- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2009


A sad-looking man with a forced smile works the counter at Church’s Chicken. His name is Abdul Sanad Qurishi, 32. He has an engineering degree from Kabul University and was an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.

He now serves fast food. His co-workers call him Sam, an Americanization of Sanad.

“Spicy or regular chicken, sir?” he asks a customer.

“Spicy. I can’t make out your accent? Where are you from?” the customer asks.

“Kabul City, sir.”


“Afghanistan, sir.”

Mr. Qurishi arrived in the United States in January 2008 on a Special Immigrant Visa created specifically for those Iraqi and Afghan nationals whose involvement with the U.S. military means they face near-certain death at the hands of one militia or another.

At least 264 interpreters serving troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were killed from 2003 to 2008 - targeted by militias, assassins and kidnappers.

The special visa allows translators and their immediate families to gain admission to the United States, apply for permanent residence and eventually acquire U.S. citizenship without jumping through as many hoops as other refugees must.

However, an applicant has to navigate a string of different hurdles. They must be a national of Iraq or Afghanistan, have worked directly with the U.S. armed forces as a translator for a period of at least 12 months, have obtained a favorable recommendation from a general or flag officer, and have cleared a background check and screening as required on a case-by-case basis.

If approved, another set of challenges awaits them. They arrive here reliant on nonprofit social service agencies and become ensnared in the red tape of securing federal resettlement assistance for housing, employment and health care. They often find they cannot have the professional careers that they once held or had planned in their native countries.

The federal resettlement benefits they do receive expire in six months for Afghans and eight months for Iraqis, a small time frame to start a new life in a new country that they had risked their lives for, says Vu Dang, director of the Washington regional resettlement office for the International Rescue Committee.

“These people risked their lives, put their families in jeopardy,” Mr. Dang says. “I do think that when they come to us holding a special visa it heightens expectations. It’s hard to adjust to that reality.”

In Afghanistan, Mr. Qurishi lived in a tall, square, six-bedroom house with his parents, his three brothers, and their wives and children. They owned another house about 15 miles outside Kabul. He had attended private schools where he learned English and engineering. He had recently graduated from Kabul University when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred.

A neighbor had begun working for the Americans at Bagram Air Base shortly after a U.S.-led international military coalition toppled the Taliban, and he told Mr. Qurishi that translators were needed. So he began interpreting for the U.S. Army.

But several years later, a resurgent Taliban emerged. Renewed violence killed an estimated 8,000 people last year, the rate of insurgent attacks has quadrupled, and many foreign investors have been frightened away.

Increasingly, Afghans who worked with the Americans were called infidels and traitors. Mr. Qurishi sensed a bad future, so he requested a special immigrant visa to move to the U.S. He can’t begin to explain how difficult it was to leave Afghanistan, having never previously left his family for more than 10 days. He cried so hard when he drove his family to Kabul International Airport that he did not remember how he got there.

A Pakistani man he met at a Kansas City restaurant managed a Church’s Chicken restaurant and told him about a job opening. Mr. Qurishi began work the next day, at first instructed to clean tables with a rag.

“What do you do?” his wife asked him when he returned home from his first day at work. He didn’t answer, crying for hours instead. But he went back the next day.

On a recent morning, Mr. Qurishi drove to Jewish Vocational Services, a nonprofit refugee resettlement agency, putting more wear on his 1994 Dodge. It died shortly after he bought it for $1,200, prompting him to spend another $1,600 getting it repaired.

In addition, he spends about $200 a month on gas and $550 a year for insurance. “I give you all I have,” he tells his car.

At Jewish Vocational Services, Mr. Qurishi asks for his caseworker.

“I don’t know where he is,” a woman tells him.

“He said to meet him here today.”

“So was he planning to talk to you today?”

“About three, four times we’ve scheduled meetings. This is not effective. I need a plan.”

“Sure. Of course, you do.”

Mr. Qurishi approaches another caseworker and asks about his appointment.

“He will see you,” the caseworker says pointing to an empty chair. “He’ll be here in a second.”

“I have to go to work.”

“Then come back. Forget your problems for now and enjoy the day.”

At home after work, seated in his apartment living room, Mr. Qurishi recalls friends who moved to America and then returned to Afghanistan.

“Why did you come back?” he had asked them. “Go, and you will see,” they told him.

Mr. Qurishi cannot return to Kabul. Insurgents might consider him important enough to kill or kidnap.

He must live where he can work, even if it means wiping tables. It is not good or at all special. But for now it is enough.

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