George Bush: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against the Al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Speaker: We are assembling a coalition of support for refugees in and outside Afghanistan, which is as vital as the military coalition.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. We begin today with the end of America's longest war as American troops finally begin to come home after 20 years in Afghanistan.
Joe Biden: Our allies and partners have stood beside us shoulder to shoulder in Afghanistan for almost 20 years. The plan has long been in together, out together.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In together, out together. That may have been the plan, but currently, thousands of Afghan interpreters, guides, and contractors who served as our allies, are still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled. One of the biggest obstacles is the application process for Afghan allies to receive visas to come to the US. It consists of 14 steps and it takes years to complete.
Though the US House recently passed a bill to process applications more quickly, the legislation doesn't include the family members of the thousands who put their lives on the line. The US State Department also recently opened the refugee program for Afghans who don't qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa known as SIV, but to qualify for the refugee program, Afghan citizens themselves are responsible for figuring out how to get out of Afghanistan and into another country. Then once there, processing them as refugees could take up to another year. Joining me now is Ahmadullah Sediqi, A former Afghan interpreter, who is now an SIV ambassador with no one left behind, a nonprofit organization committed to ensuring that America keeps our promise to our allies and their families, who have risked their lives for our freedoms. Sediqi, thank you for joining us.
Ahmadullah Sediqi: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you start by telling me a bit about your process that you went through to get your visa?
Ahmadullah Sediqi: I got my visa in one year. I started working with DEA in Afghanistan from 2010 till 2014. I started my application process in 2013, but luckily, I got my visa in 2014, and then I came to the United States.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, how is the process that you went through? Which is one you describe here as lucky, and it happened fairly swiftly. How is that different than the visa process Afghan interpreters, guides, and contractors are going through now?
Ahmadullah Sediqi: Actually, the process is a 14 step process. We file all the application processes and send all the documents to NVC, the National Visa Center here in the States. Before, there were some staff member who were working on it, but right now, there's understaffing and a lot of background checks, takes these visas too long and people are still waiting for the visa for so many years.
There are people who are just waiting for the interview for three years only, only for a paperwork. Paperwork should normally take nine months, but there are some people who got their visas in five, six, seven years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you talk to me about the recommendation letters and what kind of recommendation letters people need for going through the process and why it might be difficult for them to get these letters?
Ahmadullah Sediqi: More than 15,000 people are still waiting for their visas, and there are thousands of interpreters who are not eligible for this. The recommendation letter and the HR letter or employment verification letter are two of the most important papers that you need to have. A recommendation letter should be signed and should be written by your direct supervisor, and an HR letter should be by your employer.
If you don't have these two, you will not be eligible for the process. Right now, in Afghanistan, since the US withdrew already and most of the companies, the contractors they left Afghanistan, we still have thousands of people who don't have their recommendation or HR letters, and they are not eligible for the process, and they even can't reach them.
There are some reasons. One, that their email address are not working, some, because their email addresses were associated with their job before or their phone number. They don't have any contact with their supervisors, but the problem is when you apply, the embassy asks you for the updated HR letter or for the updated recommendation letters, which is a big problem right now for all the interpreters down there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, so let's talk about what's at stake. What kind of danger are people in while they are waiting these weeks, months, and as you said, years?
Ahmadullah Sediqi: The fear of Taliban retaliation is being intensely across Afghanistan. You feel it as the US will withdraw its forces completely by September, and they will leave thousands of interpreters and thousands of allies back. When you work with the US forces or any foreign coalition forces, you will be stamped and you will be considered as a spy.
To the Taliban, as soon as they get you, they will directly kill you. They will not even ask for your paperwork, they will not even ask for any of your badge or anything, they know. They have connections everywhere. They know your work, they you. They have killed too many of our allies in the past 20 years. They will never leave anyone who is working or who has worked before.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Given the threat of death, why did so many make a decision to be allies to the US, to work in these supportive roles?
Ahmadullah Sediqi: There were some reason. First of all, financial problems. People are financially broken, they wanted to support their families. Second, they wanted to help both countries, Afghanistan and the United States. They put their lives at risk and the lives of their families.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Says a little bit more about the lives of families, for those who have been working in these roles, and then your point about the absolute and swift willingness of the Taliban to take their lives. Is this danger only for the principles or is it also for their spouses, their children, their parents?
Ahmadullah Sediqi: The threat is not only to interpreters but to their families as well because in Afghanistan, families live together. SIVs who are in the United States right now, they already got their visas and they're here in the States, but they have immediate families in Afghanistan. They have their siblings, their parents. If the Taliban find out, they will directly kill them.
Now, the Taliban go door to door in and kill out allies. With the SRB process, you can bring your wife, your kids, underage, those who are under 21. We have some instances that people got your visas and their children, even not married, about 21 or 21 plus, but they live together. They were asked, "You cannot take these two or these three kids with you." The family stuck because nobody can leave their loved one behind. Events happen a lot.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help me to understand. When I started my visa process, if I was an interpreter, I started my visa process and my son was 19 when I started, but he turned 22 before I was able to get my visa, then you're saying the process would have said, "You can come but you must leave your 22-year-old son behind"?
Ahmadullah Sediqi: Yes, they won't let you bring him in. We have instances because I receive calls, emails on a daily basis, and too many people have the same problem. Even at some point they put their kids in 18 or 17 or, let's say, even 16, and the visas took too long. By the time they got their visa, their son becomes 23 or 22 and they are not eligible to get the visa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: So many Americans, despite how long the US was embroiled in this conflict, still don't always understand what life was like, what contractors and military persons were doing on the ground. What is the role of interpreters? What kinds of jobs were you all doing? How do you facilitate the work of the US contractors in the military?
Ahmadullah Sediqi: First of all, these are unsung heroes. They were so close to our American veterans. Most of the American Veterans, they feel so bad for their friends, for their colleagues down in Afghanistan. We were an army. We were working shoulder to shoulder with the US Army, US forces. We were on a battlefield together. We had the same uniform in most of the time.
We were in fighting directly with the insurgents or the Taliban directly. We were a solder with them. Besides being an interpreter, besides being a linguist, we were a soldier. We have many instances that our interpreter saved too many American lives, our soldiers' lives. We had the same duties as the US Army had. We were the front liner, we went to district into district talking to people and explaining their needs and interpreting their needs and them telling them to our soldiers. We were the front liner all the time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you're explaining that, as you're telling me that, I guess I'm wondering, did you all know in given how closely embedded you were that you were fighting side by side that you were one force, did you know that the troops were being pulled out and how swiftly it would happen?
Ahmadullah Sediqi: Nobody knew on that time, but after 2014, when the US started their withdrawal from Afghanistan and everybody got the concern, and many more applications started the process. The delays happen after 2016 on our allies when a large amount and at least 300 interpreters have been killed since 2016. That list of casualties grew up on a daily basis.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If we don't get this right, how is this going to affect the US being able to convince others in other nations to serve in this role in the future?
Ahmadullah Sediqi: If we don't keep our promise, our integrity will be under question. We promise our allies, "We we will pull you out with us ,we will bring you home safely," but if we don't keep our promise, so we will lose our word, our promise that we did with our allies, and nobody in the future might not work with our forces.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ahmadullah Sediqi, a former Afghan interpreter and SIV ambassador with no one left behind. Thank you so much for joining us on the takeaway.
Ahmadullah Sediqi: Thank you so much, it's a pleasure.
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