Former Afghan translator rebooting his life in the US
Speaker 1: (00:01)
San Diego will become the new home for at least a thousand refugees from Afghanistan. The San Diego county board of supervisors is preparing to help in the resettlement and is asking for federal aid. The refugees headed here will be among more than 58,000 Afghans entering the U S who escaped the Taliban takeover of the country among them are Afghan military members and former interpreters for us forces KPBS, military reporter. Steve Walsh has the story of one refugee family. Getting back to the difficult task of creating a new life in their adopted country.
Speaker 2: (00:42)
Lucky a former interpreter for us forces sits in the passenger seat of a tractor trailer on a drive through North Carolina. We're only using his nickname. The one provided by us troops since he still has family back in Afghanistan. So how do you like truck driving?
Speaker 3: (00:59)
That's good. I liked it. None of that, like that, that's the only thing I had no other option.
Speaker 2: (01:05)
Lucky is training to be a long haul truck driver. He settled into San Diego after receiving a visa in 2017. He's now rebooting his life in America after a recent harrowing escape from his former Homeland. Lucky hadn't expected to return to Afghanistan, but his mother fell seriously ill.
Speaker 3: (01:28)
My brother called me that she is asking for you, she's in hospital a I dunno if she's going to make it. So I just decided to go there in emergency for a week.
Speaker 2: (01:38)
So we took a chance thinking the U S wouldn't pull out until September. He even brought his young children, but things changed almost overnight by mid August. Lucky was trapped when his village fell to the Taliban, true to his nickname. Lucky and his family were helped by American veterans who stepped in to guide their former translators out of the country. He made it out with all, although many didn't Eric Schwartz is president of refugees international,
Speaker 4: (02:03)
Um, and all indications are that, um, the Afghans like other refugee groups will become, you know, important contributors to American society, help address labor shortage issues, uh, in places like the middle of the country, where there are real challenges in that regard. So this will be a good news story.
Speaker 2: (02:25)
They are also one of the groups calling for a pathway to citizenship, for Afghans being processed through us, military bases who don't qualify for other programs like special immigration visas, also 5 billion to aid in resettlement. They also want the president to raise the total number of refugees allowed in the U S to 200,000 for the next two years, a relatively modest increase given the tens of thousands of Vietnamese who immigrated to the U S after the war,
Speaker 3: (02:53)
We hear a small refrigerator here. Let me show you. Uh, I have my wife cook some food for me.
Speaker 2: (02:59)
Lucky gives me a virtual tour from inside the truck. As the sun was going down in North Carolina, we talked as the truck was being unloaded.
Speaker 3: (03:08)
To be honest, I'm still not a normal, like, I cannot even flip, like for the last four weeks, I didn't live like two hours, three hours after the situation that I went through, my kid
Speaker 2: (03:18)
In San Diego, he had been a translator for the Afghan community that ended when he was trapped in Afghanistan. His new life is now in Texas, where he lives with his brother-in-law. He says it's been tougher on the kids, especially his young daughter.
Speaker 3: (03:35)
They don't play with kids. They're scared. And, and I took her to the doctor, um, but she was not eating. She jumped when she was sleeping, she jumped and she she's still in Afghanistan.
Speaker 2: (03:45)
I'm still in Afghanistan. Like his mother who did pull through, although lucky he doesn't think he'll ever see his home country. Again, he's focused on his family's future here.
Speaker 1: (03:59)
I'm speaking with KPBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh, and Steve. Welcome.
Speaker 2: (04:05)
Hi, Maureen. Now
Speaker 1: (04:06)
Did lucky and his family want to come back to San Diego, but relocated to Texas.
Speaker 2: (04:12)
Yeah, I, I think he did want to stay here. In fact, I'm pretty sure he did, but I think it was just a matter of economics. Uh, San Diego is an expensive place to live. He didn't have any work lined up. Texas was cheaper. They could stay with family and stay together. So that was just a way of saving money. Uh, you know, often people, these refugees or people with degrees, uh, they've, they've had nice middle-class lives in Afghanistan and they would've kept going on. If things had stayed the way they were, um, recreating that life in the U S is something of a challenge. And it's something that all of these people who are coming from Afghanistan are going to face as they, they arrive here in the U S
Speaker 1: (04:53)
Well, it sounds like people who escaped from the fall of Afghanistan are traumatized. How is Lucky's family coping?
Speaker 2: (05:00)
So, as we heard, his, his daughter has been in therapy, I've heard similar stories from other Afghans PTSD, I think is going to be a real issue. They were traumatized by what had happened in the case of Lucky's family, the kids were Americans. They hadn't experienced anything like the fall of cobble and the turmoil of the airport so much like American veterans. This is going to take time and probably some professional help before they really get over these issues.
Speaker 1: (05:27)
Now, the San Diego county board of supervisors is preparing the county to receive at least 1000 Afghan refugees. What kind of help and support do groups like refugees international say the refugees are going to need,
Speaker 2: (05:41)
Well, you know, California has taken in more Afghans than any other state. And San Diego has been one of those hubs though. Sacramento is actually had the largest influx for San Diego. We know what the answer is going to be. It's going to be housing, housing, and housing. It's expensive and hard to come. So the second thing will also be transportation. Many of them will, uh, locate farther east. They'll need a car to get around. Um, you know, aside from housing assistance and a stipend from the federal government in California, um, they're going to need help with job training. So it's going to be an adjustment. The Afghan community is pretty well established, but it's relatively small. They, they actually may need help connecting with one another, or even connecting older Afghans who may have immigrated as far back as the Soviet invasion, and may not have really strong ties to the latest wave of immigrants that are coming in. So there may be some help needed with community building resources. Now, you know, lucky had to been a translator. He had worked with several groups in San Diego. This actually might be his chance to get back into his old line of work and come back to San Diego.
Speaker 1: (06:46)
Now, since many of the refugees once helped the U S military our basis like camp Pendleton, helping with the influx of Afghan refugees.
Speaker 2: (06:55)
I get that question all the time, whether or not Pendleton is going to be a part of this. And, um, you know, I'm told they're still seeking out other military sites to house the Afghans. If they need more space, I've not heard anything about Pendleton being on the list. Of course, Pendleton played a huge role in the relocation of the Vietnamese refugees in the years after the war. I'm not sure that Pendleton has a lot of empty barracks space the way they did years ago. I know they're there looking for ready-made buildings rather than creating, you know, tent cities. I'm actually from Indiana, they've enlisted, uh, national guard training center in Southern Indiana camp Atterbury, which has a lot of spare housing because they, they have to house national guard troops when they come in. So right now, um, I think this is still a little bit in flux, but, um, I, it looks like they have, with these eight bases, they have enough space right now to, uh, to house the people that have come in so far.
Speaker 1: (07:50)
Now, San Diego has a long history, as you mentioned of accepting refugees from America's wars. And you say the number of Afghan refugees coming here is not anywhere near the number of Vietnamese who resettled here in the 1970s.
Speaker 2: (08:04)
Sure. We're talking, there were hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, the largest number actually didn't arrive in the U S until the late 1970s. When a deal was worked out with the Vietnamese government. In contrast at the moment U S Northern command said there at these eight bases, there are about 53,000 Afghans. Now, president Biden has increased the number of refugees who can be resettled to the United States to 125,000. The new limit is double the 62,000 refugees, which Biden had raised in may from the previous limit under the Trump administration, which was only like 15,000, but that's all refugees, not just Afghans. So refugees international, one at a higher cap of 200,000 for the next two years, which is still far less than what we saw after Vietnam.
Speaker 1: (08:51)
And is there an estimate of how many Afghan refugees need to be resettled after the Taliban takeover?
Speaker 2: (08:58)
So I, you know, I've heard high-end of, you know, several hundred thousand people, but we really don't know at this point. I mean, it's a relatively small number of come so far.
Speaker 1: (09:10)
And what about a pathway to citizenship for the Afghans who help the U S military? Is that something the U S is considering?
Speaker 2: (09:19)
So right now, let's say former translators, like lucky should qualify under these special immigration visa program. I right now, the people who have come to the U S are brought in so quickly, it actually may take years before they develop some sort of legal status. Technically you're not a refugee until you leave your country of origin. So groups are lobbying to sort of loosen that definition to allow people to apply directly from Afghanistan. There's also this concept called parole where the us can wave someone through the process, regardless of their status groups are basically trying to implore the us government to just get creative so they can deal with this potential humanitarian crisis before it gets any worse.
Speaker 1: (10:01)
I've been speaking with KPBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh. Steve, thank you very much.
Speaker 2: (10:06)
Caught up in the chaos of the last days of the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, one former interpreter is getting back to the difficult task of creating a new life in his adopted country.
Reached via Zoom, Lucky sits in the passenger seat of a tractor trailer on a drive through North Carolina. We’re only using his nickname — one provided by U.S. troops — since he still has family back in Afghanistan.
“It’s not that bad. Thing is, I had no other option,” he said.
Lucky is training to be a long-haul truck driver. He settled in San Diego after receiving a Special Immigration Visa in 2017. Now he’s rebooting his life in America, after a recent harrowing escape from his former homeland.
“I was stuck there. I tried to get out as soon as possible,” he said.
Lucky hadn’t expected to return to Afghanistan, but his mother fell seriously ill.
“My brother called saying she is asking for you. She’s in hospital. I don’t know if she’s going to make it. So I just decided to go there in an emergency for a week or 10 days,” he said.
So he took a chance, thinking the U.S. wouldn’t pull out until September. He even brought his young children. As the Taliban advanced on his village, he left Kabul to help fight alongside some of his family. Eventually, the local commander of the Afghan army told them to lay down their weapons. Lucky was trapped. He hid his American papers and found a cargo truck, called a jingle truck, because they’re adorned with bells and slowly made his way through checkpoints back to Kabul.
By mid-August they were still trapped in Kabul, without a way out. True to his nickname, Lucky and his family were helped by American veterans, including Shawn VanDiver with the ad hoc group #AfghanEvac, who stepped in to guide former translators out of the country. Lucky made it out, although many didn’t.
Groups are now trying to get more people out of the country, and help resettle those who are in the pipeline, either in the U.S., or at staging areas outside the country, said Eric Schwartz is president of Refugees International.
“The Afghans, like other refugee groups will become you know important contributors to American society,” he said. “Help address Labor shortage issues. In places like the middle of the country where there are real challenges in that regard, so this will be a good news story.”
Refugees International are one of the groups calling for a pathway to citizenship for Afghans being processed through U.S. military bases, but who do not qualify under other programs, like Special Immigration Visas, along with $5 billion to aid in resettlement. They are also lobbying to raise the total number of refugees allowed in the U.S. to 200,000 for the next two years — a relatively modest increase, given the tens of thousands of Vietnamese who immigrated to the U.S. after the war.
As the sun was going down in North Carolina, Lucky talked as the truck was being unloaded.
“To be honest, I’m still not normal. I can’t even sleep, only two hours, three hours, after the situation that I went through and my kids,” he said.
In San Diego, he had been a translator for the Afghan community, but that work ended while he was trapped in Afghanistan. His new life is now in Texas, where he lives with his brother-in-law. He says it’s been tougher on the kids, especially his young daughter.
“They don’t go out. They don’t play with kids. They’re scared. I even took her to a doctor, cause she was not eating. She jumped when she was sleeping. She jumped when she feels she was still in Afghanistan.”
Eventually, Lucky’s mother did pull through, but he’s had only limited contact with his family since he returned to the U.S.
“Things are not normal for us. Especially when you’re struggling financially and you’re worried about your family back there,” he said.
Lucky doesn’t think he’ll ever see his home country again, For now, he’s focused on his family’s future here, in the U.S.