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All That Is Yet to Come

(Photo: Afghan girl in class. Courtesy of J. Malcolm Garcia.)

My Afghan colleague, Aarash, recently received a special immigrant visa (SIV). I’m a freelance reporter, and he worked with me in Kabul as a translator for five years. SIVs are available only to those Afghans who worked as translators, interpreters, or other professionals employed by or on behalf of the United States government for a minimum of two years. Aarash’s wife, Sharjeela, translated documents for the U.S. government at the Ministry of Interior. Her job made the family eligible for the visa.

Hello brother, Aarash wrote to me in a Facebook message on June 24, 2016. Hope everything is going well with you. I’m currently in the States. Just wanted you to know.

He included his phone number and I called him. A resettlement agency had placed him, Sharjeela and their two children in Seattle. For two weeks they lived with a friend they knew from Kabul, then their case manager found them an apartment. They did not like it. The pipes leaked, the carpet stunk of mildew, the lights often did not work, and stains marred the walls and floors. The importance of paying rent on time surprised Aarash. In Kabul, if he didn’t have the money his landlord would tell him, OK, give it to me next month, but here finances control everything. A tenant could be evicted. The number of homeless people shocked him.

After a year and a half, Aarash moved his family into a better apartment, and he took a job delivering bread and driving for Uber, Lyft, and Amazon. Now, he and Sharjeela work for the health department of King County, which includes Seattle, as translators for Afghan and Indian immigrants.

Aarash said he could not have been happier to leave Kabul and the war, but he missed his country and all the things that once annoyed him: the crazy traffic, the dusty air, the argumentative shopkeepers and their inflated prices. He longed for the companionship of his friends, like Jamshid Ahmady, who also left. His friend had hired a smuggler and now lives in Germany with his wife and daughter. Aarash had not yet received his U.S. visa when Jamshid called and told him he had reached Europe. Along the way, through Turkey and Greece, other people traveling with him were lost. He does not know what happened to them.

Aarash told no one outside his family that he was leaving for the U.S. He worried someone might try to kill him for the visa. People were scared. Anything could happen at any time. He trusted no one. He took only what would fit in one suitcase and left his books and computer hard drive with hundreds of photos behind. He feels incomplete. The house he and Sharjeela shared with his mother and a sister holds more memories than he can carry in his head.

Aarash does not spend time with other Afghans. Too many of them refuse to learn English; they wear salwar kameez and other traditional clothes, and make only Afghan food. They still arrange marriages for their sons and daughters and expect them to have many children. They live in the old ways. He wants to adapt, but now that his children no longer speak Dari he wonders if he has adapted too much. Americans have treated him very well, and he enjoys their company, but some of them frustrate him. They understand very little about Afghanistan; some even think the war has already ended.

Recently, he asked me to write a letter to the U.S. embassy in Kabul and request a visa for his mother. He believed that as an American I had a better chance of securing one than he did. His father had died in the civil wars that rocked Afghanistan in the 1990s. His sister recently married. He would need visas for three people if he tried to help her and her husband. Recognizing the difficulties that would pose, he asked me to assist only his mother. He also did not ask me to help Sharjeela’s parents. Her father, mother, an aunt, and a sister all live together. Requesting visas for her mother and father would have created tensions with the two left behind.

Sharjeela became pregnant in Seattle, and Aarash thought then that her condition would persuade U.S. officials to grant his mother a visa. Certainly they would understand her wish to see her new grandchild. But before Aarash could make inquiries Sharjeela gave birth, and whatever chance his plan had vanished. So, he turned to me.

His mother never worked for the U.S. and does not qualify for a SIV, but she has been under threat because Aarash and Sharjeela worked for the Americans. He reminded me of the abusive calls he received when we were on assignment in Kabul. The callers urged him to join the jihad. Some of them mentioned they had seen him with an old Westerner with long, gray hair. Me. He needed work, and I needed a translator. When I first hired him in 2010, we were both aware of the increasing hostility toward Westerners and the risks he took associating with me, but we never anticipated this moment.

I am reminded of one afternoon in September 2015, the last time I visited Afghanistan. Aarash and I were in a barbershop. I knew the barber from previous trips. He was cutting a man’s hair. Four other men sat on a bench waiting their turn. All of us were talking about Kunduz, the third largest city in Afghanistan, about an eight-hour drive from Kabul. It had just fallen to the Taliban. Government forces would retake it four weeks later, but their initial defeat shocked us all. Kabul became a ghost town: the streets empty, shops closed, no traffic. Once teeming sidewalks were silent and vacant. Looking at my notes from that time, I am reminded of the worry in our conversation.

Kunduz shows that our security gets worse every day. There’s no benefit in fighting, so our army doesn’t resist, the barber said.

When people leave for Europe, the enemy thinks they are afraid, and the government gets weaker and weaker. Now, even the foreigners are leaving, and the Taliban will get in, a man chimed in.

The taking of Kunduz is not just a media headline but a warning for all people working for the government, another man said. The Taliban are not just coming. They are here.

The Taliban will capture Kabul again, the barber told him. Kunduz is so near Kabul. Anything can happen. It’s time to grow our beards again.

Now those fears have been realized. The U.S. has all but withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Taliban dominate the countryside ,and everyone assumes Kabul will fall in a matter of months.

Aarash suggested I write that his oldest son will turn four soon and that his grandmother should be allowed to visit. so she can celebrate his birthday. Family, he reminded me, means everything to Afghans. It is not like the U.S. In Afghanistan, a husband and wife live with their in-laws, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews.

I agreed to draft a letter. To whom it may concern, I began. I mentioned that Aarash’s mother had not seen her son and his family since 2016. I added that she could help watch the children when Aarash and Sharjeelaat were to work. I promised to cover all expenses, including her flight to Seattle. Within seconds of emailing the letter I received an automated response: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Visa Unit at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is not currently offering appointments for nonimmigrant visa interviews. If you have an urgent need for travel to the United States, you may contact the nearest United States Embassy or Consulate in another country to inquire about appointment availability.

I called Aarash.

I’m sorry, I told him.

So I am I, he said.

He told me that since he has been in Seattle, an uncle and two aunts have died of natural causes. Kidnappers killed a cousin of his father. Aarash can’t relax. He experiences the fear and worry of his family. In his mind he remains with them. Sometimes when he stands alone in his living room, he gets scared for no reason. What if someone detonates a bomb in the parking lot? he wonders. At night, he dreams of Afghanistan and relives the terrible afternoon shrapnel tore into his neck and almost killed him, or he sees his mother lying on the ground, wakes up with a start, and calls her to assure himself nothing has happened. Then he falls back on his bed and stares into the dark and thinks of Kabul and all that he has left behind and all that is yet to come.

J. Malcolm Garcia is the author most recently of The Fruit of All My Grief: Lives in the Shadows of the American Dream (Seven Stories Press 2019) and A Different Kind of War: Uneasy Encounters in Mexico and Central America (Fomite, 2021). Garcia is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism. His work has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Best American Essays.

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