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Just four months after eluding a Taliban hit squad, the Afghan ex-interpreter is awash in Americana -- driving a Prius to save gas, working at Bay Area tech company, even packing on 15 extra pounds from munching Cheetos and donuts.
His new world has been kinder than Mohammad imagined. He marvels at how freely he can stroll streets and roam the country, touring Seattle, New York, Tempe, and Washington, D.C. to thank those who helped to rescue him from the Pakistan safe house where he hunkered from “the bad guys,” marked for death for collaborating with Marines. The same Taliban fighters murdered his father and kidnapped his 3-year-old brother, he says. The brother was returned after ransom was paid. Mohammad was next.
NBC News chronicled his journey to America in January.
He lives by invitation at a three-bedroom apartment in Berkeley with his former combat employer and adopted “big brother,” Marine Capt. Adrian Kinsella, 28. In January, Kinsella completed a nearly four-year personal mission, working with Congressional members around the nation to extract Mohammad, 25, from the Taliban’s reach.
In fascinating ways, their roles have reversed. Where Kinsella once trusted Mohammad to safely guide him and his Marine platoon to Afghan villages to converse with locals, Kinsella is helping the Afghan man navigate this culture: proper clothes for a job interview, healthier eating, proper food storage, even introducing him, through friends, to the Super Bowl.
But on Monday, as scores of U.S citizens remember the fallen, the two battle buddies will share a new tradition that blends their shared backgrounds –- honoring thousands of Afghan and Iraqi interpreters believed to have been killed or murdered during or after helping American troops.
"On Memorial Day, I'll remember my family members who served, and the (U.S.) service members who came before me, but I’ll also be thinking about the interpreters like Mohammad, some of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
“The worry I had was that Mohammad would die before we could get him here,” said Kinsella, a Tillman Military Scholar studying at the UC Berkeley School of Law, and still a Marine. He speaks as a private citizen. “He could have easily lost his life, as other interpreters have. He is one of us, my brother in arms.
“So on Memorial Day, I'll remember my family members who served, and the (U.S.) service members who came before me, but I’ll also be thinking about the interpreters like Mohammad, some of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
For Mohammad, who asked that his last name be withheld to protect his family, the elation of freedom is tempered by the hard knowledge that many of his fellow interpreters never got out alive -– or remain stuck in places where they are roundly hated and often hunted.
One interpreter friend was killed while on a Marine mission, he said. Another interpreter friend was kidnapped by the Taliban, then his body was dumped in the street.
When he accepted a job with U.S. forces, Mohammad became interpreter No. 7,243, a digit denoting how many had been employed before him. When he left Afghanistan, the newest interpreters carried registration numbers in the 20,000s, he said.
But because of security concerns at home and a mammoth visa bureaucracy that snakes from the federal government to U.S. embassies in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of interpreters seeking asylum remain snagged in a backlog, advocates report.
“The people who worked in Afghanistan with coalition forces, they’re all in danger because coalition forces are leaving,” Mohammad said. “Everyone over there hates the interpreters. For every interpreter, every day is like a death. They cannot go out. They cannot work.”
Even civilians have turned on the interpreters, he added. Civilians won’t physically harm them, but they also won’t shield them from the Taliban, viewing the interpreters as traitors.
“Everyone over there hates the interpreters. For every interpreter, every day is like a death. They cannot go out. They cannot work.”
“When a lot of the interpreters leave their U.S. bases, they get in a car or taxi. But the people all know where this guy is coming from, and (the Taliban) will follow and capture them on their way home,” Mohammad said. “Killing an interpreter is a big goal for the Taliban because there’s one interpreter for 20 Marines. And if there’s not that one interpreter, those 20 Marines are not going to go into the village.”
An outwardly happy man, Mohammad’s anxieties are divided between at-risk interpreters and his mother and siblings, also forced to live underground lives.
His family stays at a house in Pakistan, afraid to venture out because they know the Taliban can find them. Due to Mohammad’s translation work, they are similarly marked for harm. Their landlord plans to sell that house and evict them in one week. But Afghans generally are not welcome in Pakistan, Mohammad said, meaning his family has been unable to secure a new rental despite months of looking.
The clock is ticking before they lose their safe shelter.
“The only thing we can ask for is for his family to be here. But he does talk to them all the time on Skype,” Kinsella said.
Help may be on the way. A new, bi-partisan bill, the Afghan Allies Protection Extension Act, would offer the same rules to Afghan interpreters that already apply to Iraqi interpreters, allowing them to bring their parents and siblings to America. (Afghan interpreters now are authorized to bring only spouses and children).
“The people who really get this issue realize it’s about life and death,” said Patrick Malone, communications director for U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, co-sponsor of the bill. “Just because they are half way around the world doesn’t mean it’s any less urgent.”
For now, Mohammad frequently scours the Internet for available rentals in Pakistan, hoping that one of the “thousands” of available homes can serve as his family’s next sanctuary –- until they, too, can come to America. “I am here physically,” Mohammad said. “But I’m not here mentally because I’m thinking of them every day, worried that something is going to happen again.”