Army Capt. Matt Zeller, right, is shown with Afghan interpreter Mohammad Janis Shinwari. After waiting two years, the Shinwari family got their visas from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in September, only to learn days later that the visas were frozen. They arrived in the U.S. in late October. (Courtesy of Mohammad Janis Shinwari)
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He’s paying it forward.
An Afghan interpreter who received a U.S. visa and escaped the Taliban with the aid of an Army vet told his story to congressional staffers in hopes of helping others like himself.
A week after Janis Shinwari arrived in the U.S. with his family, he offered thanks on Capitol Hill on Nov. 5 as advocates asked for congressional action to clean up the backlogged Special Immigrant Visa program for thousands of others.
As then-Capt. Matt Zeller was about to leave Afghanistan in 2008, he promised to pay back Shinwari for saving his life on the battlefield.
“He promised me, ‘Brother, you saved my life, I will save your life,’ ” Shinwari said. “After five years, he saved my life. I am safe in the United States with no fear of the Taliban, and that nobody can hurt me or my family.”
Shinwari had worked as an interpreter for U.S. troops since 2006, motivated to protect them as “guests in my country.”
“You are leaving your nice country to save our lives, to bring peace for our people, that’s our responsibility,” he said.
The two were reunited in Washington after Zeller lobbied Congress and the State Department on his behalf.
After waiting two years, the Shinwari family got their visas from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in September, only to learn days later that the visas were frozen. They were forced to go back into hiding from the Taliban.
“In Afghanistan, we couldn’t leave home. We were like prisoners, locked down at home,” Shinwari said. “I couldn’t let my kids out because I was getting a lot of phone calls and letters from the Taliban that they would hurt me and my family.”
Shinwari and Zeller thanked members of Congress and others for the effort to secure the family’s visas.
“Janis isn’t the exception to the rule. Janis wasn’t just my interpreter; he was my cultural attache to the Afghan people, and he was my brother in arms,” Zeller said. “I finally, after five years, got my last guy home.”
Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., lauded Shinwari for risking his life to help American troops, urged congressional reforms.
“There’s no excuse for thousands of people who have helped our troops being stranded there with their lives endangered,” said Moran. “We really have a moral responsibility here to move this, and the consequences likely to befall the people who need those visas we don’t want to contemplate.”
Advocates hope for the changes as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, expected to appear in Congress in the next few weeks.
Waiting two years for a visa as Shinwari did is “fast,” according to the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project’s National Policy Director Katherine Reisner. Thousands have waited five years with little idea of where they are in the process.
The organization Refugee Council USA is calling on Congress to make more visas available for Afghans and Iraqis, and to ensure fairness and transparency.
One issue is the visa program for Afghans is not as broad as the program for Iraqis, so it does not cover workers for nongovernmental and media organizations, Reisner said. Nor does the program in Afghanistan cover children of interpreters who are age 21 or older.
The law recognizes Afghans who worked directly with the U.S., but excludes those who worked for International Security Assistance Force. Because most interpreters work for the U.S. through ISAF, it’s “a huge problem,” Reisner said.
Without congressional action, the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghans is due to expire Sept. 30, 2014.
In a rare bipartisan move as the government shutdown loomed last month, the Senate passed a measure to extend the Iraqi special immigrant visa program. Advocates are hoping lightning strikes twice.
“We can’t think of an issue that has the depth of bipartisan support that this issue does, and yet there is so much left to be done,” Reisner said.