SUNDAY EDITION | As Congress debates visa program, Afghan and Iraqi interpreters settle in Kentucky

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – “I have seen a lot of examples of people who have been killed,” Kazim Noori said.

So when the death threats arrived, in a letter to his family in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, Noori said he took them seriously. He knew of other Afghans who were murdered by the Taliban while aiding the U.S. government.

He said he applied for a “special immigrant visa” in late 2012 and received it 15 months later, allowing him to move first to California, then to Kentucky. He arrived in Louisville in 2014.

The 30-year-old Noori, who said he worked for the U.S. State Department in Kabul, is one of 365 Afghans and Iraqis who have arrived in Kentucky since 2010 on the visas issued to interpreters and translators for the U.S. military and government agencies, according to data from the Kentucky Office for Refugees.

Like Noori, applicants often must show they’ve been threatened because of their jobs. More than 37,000 people from Iraq and Afghanistan have settled in the U.S. under the visa programs, the Congressional Research Service reported earlier this year.

But Congress is debating bills that would alter or end the ability of some Afghans who worked with the U.S. government to secure visas. A defense spending measure that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week no longer makes workers in support positions, such as on-base mechanics and security guards, eligible and doesn’t authorize new visas, said Betsy Fisher, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project.

Fischer said about 10,000 Afghans are waiting to have their applications approved, but there are fewer than 4,000 visas remaining.

“If these visas run out, then they’ll just be stuck,” she said.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Washington Post recently that tightening the visa criteria was in response to concerns that some Afghans were taking advantage of the program.

A Senate committee’s defense spending measure also failed to approve more visas for Afghan interpreters, said Matt Zeller, CEO and co-founder of No One Left Behind, a support organization for translators. The full Senate is expected to take up the bill this week.

Zeller is an Army reserve officer who credits his interpreter with saving his life when Taliban fighters attacked during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2008. He said Congress has in the past shown bipartisan support for the visa programs.

“We’re in a really critical moment right now in the debate over whether or not these programs are worthwhile and they should be continued,” he said. “I would challenge you to find a veteran out there who would say that they’re not of value and they should not be continued.”     

Looking for work

Yama Sharifi remembers seeing the injuries: Women with their noses slashed, their feet burned.

In Kabul, Sharifi said he managed seven employees who helped women who were victims of domestic violence. The team arranged hospital visits, he said, then shepherded their cases through the courts.

But that work, funded by the State Department, and other efforts to improve Afghanistan’s legal system attracted threats, Sharifi said. In an interview, he described anonymous calls and intimidating notes left on his car’s dashboard.

“Working for human beings, working for justice, working especially with the U.S. government projects in Afghanistan—it is a big danger, a big problem for people like me,” he said.

Sharifi sold his car. He moved around Kabul. But he said he ultimately sought a visa to the U.S. because of concerns that his work would endanger his family in Ghazni province.

“We have very concentrated families, and if one member is doing something, so it means the whole family has done that,” he said.

Sharifi, 29, has been looking for work since arriving in Louisville this winter with his wife and daughter. He said he has bachelor’s degrees in political science and law, but differences in the legal system here and in Afghanistan make a return to law “problematic.”

“I am hoping to have a good job, and I will work hard to get on that level that I was in Afghanistan or maybe more than that here,” he said.

There are three types of visas for Iraqis and Afghans who worked for U.S. government agencies or the military, including those who were translators and interpreters. The U.S. puts applicants through “thorough screening for national security concerns.”

Agencies like Catholic Charities and Kentucky Refugee Ministries help refugees get housing and adjust to life in Louisville. But some Iraqis and Afghans who hold special immigrant visas struggle with finding work here, said Becky Jordan, state refugee coordinator in the Kentucky Office for Refugees.

“Unfortunately it’s not going to be a process that’s going to happen quickly, and it can be perceived as being abandoned – but actually it’s just that long process to move them there,” Jordan said.

To make that process shorter, Kentucky Refugee Ministries is working to match Afghans and Iraqis with potential employers, letting them know “what this new workforce can bring to their companies,” said employment services manager Antigona Mehani.

Last summer, the agency teamed up with Louisville’s Signature HealthCARE to help the company fill a shortage of certified nursing assistants for its operations, Signature spokeswoman Melissa Duley said. The company runs nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities, among other services. 

Signature plans to hire two people with special immigrant visas, in part because their language skills separate them from other refugees, Duley said.

“Because they are already proficient with Microsoft Word, their English is fluent—we are tapping into those people as well,” she said.

At a recent Jewish Family & Career Services event, about 40 employers spoke to refugees who are looking for work, said Kristina Mielke, a career and employment specialist. The goal was to help refugees learn how to network.

“It’s a big small town. Everybody knows each other here,” she said of Louisville. At times, she added, it can be difficult “being a refugee and being outside that population.”

Noori, who worked for the State Department in Kabul, now does data analysis for Catholic Charities. He said his fiancée, who studied nursing at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Ky., on a student visa, was set to graduate this month.

He manages a Facebook page for other Afghans waiting to get special immigrant visas, or SIVs. As some wait, he said, they continue to fear reprisals for helping the U.S. government.

“They are just hoping for the SIV program,” Noori said. “And some of them who are still working there are kind of hiding, you know, just going to work and coming back home and just waiting for their SIV case to be approved.”

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