left the military—and Afghanistan—in 2013 after receiving a Special Immigrant Visa, which is issued to translators who have helped American troops abroad. Dunleavy was instrumental in helping Hassan immigrate. He provided Hassan a positive letter of recommendation as a thank you for his service. “The risks that [translators] take is almost at the same level as soldiers that go in combat,” Dunleavy says.

Today, Hassan lives comfortably in Hayward with his wife and three-year-old daughter. He enjoys family bicycle rides over the weekend and inviting friends for kabob dinners. But he is still often times struck with the painful realization that there is work left to do in the country that he risked his life to rebuild.

“We are starting from scratch back there,” he says.  “The government is only 16-years-old, and there is still corruption.” But this time, he adds, it isn’t up to America to act as the “police.”

Hassan hopes to return one day to collect the pieces of his heart that he left behind, and to work to propel the country forward. His goal is to create an organization that sponsors scholarships to bring Afghan youth to the U.S. to study. “They can learn something about counter terrorism, criminal justice or law enforcement to see how rule of law applies here,” he says. “This will give them an idea so they can help the future society in Afghanistan.”

Hassan asked to keep his family name private out of fear of Taliban retaliation against his relatives who remain in Afghanistan.

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