Former translators for the U.S. Military survived war in Afghanistan, but continue to battle resettlement in America
The Front Line: “Go to Hell, but don’t go there.”
There’s a not-so endearing nickname for Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. “They call it hell-land,” said Ajmal Sabit, a former Pashto and Dari translator and interpreter for the U.S. Army, Marines and Air Force. He sat comfortably in his chair—slightly slouched, arms crossed.
Sabit has a deep, raspy voice and heavy eyes that seldom meet your gaze. He speaks fluent English, which he decorates with flares of Bay Area lingo. (He told a story about his former Army Sergeant getting “hella mad,” and he often refers to his fellow service members as “dude.”)
Sabit resettled in Sacramento, California, on a Special Immigrant Visa in 2013. He is one of the over 15,000 Afghans who have immigrated to California since 2007. Nearly 13,500 of them are SIV holders, or former employees of the United States military or government agencies who worked alongside Americans in their home country. In the 2017 fiscal year alone, more than 3,000 SIVs resettled in Sacramento, which has become a magnet for this population of immigrants.
Seven-thousand miles away from home, Afghan SIVs in Sacramento have been forced into a difficult resettlement process. Culture shock and feelings of isolation are common among newly arrived immigrants—they are made worse by the constant threat of financial burdens spurred on by unemployment and the high cost of living. But for former military translators especially, the process can be complicated by the challenge of suppressing their recurring memories of war within a traditional culture that stigmatizes mental health.
Though he has a keen memory, Sabit avoids discussing most of the details of his time in Helmand as a combat interpreter working on the frontlines with the Marines in 2008. But there is one story that he recounts almost effortlessly, as if it plays in a loop in the depths of his mind.
“We were going out on a three-hour foot patrol in a bazaar,” Sabit recalled. He remembers that it was only his second mission, and that he spent the day interacting with locals and working to connect them with medics who could provide them with first aid.
Then the monotony of the day was broken. Someone shouted that a car was approaching at high-speed. “We tried our best to stop him with warning shots, but he was not stopping. He struck the vehicle and blew himself up,” Sabit said. He described the aftermath of the suicide bombing: Pitch-black darkness, thick clouds of ash and dust. Deafening silence followed by harrowing screams.
“A lot of civilians were injured—probably around 25—and five were killed,” he said, bowing his head. “We saw really severe injuries, and I had some trauma from that because it was my first time actually being on the scene.” In the months following the attack, Sabit suffered from recurring nightmares. They worsened each time his unit came under fire. He turned to an Afghan medical facility in search of help. “They basically were like, ‘Here’s some pills that will help you go to sleep and not think about those things,’” he said. But he refused to take them.
“I thought, I’m tougher than this. I can survive and forget about these things.” After all, he had been born and raised in a war zone, and he has lost family members and friends. He was also almost blown up by an improvised explosive device while driving in a military vehicle. He pointed to his right leg. He has scars to remind him what he’s been through.
Some scars aren’t visible, though. Sabit told a story set on the highway between Helmand and the nearby province of Kandahar, where two of his fellow translators died on a mission during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. They were his closest “buddies” with whom he shared a room on the military base. It was an IED that took their lives, he said, and though shaken by the news, Sabit was asked to clean the scene and collect the pieces of his friends’ mangled bodies—a sight that can never be unseen. Sabit estimated that from 2001 to 2013, 1,500 interpreters lost their lives in similar tragedies.
Now, years later and a half a world away, Sabit admits that his visions still come back to haunt him. “I’m trying hard not to remember right now,” he said, lifting his hands to his face to ease the tension on his furrowed brows. He closed his eyes before muttering, “But no pain, no gain.”
Another translator named Shafiullah also witnessed death and destruction during his service for the American, British and Germans forces in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2013. Like Sabit, he wishes to ignore the memories—but he does so to avoid being ostracized by his community. “I can forget everything,” he said. “Because if I keep remembering, easily I will be called leewanay (crazy).”
Shafiullah is a big, brawny man with a thick beard that intensifies his already intimidating appearance. But, surprisingly, he is soft-hearted with kind eyes and a gentle voice. Though he is now resettled in Sacramento, he still lives in fear of retaliation and asked to keep his last name private.
He smiles often and chuckles in between sentences—even when he said he would advise people to go to hell, but not to the front line in Helmand, where the fighting was incessant. “I saw in one day 16 people die in front of me in the same ambush,” he said.
In 2008, Shafiullah was injured in a bomb blast that claimed the lives of his two partners. “One of my teammates, a U.S. army sergeant, moved to a small trench on the top of a hill,” he explained. The sergeant shouted to Shafiullah, “Come forward! And tell the Afghan Army to watch their footsteps because there may be a mine.”
Shafiullah remembers there was a hidden wire running from the trench all the way to the green zone, where fighting was most intense. “Someone was looking from somewhere,” he said. “When one person went there, he didn’t click. When the second person went, he didn’t click. But when he saw me and an Afghan Army member, he [detonated] it.” Shafiullah says the interpreters were the first targets of insurgents because “they are the eyes and ears for the military.”
He said that had he been just an inch back from where he was standing, he wouldn’t be here today. “I stood up once I saw my feet were working, but all I saw was blood. I was wearing armor, but the armor was gone and my rifle was stuck in my neck,” Shafiullah said.
“The blood was coming from my hand, so you know what I did?” He paused to chuckle. “I did like this,” he said, extending his arm and opening and closing his hand. “When I realized I could do that, I said to myself, ‘No worries, your bones are still okay.’”
Both Sabit and Shafiullah explained—separately—that they had been desensitized and conditioned to expect this type of situation. For translators, violence was normal and they met it with excitement. “If one day [insurgents] did not come to fight with us, we were not enjoying our life,” Shafiullah said.
“I think pretty much everyone from the war will suffer from PTSD—both interpreters and U.S. military too,” Sabit said. Both Sabit and Shafiullah said they worked with American military service members who had to pull out of the war to cope with their mental issues and receive treatment. “The same thing happened to interpreters,” Sabit added. “But there was not a lot of help and support for them.”
Roya Sakhai, a psychotherapist and the executive director of Oakland’s Multi-lingual Counseling, works with former Afghan translators. She says she has noticed signs of PTSD among all of them. She believes that frequent therapy sessions can help, but the best long-term approach is “to learn to live with it… to be able to tolerate it and go on with your life as much as possible. It’s a long process, but it is not a prescription.”
Sakhai believes the PTSD experienced by translators is unique. “I think they can suffer more than [American veterans] because they will suffer from shame and guilt,” she said. “There is more confusion about who they are. They go to capture the enemy, but the enemy is also Afghan.”
Interpreters either have to flee the country to avoid reprisals from insurgents or stay with the U.S. military to ensure their safety. Though Sabit and Shafiullah did not meet until they resettled in Sacramento, they share similar stories. In May 2013, Shafiullah decided to immigrate to America with his family. Six months later, Sabit followed suit. Both say they had been waiting for the opportunity to say goodbye to Afghanistan for years.
Special Immigrant Visas: “The U.S. made a promise, and now they need to hold their promise.”
Sabit started the lengthy, 14-step SIV application process in 2008, and Shafiullah began in 2011. According to a Department of Homeland Security report released in 2016, the visa approval process can take longer than nine months. Spojmie Nasiri, an immigration attorney in Pleasanton who helps SIV recipients petition for their family members to join them in the U.S., says it can take years.
But for many Afghan translators, time is of the essence—an SIV is their only way to safety. To qualify for an SIV, translators must have served at least two years with the U.S. military and provided “faithful and accurate service.” Additionally, they must submit verification letters and letters of recommendation from American military service members during the application process.
Nasiri says the process of authorizing applications is “rigorous,” as it goes through “military channels and United Nations security clearances.” “There is also a lot of talk of the U.S. government just not approving them in general,” she said. “But the U.S. made a promise, and now they need to hold their promise.”
However, many translators are left behind, still waiting to escape the consequences that came with joining the war. As of March 2017, almost 4,000 SIV applications were still pending, and more than 500 applicants were awaiting confirmation from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Sabit and Shafiullah were among the lucky ones. But, even for those awarded SIVs, the trauma doesn’t disappear once they reach our shores.
Ulysses in Sacramento: “They don’t have mental disorders, just normal reactions to terrible situations.”
For many SIVs, pre-migration traumas follow them to the U.S. and are worsened during what Patrick Koga describes as a difficult resettlement process. Koga has worked with refugees over the past 25 years and now serves as the director of the University of California, Davis School of Medicine’s Refugee Health Research in the Department of Public Health Sciences. His current project, the Ulysses Project, focuses on looking at the refugee as a normal human being living under extreme situations, not as patients.
The project was inspired by Spain-based psychologist Joseba Achotegui’s interest in using the journey of Ulysses’ return to Ithaca, as described in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” as a metaphor for modern refugees. Achotegui coined the term “Ulysses Syndrome” to describe “extreme migratory grief” faced by immigrants and refugees who may lose their family, culture or social status. In Homer’s epic, Ulysses “was hammered left and right, but he eventually became stronger and wiser,” Koga said. “This is what we use as a metaphor for the refugee.”
In collaboration with Achotegui, Koga is recruiting refugees in Spain and in California for a clinical trial of PTSD. He has already found high rates among newly arrived immigrants—“three times higher than what is seen in the normal population.” However, he added, “They don’t have mental disorders, just normal reactions to terrible situations.”
The project focuses on “subclinical” refugees, or those who are just below the diagnosis line for PTSD and typically do not receive treatment. Preventative intervention and early treatment are vital for these people, Koga explains. “A year later, they tend to go above the cutoff point and are fully clinical because of the daily life hardship and disappointment.” He believes SIVs should be monitored for years following their arrival because “even healthy people can suffer when living under such circumstances.”
“These are people who really need care—compassionate care—from a receiving society with guidance and mentoring,” Koga said. For him and his colleagues, the ultimate goal is policy change. “The current resettlement process needs major improvement—it needs a paradigm shift.”
Re-traumatizing the traumatized: “They’re in for a harsh surprise.”
It’s a Tuesday morning in Sacramento, and Dustin Cooper hastily weaves through the aisles of a Walmart, crossing off items on his list as he picks out an assortment of products: Cleaning supplies, bed sheets, a lamp, baby food, a car seat. Cooper heads one of the few refugee resettlement programs in the area, and that morning he is shopping with money from the federal government to help move in a newly arrived Afghan family with SIVs. The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) provides between $925 to $1,125 per SIV recipient; those include men, women and children who have been elected to receive USRAP’s Reception and Placement (R&P) benefits.
“It’s a family of four,” Cooper explains as he contemplates which diapers to buy, “and they’re coming with a very young baby.” As director and coordinator for the R&P program at Lao Family Community Development, Inc., he ensures that clients have what they need to be as self-sufficient as possible for three months after their arrival.
Cooper said that his team has resettled about 345 people in 82 cases since it started in March.
In the Courtside Apartment Complex, Cooper sets up a Pack ‘n Play for the new family’s baby. He mentions that roughly 80 percent of all SIV holders are women and children who immigrated with a principal applicant—usually the husband and father.
But after 90 days, cases are closed and families are left to fend for themselves.
Cooper said that his main goal is to keep everyone happy, safe and secure during the resettlement process, but Koga believes that the resettlement agencies don’t have enough money to do so, which makes housing only available in poor neighborhoods—sometimes in violent neighborhoods. Shafiullah told the story of his childhood friend, another former interpreter who also resettled in Sacramento. He was ending his shift as a security guard for the apartment complex where he lives when he was shot by an armed robber. Shafiullah has a hard time accepting that his friend survived the war in Afghanistan, only to lose his left eye in the U.S.
“This was like a dream, saying we are going to U.S.,” Shafiullah said. He was chuckling as he remembered thinking he would be living in the tallest building, overlooking a beautiful bridge. “We were thinking that there will be no issues, no problem, no bomb blasts, nothing—but to be honest when we get here, we see sometimes it’s worse than that.”
Perhaps this is because most SIVs are written off as FNU: First Name Unknown. They’re either entered incorrectly in the system—with their first and last names swapped—or they’re not in the system at all, explained Koga. This makes the process of seeking appointments with doctors, lawyers and welfare case workers complicated and messy. It also makes finding work tricky.
“I knew ahead of time that I was going to have to work, but not this hard,” Sabit said.
Annika Sridharan is a licensed clinical psychologist who works with migrant communities as the clinical and training director of Partnerships for Trauma Recovery in Berkeley. She said that aside from struggling with employment, SIVs are also facing a loss of self-esteem. “It can be especially difficult when you’re supposed to be the provider, but suddenly you can’t even provide for your family. The loss is really huge; it can make fathers feel really disempowered, discouraged and ashamed,” Sridharan said.
Recovery is made difficult by the stigma that surrounds mental health in some immigrant communities, Sridharan says. “Depression and PTSD are not mental illnesses, but consequences of human suffering,” she explained. “It’s a form of suffering from life experiences that have happened—it’s not a disease, it’s not a disorder.” She feels the first step is for communities to acknowledge the immigrant’s loss and grieving as legitimate.
But people can still heal from traumatic responses, according to Sridharan. “Their brains and their physiology can settle down. Once they feel safer and have enough resources in their daily life to not have to stress, then yes, they can absolutely recover.”
Koga echoed the need for such resources, explaining that in order to be “fully functioning” and “wholesome” in this society, SIVs need guidance and structure in the form of an organized program that lasts longer than just three months. “The entire resettlement process in the U.S. is based on the philosophy ‘sink or swim.’”
He’s tired of watching them sink.
Jigar khun and Cultures of Shame: “The Afghan face of depression is often anger.”
Rangina Totakhal, a program coordinator for Lao Family Community Development, Inc., works with SIVs who are mass violence victims. She said it’s nearly impossible to have productive conversations surrounding mental health with clients because there is no such thing as PTSD in the Afghan culture.
“I have to ask, ‘Are you jigar khun?’,” Totakhal said, referring to an often-used idiom of distress in Dari, which means “my liver is bleeding.” Koga elaborated: “It translates to, ‘I am so mad and in extreme stress—a stress so draining, with so much suffering—that I am not in control of myself.’”
He added, “The Afghan face of depression is often anger.” Totakhal would agree; she said that among her clients, domestic violence is too common but many refuse to seek professional help. Perhaps pride stands in their way.
Sabit readily admits that there is a stigma attached to mental health in Afghan culture. “It’s so common that people will 100 percent deny going to see a psychiatrist because that’s a shame for the people,” he said. “It’s like they’re just crazy.”
Many Afghan people, he said, fail to understand that there is a difference between a person who is mentally ill and a person who is jigar khun, or suffering from pre-migration traumas exacerbated by near-death experiences.
“Of course there is a stigma. Disorders are only physical—those are the only acceptable ones,” Koga said. “But when disorders are spiritual or mental, the general belief is that you just have to read the Quran and look to traditional healers.”
That’s what Shafiullah did to seek help for his recurring memories. “My main place is the masjid,” he said, referring to a Muslim place of worship. “It is an easy place you can visit, where people can help you and you can help people.”
Arshard Ershad, the president of the Ibrahim Khalilullah Islamic Center in Fremont, believes the same. He says that Muslim immigrants with mental illnesses suffer more when they do not connect with their community. Ershad, who emigrated from Afghanistan in 1979, estimates that more than 70 percent of the center’s attendees are Afghan immigrants.
“But coming to the mosque is not the only way to help the people mentally,” says Rouhullah Wardak, the Islamic Center’s imam. Wardark, also an Afghan immigrant, is quick to dispel any claims that the religion obstructs people’s access to mental health care. He shakes his head while discussing Islamic taboos: “We don’t have that in Islam,” he said, explaining that the religion actually encourages people to seek psychological help. He danced around other thoughts gracefully, but his sentiment was clear: The Almighty helps those who help themselves.
Post-traumatic growth: “Heroes who have conquered trauma have come out greater beings.”
According to Koga, human suffering also has an upside. He mentioned something called “post-traumatic growth” and explained that, as seen in the tale of Ulysses, “heroes who have conquered trauma have come out greater beings,” he said.
Back in the North Sacramento office of Lao Family Community Development, Inc., a Thanksgiving pot luck is being celebrated. Sabit and Shafiullah sit near one another, exchanging laughs and enjoying fried chicken. Someone gets up to take a picture. “Say cheese!” the photographer says. “Burger!” Shafiullah interjects. The room erupts in laughter. Perhaps this is one way to conquer trauma.
Now, almost five years after resettlement, both Sabit and Shafiullah have established a sense of balance, but not completeness. They are both working and raising young children, while supporting their wives’ acculturation processes too. But they acknowledge that there is work that still needs to be done—balancing their Afghan culture in the western world is the biggest challenge.
Chuckling, Sabit says, “I know that this is called the land of opportunity, but, man, you got to dig for that!”