As the Taliban continues to cement its hold on power, thousands of former Afghan translators and their families -- now considered guilty by association with U.S. troops -- are desperately trying to flee Afghanistan.
The former Afghan medical interpreter for U.S. troops in Kabul now living in San Diego told NBC 7 he knew the job was risky when he took it, but he never imagined his work toward peace would leave his friends and family now fearing for their lives.
“I don't know what will happen to their future,” he said. “These past few days, I'm very feeling sad, thinking how I can help them."
The interpreter did not want his name used in this story.
He said he was able to get in touch with his family in Afghanistan on Sunday but fears more and more for their safety as Afghans who worked with U.S. troops and their families are now more vulnerable than they’ve ever been.
“Every minute is danger right now, so nobody can decide what should they do,” he said. ”They are stuck inside Kabul, and they don't know what will happen. I’m very worried about them. I’m a U.S. citizen, and I have the right that my family should be here.”
The interpreter hasn’t seen his family since the day he left Afghanistan seven years ago, when he was granted a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program for his work for the U.S., but only after an exhausting four-year wait. He told NBC 7 that Afghans with ties to the U.S. military can't wait that long.
“They have to be removed quickly, especially if they are SIV and SIV families,” he said.
According to the nonprofit No One Left Behind, in recent years at least 300 interpreters and family members have been killed because of their ties to the United States.
The interpreter said he feels guilty watching from half a world away as loved ones fight for their lives while America’s longest war races to an end. He said, though, that he’s turning his struggle into purpose by working with San Diego’s Jewish Family Services to help refugees -- all while praying for the future of his homeland.
“I have to help refugees because I know the situation that refugees face in their countries and Afghanistan especially,” the interpreter said. “In these past 20 years, we saw a lot of developments and progress in Afghanistan … and now they don't want to go back, they want to have a good life.”
According to documents from the U.S. State Department, the average wait time to be accepted to the SIV program is usually about nine months, but at the start of 2021, that wait time reached nearly three years. Officials say they’re trying to expedite the process.
More than 300,000 Afghan civilians have been affiliated with U.S. troops since their arrival 20 years ago, and only 16,000 Afghan SIVs have been issued since 2014.
More than 18,000 applications are currently in the pipeline.