As we walk down the unlit hallway of his apartment near West River Memorial Park in New Haven, Reza Noori allows me just a glance into the bedroom that he shares with two other men. Their mattresses lie edge-to-edge on the floor. Smiling shyly, he pushes back his full, black curls. He’s tired from his day of work at a deli in Westport, bookended by an hour-long commute in rush hour traffic. “What I am earning here, this is not enough for me to live, spend for college, and also support my family. So my living conditions are not good, but I live with that. It is okay,” Noori says.
After working as a translator for the United States armed forces in Afghanistan, Noori was one of eighteen recipients of the U.S. Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) bound for New Haven. Established in 2009, the visa program aids Afghan and Iraqi nationals who worked for U.S. forces in their home countries. In order to receive an SIV, Noori had to prove that he was employed by the U.S. forces for at least one year and had experienced serious threats due to this service. Letters of recommendation attested to his four years of hard work.
“When you’re working for Americans, when you risk your life, you’re under threat every second, every time, every day, every morning, every night,” Noori says. “You can’t trust anybody, you can’t trust your neighbors, you can’t trust even your relatives because they can be in connection with the Taliban.”
“When you’re working for Americans, when you risk your life, you’re under threat every second, every time, every day, every morning, every night.”
Noori received his visa through the SIV program in 2013, two years after applying, because the background checks of the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security take a prohibitively long time. Between 2009 and 2013, Congress authorized 7,900 Afghan visas through the SIV program, but due to political backlog, only around two thousand were issued. According to the Associated Press, a diplomatic cable sent by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in 2010 voiced a fear that “the SIV program could drain [Afghanistan] of our very best civilian and military partners: our Afghan employees.” Eikenberry also proposed to make the legal standard of “ongoing serious threat” more stringent, making it harder to issue SIVs.
The U.S. government does not release the number of SIV applicants, but in total, fifty thousand Iraqis and Afghans are estimated to have worked as interpreters for U.S. troops during a decade and a half of war. After years of protests by Afghan translators, stories of SIV applicants getting killed by the Taliban while they waited for their visas, and fears that the program would end when coalition combat forces withdrew, Congress expanded the total allotment of SIVs by four thousand in 2014. But this addition has not made the bureaucracy move faster. By late March 2015, more than thirteen thousand Afghan applicants were still waiting for their paperwork to be processed.
Like many interpreters, Noori hoped that his work would enable him to have a comfortable life in the U.S, with a shot at a professional degree. But, as he balances a job at a deli and English coursework at Gateway Community College, he is struggling to reach this goal.
We meet at Gateway one fall evening, where he is working on homework following a day of classes. After greeting me with a wide smile and a handshake, he tells me how he configures his schedule so that he can work and attend classes part-time. He hopes his education will prepare him for better jobs in the U.S.
David Williams, the American civilian advisor for whom Noori was an interpreter, believes that young Afghan men like Noori become interpreters partly because they want to come to the U.S. When Noori found out he was being resettled in New Haven, Williams helped him find the city on a map and tried to give him an idea of his soon-to-be home. “I knew the background of New Haven and Yale University,” Williams says. “And I was like, Noori, I’m telling you brother… look where they sent [you]: to the hub of one of the best universities in the world. Maybe or maybe not you go there, but you’re gonna be in that environment and just being in that environment, you’re gonna grow.”
Even a good degree from Afghanistan doesn’t count for much in the U.S, so former interpreters like Noori have to work low-wage jobs.
But between a full schedule of work and school, along with the stress of worrying about his family in Afghanistan, Noori’s reality has been far removed from Yale. His only exposure to the University has been through a College alum, assigned as a cultural companion by the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS).
Williams, who worked at the Afghan National Police (ANP) Command Center in Kabul, estimates that he’s worked with hundreds of interpreters, and Noori was one of two for whom he decided to write a letter of recommendation. He remembers Noori as “very educationally-oriented” and well respected among their colleagues. The two worked side-by-side, advising high-ranking Afghan officials who were training the ANP.
“They’re essential to the police mission,” Williams says of his interpreters. “How do you communicate with this [Afghan official] without a language assistant?”
In New Haven, Noori lives alongside other former interpreters who are struggling to make lives for themselves. As we stand in the kitchen, his flatmates pile out of the car carrying groceries, and we walk out of the house to meet them. Noori grasps the hand of each man in greeting and introduces me to his cousin, Ahmad Fawad, who is slightly shorter and more outspoken than Noori. He has light wrinkles on the corners of his eyes. Also unmarried, Fawad came to the U.S. alone.
After decades of war that ravaged the country’s infrastructure, Fawad says that facilitating the work between the coalition forces and the ANP was a way to support peace. “I wanted to work with them to help my people. To have a better life and better security in my country,” Fawad says. By the time the Taliban took control of Afghanistan at the onset of the 1996 civil war, Fawad’s family had fled for Kabul. He was out of school for seven years, unwilling to submit to the violent authority of teachers in the Taliban-run classroom.
Fawad recalls a near-death experience when he was accompanying an American firearms team. Before entering a shooting range, they detected an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) intended for them. Thankfully, they were able to avoid it.
Even while he dreams of reuniting with his family here, he considers what it would be like to go back to Afghanistan in the distant future.
Oftentimes, interpreters are called on to enter high-risk situations such as these because their language skills are indispensible. But the support offered to them is far less than what is given to U.S. soldiers and veterans, Noori points out. While the U.S. troops that the interpreters work with can make upwards of five figures per year, Noori made 425 dollars each month while working with the U.S in Afghanistan. Today, far from his family and far from his home, he makes about fifteen to sixteen hundred dollars a month He pays around 180 dollars per month to share a bedroom with three other men in order to cope with the high living costs in New Haven.
Noori claims there is not adequate support for refugees trying to plan for long-term futures in the U.S. In December of 2014, the New Haven Independent covered Noori and other interpreters’ grievances with IRIS, which is the first point of contact for most refugees or immigrants who come to New Haven. IRIS receives funding from the U.S. Department of State, Health and Human Services, and an array of private companies and churches, but it is often underfunded. And with just seven case managers to oversee the two hundred refugees IRIS re-settles annually, it is often understaffed. The organization allocates a 925-dollar lump sum for each refugee to spend in the first three months, primarily on rent, utilities, and other basic necessities, but then refugees are largely on their own. Even a good degree from Afghanistan doesn’t count for much in the U.S, so former interpreters like Noori have to work low-wage jobs. Noori studied for about three years at Kabul University in Afghanistan, but he had to start his education over again in the U.S. If he continues his studies at his current pace, he is about two years from finishing his degree. While he is committed to succeeding in the U.S, he mentions that some interpreters prefer to try their chances in Afghanistan rather than struggling here.
Noori and Fawad stay in contact with their families in Afghanistan over Facebook and Skype and wait until the day they bring their families to the U.S. The SIV program issues visas only to the principal applicant, their spouse, and unmarried children under 21 years old, but not to applicants’ fathers, mothers, or siblings. After five years of living in the U.S, interpreters can use the green cards they are issued to bring their families. Noori’s parents, two brothers, and two sisters are currently waiting for him to bring them to the U.S, the fear of reprisal from the Taliban looming over them.
Even while he dreams of reuniting with his family here, he considers what it would be like to go back to Afghanistan in the distant future, perhaps with a doctorate that would enable him to work as a minister or a member of parliament. Maybe he would join the U.S. military to work both in Afghanistan and gain the benefits of being a U.S. soldier. For now, the Afghanistan that Noori, Fawad, and the other interpreters hope to see is not within reach. Nor is the life that they expected in the U.S., where they’ve now had to suspend their dreams. Despite these disappointments, Noori says that he would work with U.S. forces again if he could.
Noori and his housemates wash a plate of apples from the recently bought groceries, insisting that I take at least one for the moment and another for the way home. They seem to have formed their own family in this small apartment, bonded by a common language and the daily grind. They stand around the kitchen, exchanging jokes and helping each other prepare food, doing what they can to achieve a semblance of normalcy.
Despite the support of his New Haven family, Noori is always worried about the tenuous situation with his family back home in Afghanistan. “My family, they’re really under serious threat right now, so it’s very challenging for me to be here,” Noori says. “All of my mind is back home.”