An Afghan translator who saved the life of a U.S. Army captain but whose own life wound up on a Taliban kill list for his assistance to America is finally on U.S. soil.
Janis Shinwari is one of the faces of the Special Immigrant Visa program that is in disarray, leaving Iraqis and Afghans who helped U.S. forces at risk in their home countries while applications are backlogged or dismissed without recourse. Shinwari is an Afghan interpreter who worked with the U.S. military for seven years and went through a two-year application process to secure visas for himself, his wife and their two young children before being told that they had been approved — then put on hold again pending further administrative review.
Former Army Capt. Matt Zeller has been aggressively lobbying for Shinwari’s visa, stressing that the interpreter saved his life during a 2008 battle.
“Because they are so visible in their communities, many interpreters have become targets for violence. Janis knows for a fact that the Taliban has added his name to a kill list and he is in constant danger,” Zeller wrote in a Change.org petition that amassed more than 110,000 supporters.
Late last night Shinwari and his family landed at Reagan National Airport, ready to move into a Virginia apartment with the help of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and start a new life with his friend Zeller to help. “I got my last member of my unit home. I can breathe a sigh of relief for the first time in five years. I got my buddy home,” Zeller told CBS News.
“He promised me that when he was leaving he told me that one day he will bring me home, and United States is my home,” Shinwari said. He hopes to continue his work as a translator for the federal government.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who has been championing the case of the thousands of Iraqis and Afghans waiting for the special visas, stressed that there are so many more who helped our forces and now need our help.
“This is an amazing day. Mr. Shinwari and his family stepping foot on American soil, free from the deadly pursuit of those who would do them harm for helping US soldiers, embodies a promise kept,” Blumenauer said.
“But while he is an example of the SIV program eventually working, there are still thousands of brave translators and their families stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not every applicant is lucky enough to have an effective and perseverant advocate like Matt Zeller,” the congressman added. “I will continue my efforts in Congress to ensure that the SIV programs are both extended and reformed, and also continue to put pressure on the administration, State Department, and other responsible agencies to make improvements to increase the efficiency and transparency of the programs.”
On Oct. 2, the House passed by unanimous consent Blumenauer’s bill to extend the Special Immigrant Visa program that expired on Sept. 30. President Obama signed it soon after. Blumenauer followed up the vote with a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Rand Beers, FBI Director James Comey, and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen asking for an opportunity to confer with the agencies to come up with a comprehensive plan “about who should be responsible and how we can make the Iraq and Afghanistan SIV programs function.”
This morning on the House floor, Blumenauer related the story of the reunion at Reagan National and stressed that Washington needs to do more.
He said the visa, which had been frozen because of a false Taliban tip that the interpreter was a collaborator, was reissued to Shinwari three hours after the end of the government shutdown.
“Thousands who risked their lives for Americans are still held hostage, at risk themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Blumenauer said.