Former translators for the U.S. Military survived war in Afghanistan, but continue to battle resettlement in America
There’s a not-so endearing nickname for Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. “They call it hell-land,” says Ajmal Sabit, a former Pashto and Dari interpreter for the U.S. Army, Marines and Air Force. He sits comfortably in his chair—slightly slouched, arms crossed.
Sabit has a deep, raspy voice and heavy eyes that seldom meet my gaze. He speaks fluent English, which he decorates with flares of Bay Area lingo. He once told me a story about his former Army Sergeant getting “hella mad,” and he often refers to his fellow service members as “dude.”
After a rigorous application process, Sabit finally resettled in Sacramento, California on a Special Immigrant Visa in 2013. His journey to America after the war in Afghanistan was akin to Ulysses’ journey to Ithca after the fall of Troy: both expeditions took years, and along the way each protagonist encountered chaos. But this story of a former wartime ally’s daunting odyssey to the states is not an isolated one: Sabit 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 and government agencies who worked alongside Americans in their home country. Last year, more than 2,000 Afghans with SIVs arrived to California and more than half of those arrivals resettled in Sacramento, which has become a magnet for this population of immigrants.
But their traumas don’t disappear once they reach our shores.
Seven thousand miles away from home, Afghan SIVs in Sacramento are forced into a difficult resettlement process. Culture shock and feelings of isolation are common among newly arrived immigrants—but they are made worse by the constant threat of financial burdens spurred on by unemployment and the high cost of living. For former Afghan wartime allies, especially, the process is intensified as they also must work to suppress recurring memories of war within a culture that stigmatizes mental health treatment.
For many SIVs like Sabit, 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 directs the University of California, Davis School of Medicine’s Refugee Health Research. His current project, the Ulysses Project, focuses on looking at the refugee as a normal human being living under extreme situations, not as patients. He has already found high rates of PTSD among newly arrived immigrants— “three times higher than what is seen in the normal population.”
The project was inspired by a Spain-based psychologist’s use of the journey of Ulysses’ return to Ithaca, as delineated in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” as a metaphor for modern day refugees. The psychologist 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 explains. This is what he uses as a metaphor for the refugee. “They don’t have mental disorders, just normal reactions to terrible situations,” Koga says.
Koga explains that resettlement can exasperate a migrants’ PTSD, especially if it’s unnoticed. “A year or so later, they tend to [worsen] because of the daily life hardship and disappointment.” He believes all 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 says. For him and his colleagues, the ultimate goal is policy change. “The current resettlement process needs major improvement—it needs a paradigm shift.”
Currently, recently arrived SIVs are only offered assistance for 90 days through various resettlement agencies including the Lao Family Community Development, Inc., the International Rescue Committee, Jewish Family Service and Catholic Charities—which Koga considers “great, but not enough.” After 90 days, cases are closed and families are left to fend for themselves, he explains.
Assimilation is made more complicated when SIVs are written off as FNU: First Name Unknown. It happens to some when 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.
Koga stresses 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.
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 the Marines 3rd Battalion, 4th Expeditionary Unit 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 recalls. He remembers that it was only his second time going out on a mission, and that he spent the time observing the bazaar’s busy shoppers as they bargained for textiles and spices.
Then the monotony of the day was broken. Someone shouted that there was a car approaching at high speed. “We tried our best to stop [the driver] with warning shots, but he was not stopping,” Sabit says. Before driving his vehicle directly into the crowd, the driver detonated a bomb that was strapped to him. Sabit 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 says, 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.” Sabit suffered from recurring nightmares in the months following the attack. They worsened each time his unit came under fire. He turned to an medical facility in Afghanistan 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 says. But he refused to take them.
Roya Sakhai, a psychotherapist and the executive director of Oakland’s Multi-lingual Counseling, works mostly with former Afghan translators like Sabit. She says she has noticed signs of PTSD among most of them, but acknowledges the lack of proper treatment in their home country. Sakhai believes that, in addition to frequent therapy sessions, the only cure is “to learn to tolerate it and go on with life as much as possible.” “It’s a long process,” Sakhai says, “but it is not a prescription.”
She also 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 says. “There is more confusion about who they are. They go to capture the enemy, but the enemy is also Afghan.”
“I thought, I’m tougher than this. I can survive and forget about these things,” Sabit says about his decision to not take pills. He was born and raised in a war zone, and he has seen family members and friends die in front of him. He was also previously almost blown up by an improvised explosive device (IED) 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 says, and though shaken by the news, Sabit was asked to clean the scene and collect the pieces of his friends’ mangled bodies. He remembers it as a sight that can never be unseen. It is estimated that from 2001 to 2013, 1,500 interpreters lost their lives in similar tragedies.
“I think pretty much everyone from the war will suffer from PTSD—both interpreters and U.S. military too,” Sabit says. He remembers working 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,” he adds. “But there was not a lot of help and support for [us].”
He interrupts our conversation to say that his visions are coming back. “I’m trying hard not to remember right now,” he says, 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.”
Interpreters either have to flee the country to avoid violent rejoinders from insurgents or stay with the U.S. military to ensure their safety. In November 2013, Sabit decided to immigrate to America with his family. He says he had been waiting for the opportunity to say goodbye to Afghanistan for years.
Sabit started the lengthy, 14-step SIV application process in 2008. According to a Department of Homeland Security report from 2018, the visa approval can take almost 700 business days. 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 usually takes much longer.
But for Afghan translators, time is of the essence—many face daily threats from the Taliban and fear violent retaliation for assisting foreign troops. 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 refers to the process of authorizing applications as “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 says. “But the U.S. made a promise, and now they need to hold their promise.”
That promise came with Congress’ passing of the Omnibus Appropriations Act, under which the SIV program falls. It allows people like Sabit the opportunity to obtain a green card and to live and work permanently in the U.S. The program was designed to give those most loyal to U.S. troops—translators, medics, cultural specialists—the chance to find relief from the looming threat of violence that lingers once U.S. troops leave.
Today, many wartime allies remain left behind, unable to escape the consequences that came with joining the war: In Afghanistan, some are targeted by Taliban insurgents and others are ostracized by their anti-American community members. As of March 2018, a total of 11,640 Afghan SIV applications were still pending with less than 4,000 visas available. Sabit was among the lucky ones.
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 resettlement programs for refugees 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. He explains that the U.S. government funds from $925 to $1,125 per SIV recipient; those include men, women and children who have been elected to receive Reception and Placement (R&P) benefits.
“It’s a family of four,” he 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., Cooper works to ensure clients have what they need to be as self-sufficient as possible for three months after their arrival.
The program started in March of 2017 in Sacramento, and it had its first case in Oakland on Jan. 20. Cooper said that his team has resettled about 345 individuals since then.
In the Courtside Apartment Complex, Cooper set up a Pack ‘n Play for the new family’s baby, and he mentioned that roughly 80 percent of all SIV holders are women and children who immigrated with a principal applicant—usually the husband and father of the family.
Cooper said that his main goal is to keep everyone happy, safe and secure during the resettlement process, but Koga, the psychologist, believes that the agencies don’t have sufficient funds to do so, which makes housing only available in poor neighborhoods—sometimes in violent neighborhoods.
One former interpreter who resettled in Sacramento was ending his shift as a security guard for the apartment complex he lives in when he was shot in the face by an armed robber. The news shocked the SIV community; many had a hard time accepting that their friend survived the war in Afghanistan, only to lose his left eye in the U.S.
Cooper’s colleague at Lao Family is a woman named Rangina Totakhal who assists SIVs considered mass violence victims. She thinks it’s nearly impossible to have productive conversations surrounding mental health because there is no such thing as PTSD in the Afghan culture.
“I have to ask, ‘Are you jigar khun?’,” Totakhal says. This is an often-used idiom of distress in Dari, which Koga explains means “my liver is bleeding.” He 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 says that among her clients, domestic violence is too common but many refuse to seek professional help. She says it is pride that stands in their way.
Sabit easily admits that there is a stigma attached to mental health treatment in the 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 says. “It’s like they’re just crazy.”
Many Afghan people, Koga says, 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 says sarcastically. “Because when disorders are spiritual or mental, the general belief is that you just have to read the Quran and look to traditional healers.”
Arshard Ershad, the president of the Ibrahim Khalilullah Islamic Center in Fremont, somewhat agrees: 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 first.
According to Koga, human suffering also has an upside. He mentions something called “post-traumatic growth” and explained that, as we saw in 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. Despite Sabit’s heavy eyes that narrate continued stress, he’s working on conquering the trauma one day at a time. His colleague gets up to take a picture. “Say cheese!” the photographer says. “Burger!” someone else quickly interjects. Sabit’s hearty chuckle fills the room with joy.
Now, six years after resettlement, Sabit has established a sense of balance, but not completeness. He is working and raising young children, while supporting his wife’s acculturation process too. But he acknowledges that there is work that still needs to be done—balancing his Afghan culture in the western world is most challenging.
Chuckling, Sabit says, “I know that this is called the land of opportunity, but, man, you got to dig for that!”