Army aide threatened by Taliban finally gets US visa

Jason Sickles, Yahoo
Yahoo News

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Army veteran Matt Zeller and his Afghan interpreter Janis Shinwari in 2008 (Courtesy of Matt Zeller)

[Updated at 12:45 p.m. ET]

U.S. war ally Janis Shinwari is coming to America.

Last week Yahoo News detailed the plight of the Afghan interpreter, who says he has become the target of Taliban death threats while waiting for the State Department to decide on his request to seek refuge in the United States.

Shinwari applied to move to the United States two years ago under a special immigration program for people who helped American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the request has been mired in red tape.

On Monday, Yahoo News learned he finally got his answer.

“I don't think I've ever heard him that happy,” Matt Zeller, a U.S. war vet, wrote in an email to Yahoo News. “Janis is so overjoyed he's already started selling off household goods and making plans to hide out for the last month.”

The 35-year-old Afghan native was Zeller’s interpreter in 2008. Zeller, a former Army intelligence officer, has been aggressively lobbying for Shinwari’s visa. The pair celebrated by phone in an emotional call early Monday.

“He started telling me about how excited he is and that he expects to have flights and housing arranged within 30-40 days,” Zeller wrote in an email. “We started talking about how our kids (I have a daughter about the same age as his youngest) will grow up together and be friends. I still can't quite wrap my head around the fact that in a few weeks I'll be able to talk to him in person.”

The U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan and increasing threats towards Shinwari had prompted Zeller to start a campaign on Change.org seeking the immediate visa. The online petition garnered more than 100,000 signatures.

“The obvious unfairness & bureaucratic ineptitude of this is shameful; the U.S. government owes a debt to this man, & many like him,” Theodore Drachman wrote on Change.org.

Zeller, who says Shinwari saved his life by killing an encroaching insurgent during battle, is thankful to everyone, including a handful of U.S. politicians, who stepped up for his friend.

“The final straw appears to be an equal combination of the petition, the calls, and the media attention,” Zeller wrote in an email. “But I think all the attention on this issue also started to become a headache that people could easily make go away by getting him his visa. And it's just the right thing to do — so it was easy to raise support and get people to rally behind it.”

A special immigrant visa (SIV) program designated to help interpreters and other allies from the Iraq war is slated to expire at the end of September unless lawmakers pass an extension. The Afghan version would go away in September 2014 without a new law.

Humanitarians and war vets have been critical of the effort, saying that only a fraction of potentially eligible candidates have been approved in what they argue is a badly bureaucratic process. Thousands of applications from U.S. allies are believed to be in limbo.

“Interestingly, Ehsan, my other interpreter, heard all about our efforts to help Janis and contacted me begging that I do for him what I did for Janis,” Zeller wrote. “The broader issue is that the system clearly needs fixing, as this effort cannot conceivably be replicated and achieve the same success for every SIV applicant still waiting for their visa.”

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