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Thursday, 16 November 2017 08:23

Afghan, Iraqi Interpreters Left Behind by the US Government, Rebuild Lives With Help of US Vets

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KAJAKI, Afghanistan – British Sgt. Rab McEwan, Kajaki Operational Mentoring Liaison Team, and a translatorA British Sergeant and a translator discuss how to proceed in Kajaki, Afghanistan. (Photo: ResoluteSupportMedia)EMILY YATES FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

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Imagine you're being forced to flee your home. Not just your home, but your country, and not just for now, but forever. 

Imagine you can only pack one carry-on sized bag, weighing no more than 50 pounds, from which you must rebuild your entire life. Everything else stays behind.

Imagine getting to your new, foreign home, only to discover that your funds are nowhere near enough to live on, your education and work skills don't translate into a local job, and you're immediately in debt to the government for the flight that brought you to safety. You have no health care, the culture you're now immersed in is entirely unfamiliar to you and every day is a struggle to adjust to a life you never thought you'd be living. 

Now imagine the reason you must do this is because the United States military invaded and occupied your country, and instead of resisting, you chose to assist. 

Ask any random US veteran if they speak Arabic, Farsi or Pashto, the three languages primarily spoken in Iraq and Afghanistan, and odds are that you'll be met with a blank stare. "We didn't need to," they might say. "We had interpreters." And they would be right -- Iraqi and Afghan military interpreters have served crucial roles over 16 years of war, interpreting language as well as context, culture and customs. They accompany troops on combat missions and humanitarian missions alike, and take great risks for doing so. They put their lives on the line. 

But when the troops return to the states, the translators stay in their war-torn homes -- often with disastrous consequences -- and are promptly abandoned by the US government. If interpreters are lucky enough to acquire a limited-issue Special Immigrant Visa, they might be able to escape being targeted by extremists, but after arrival in the states, they're more or less on their own. 

As we've all had the opportunity to observe over this past weekend, the US loves to glorify its troops and its veterans. Every level of government from the village council to the White House jumps at the chance to showcase pride in past and current service members, throwing parades replete with military vehicles, cheerleaders and marching bands. Parents send their children out to line the streets dressed as tiny soldiers, waving flags and chanting "USA!" as we, their heroes, file solemnly in front of their wide-eyed faces. Corporations and mom-and-pop businesses alike offer discounts (some purchase may be required) one day of the year, and every politician interested in re-election utters the words "thank you for your service" more often than they say their own name. In this era of perpetual war, veterans of overseas conflicts are put up on red, white and blue pedestals -- that is, as long as we weren't born in the countries we're invading. 

When we're discharged from the military, many veterans receive assistance with health care, housing, education and even unemployment benefits for the first six months after getting out. As long as we survive our time in the military and avoid a bad-conduct or dishonorable discharge, options exist for our transition to civilian life. But for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters there are no such options. They are veterans of the US-led wars in their home countries, and they don't even have a way to prove it -- unlike US military members, they are never issued paperwork identifying their service.

The scenario you imagined a few moments ago is being lived out by thousands of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters. It was described in even greater detail by US veteran Matt Zeller at an event held November 14 at the Spring Institute in Denver, where three days after the nation observed Veterans Day with parades and sales, a small number of these interpreters were recognized for their contributions. Zeller, along with Janis Shinwari, the Afghan translator who saved Zeller's own life in combat, founded an organization called No One Left Behind, with the goal of resettling those who are still at risk of being targeted for their work with the US military. 

The government hasn't issued enough visas to safely resettle all of the Iraqi and Afghan translators who have requested it, and hasn't provided sufficient resources to ease their transition if they do make it to the US, so organizations like No One Left Behind are emerging to pick up the pieces of the broken lives left in the wake of the wars. The US government, always ready to shower its veterans with obnoxiously star-spangled glory, isn't prepared to take care of the Iraqi and Afghan veterans who did more to help soldiers survive than any US politician who voted for war ever has done.

As the Afghan and Iraqi translators were presented their certificates November 14 at the only appreciation ceremony I've ever seen given for them, the few US veterans in attendance were invited to step up and give them a congratulatory handshake. Each interpreter gripped my hand, and as they did, I thanked them -- because gratitude is much deserved for the work they've done. But just like every other veteran, what they really need is not thanks or any other empty words. What they need is material support and care from the government for which they risked their homes and their lives. This is how we should be thanking them -- and it's not hard to imagine that this is the very least they're owed.

Call your congressperson to demand better interpreter and refugee resettlement programs and more Special Immigrant Visas! Find out more about No One Left Behind (and donate or volunteer) at No One Left Behind or www.nooneleft.org.