Afghan War ally Janis Shinwari’s well-publicized effort to find refuge in America came to a successful conclusion late Tuesday when the translator and his family walked off a plane in Washington, D.C.
“We are so happy,” Shinwari told Yahoo News on Wednesday. “We made it. No more fear. No more threat. No more Taliban.”
Shinwari, who served as an interpreter for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan for nearly seven years, says he had become a top target of insurgents, who considered him a traitor and made it known that they wanted to behead him.
Threats against his life were “increasing day by day,” said Shinwari, a 35-year-old married father of two young children.
The Shinwaris applied to come to the U.S. more than two years ago under a special immigration visa (SIV) program for people who helped American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the request had been riddled with red tape.
Three months ago, former Army Capt. Matt Zeller, an intelligence officer who says Shinwari saved his life by killing an encroaching insurgent in Afghanistan, began aggressively lobbying his friend’s case. A Change.org petition drew more than 100,000 signatures, and news stories documented the delays Shinwari and other war allies often experience getting their special immigrant visas approved.
In early September, the State Department finally approved the visas for the Shinwari family, but then it put them on hold 14 days later without explanation. Zeller and Shinwari believe the Taliban may have called in a phony tip to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in an effort to sabotage Shinwari’s escape.
“Afghanistan is not safe anymore for any Afghan who is working for the U.S. government, especially those working for the U.S. Army,” Shinwari said Wednesday.
He had to pass two more polygraph exams and wait until the end of the U.S. government shutdown before learning that his family’s visas had been reinstated and they could begin planning their travel.
“We are now all free,” said Shinwari, who had to move his family often in the last few weeks. “We won’t be locked down in the home. I can send my kids to school. They can play outside with other kids.”
The family spent part of Wednesday working on temporary housing through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Meanwhile, Zeller has started an online fund to help the family get settled.
“They're coming with nothing more than the clothes on their back and whatever they can fit into one suitcase,” he wrote. “Please help me get their new lives started.”
Shinwari, who said he hopes to find work in the U.S. as a government translator, will also use his freedom to encourage improvements to the SIV program. Shinwari and Zeller will meet with members of Congress next week to discuss his work as a battlefield interpreter and the obstacles he faced getting his visa.
“I want them to speed up the process and save the lives of others,” Shinwari said.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., is one of the politicians working to address shortcomings in the SIV program. In a statement, he called Shinwari’s arrival in the U.S. “an amazing day” which “embodies a promise kept.”
“But while he is an example of the SIV program eventually working,” Blumenauer wrote, “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.”
Their embrace at the airport in Washington late Tuesday was the first time Shinwari and Zeller had seen one another in five years.
“I thank the Lord for Zeller, he saved my life,” Shinwari said. “He gave me a new life. I won’t forget it.”