Speakers: John Walsh, Felicia Ellsworth, Alexandra Stanley and Mr. Ahmed
Walsh: Welcome to In the Public Interest, a podcast from WilmerHale. I'm your co-host, John Walsh.
Ellsworth: And I'm your co-host, Felicia Ellsworth. John and I are partners at WilmerHale, an international law firm that works at the intersection of government, technology and business. Today we are joined by Alexandra Stanley and an Afghan refugee and translator, who we will call Mr. Ahmed for privacy. Alexandra is a senior associate in the Washington DC office, who focuses her practice on complex securities enforcement matters and investigations. She has dedicated much of her practice to pro bono work and, specifically, to assisting Afghan refugees apply for humanitarian parole. Mr. Ahmed is an Afghan refugee who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. While he lived in Afghanistan, Mr. Ahmed translated for the United States military. When the Taliban overthrew the government, Mr. Ahmed was one of the 76,000 Afghans to enter the United States. Today, he will share his heroic story of how he assisted 109 others flee Afghanistan, and the translation work he has continued to do since his arrival in the United States to help other Afghans apply for humanitarian parole.
Walsh: In August 2021, the Taliban overthrew the Afghan government, after the United States announced withdrawal of its troops from the region. Shortly after the United States welcomed 76,000 Afghans as refugees, most as humanitarian parolees. These refugees are persons who worked with the U.S. military or who are former Afghan Government employees, human rights advocates and others who could face Taliban persecution. Their flight from Afghanistan, under Taliban rule, was in many cases harrowing and piled with difficulty. This episode of In the Public Interest presents the story of one man's flight and what he did to help other refugees reach safety. While many Afghan refugees are now safe in the United States, thousands more are waiting for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Agency to review their application. Only then will they be able to enter the United States with protected status. Since July 2021, over 46,000 Afghans have applied for humanitarian parole. All but a handful of these applications are pending and unresolved. As of June 2nd 2022, USCIS has only approved 297 humanitarian parole applications, while over 90% of reviewed applications have been denied. Applications can take more than a year to be reviewed, which leaves those families to continue hiding from the Taliban in Afghanistan or in neighboring countries, waiting and hoping the United States will grant them a safe place to reset. Alexandra, can you explain what humanitarian parole is and speak to us a little bit about the services that Wilmer Hale has provided to Afghan refugee families over the course of this last year.
Stanley: Sure, John. Humanitarian parole allows non-citizens to enter the U.S. for a temporary period due to a compelling humanitarian emergency. So, humanitarian parole has traditionally been a faster way to get migrants into the United States and out of harm, which is why it's often used after armed conflicts. Typically, after these mass movements of parolees, the U.S. passes an adjustment Act that provides parolees with a pathway to permanent immigration status. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, Operation Allies Welcome was used to move approximately 76,000 Afghans to the U.S., most of them as humanitarian parolees. While the Biden administration has provided temporary protected status to Afghans in the United States, which allows them to stay through November 20, 2023, no Afghan Adjustment Act has been passed, leaving Afghans with extremely limited options for receiving permanent status. In many ways though, those Afghans who made it to the United States were the lucky ones. Thousands of Afghans who had helped the United States were left behind, facing danger of severe reprisal from the Taliban. In November of last year, the New York Legal Assistance Group referred a number of Afghan individuals and families seeking to apply for humanitarian parole to Wilmer Hale. And we've taken about 16 Afghan humanitarian parole cases. Wilmer Hale works with our Afghan clients to fill out their humanitarian parole applications, which are really quite involved. For instance, you have to find a financial sponsor in the U.S., and you have to include a statement showing that there are urgent reasons why the parolee must be in the United States. Almost none of Wilmer Hale's Afghan clients speak English, so interpreters, like Ahmed, have played a critical role in this effort.
Walsh: So, Alexandra, how did WilmerHale actually get connected with Ahmed?
Stanley: We had heard that Ahmed was a former translator for the U.S., who had been evacuated from Afghanistan, and that he was currently at Fort Dix in New Jersey. So, we reached out to him, and he was very enthusiastic and agreed to help us. Ahmed has been an essential part of almost every Wilmer Hale team that has worked on an Afghan humanitarian parole application. So, with that, I'm going to finally introduce on Ahmed, who’s sitting next to me. Ahmed, we're so grateful for your work with Wilmer Hale to help Afghan refugees. Let's start kind of at the beginning of your connection to the United States, and talk about your experience working with the United States while you were living in Afghanistan.
Ahmed: Thank you so much, everyone. This is Ahmed. I was interpreter back in Afghanistan for the U.S. government.
Stanley: What kind of interpreting work did you do?
Ahmed: I used to work for the Rule of Law Field Force Afghanistan, assisting Afghan judges and prosecutors to do their job properly. I also had worked with the State Department, USA and some of the other legal offices back in my country.
Walsh: How did you learn to speak English so well? It's really notable.
Ahmed: I went to IRC, which is International Resource Center back in Pakistan, where I was born. I studied and plus I'm a big fan of watching Hollywood movies and I used to watch a lot of movies, and then I started working as an interpreter. I worked like everybody, to be honest. That way, I think, I got more good in English, and now here back in U.S., I'm still working as an interpreter for the Wilmer Hale. It's also helping me a lot to learn because I don't think everybody gets a chance to work with the professionals.
Stanley: When did you start working with the U.S. government? What year do you think that was?
Ahmed: That was the beginning of 2011.
Stanley: So, when the Taliban drew closer to Kabul in August last year, knowing that so many people in your community had known of your prior work with the United States, were you afraid of what the Taliban might do to you if they took over Kabul?
Ahmed: Oh yeah, 100% because even during the time of Afghan government and Americans, it was like matter of pride for them to harm or kill all those people who used to work for the U.S. government, including interpreters, contractors and everything.
Stanley: Can you describe the day that the Taliban actually entered Kabul.
Ahmed: It was August 15, 2021, when Taliban took over the capital, Kabul. I was in my town when Taliban took over and, to be honest, it was like you were in the middle of nowhere, and you don't have any hope. It was a matter of nine days everything collapsed. And whatever the dreams that we had for our country to live happily, to bring peace into our country with the help of U.S. and NATO forces, it just fell down.
Stanley: Some of your friends in the U.S. government reached out to you around that time. Could you describe what assistance they were trying to offer you?
Ahmed: Yes, the first thing that they were trying to do was to help me out with my SIV case, to apply for me. And, the second thing was they wanted me to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible because as Taliban took over, everybody was struggling. Everybody was trying to get out, especially the people who used to work for the U.S. government and NATO forces because their lives were really in danger. And all the guys living here, I will never ever be able to thank them because of all their support and help that they gave me, they've been giving me. They wanted me to get out of Afghanistan no matter what, so they did plan and they asked me to go to Hamid Karzai International Airport to be able to get inside the airport, so that I could get out of there. After a lot of beating up by AK47 from Taliban, I was able to get into the airport at 1617 hours in a crowd and Taliban using whatever they had, whatever they could to beat the refugees or the people, Afghans, trying to leave the country. Once I got in, I was so tired and I had so much pain, but I wasn't really feeling it because I just wanted to get in, as my friends here in U.S. told me, that no matter what you have to get in. It's okay if they beat you, because there's no other way. And once I got into the airport, I saw like thousands of people waiting in a line and inside the airport. Unfortunately, the night was only for U.S. citizens and green card holders, and since I wasn't a citizen and I didn't have any green card, they had to take me out of the airport because they were not allowed to take any Afghans, and I stayed there for like half an hour, one more hour to try again and get inside the airport, but I couldn't make it. And, at the end, I told my U.S. friends who are now my family. I call them my family that I cannot do anything more. I cannot stand here because I had so much pain. I got beat up by Taliban, with their AK47's and metal rods, everything, not just me, everybody who was trying to get out of there. Then they told me to go back home, and they will find another way to take me into the airport and then from there to any other country. But, after one day, they asked me to go again with the help of, as I mentioned, Congressman Ed Case. He was the main supporter and all the other guys, Major Josh, Major Carbone that I used to work for, and all other guys, Travis Ostrom, the U.S. Marine. All of them were our angels, and I spent five days back in Kabul trying to get into the airport. But we couldn't make it. And the last try was a barren hotel where the suicide happened and hundreds of people died, including U.S. forces. That was the last try, but we couldn't make it. The next option was to go to Mazar-i-Sharif. It's another province of Afghanistan in the north, so we had to move there.
Walsh: You mentioned the time you tried to get to the airport and were at the Baron Hotel. You weren't there by yourself, were you, you were with others. You were trying to help get into the airport, is that right?
Ahmed: Yes, sir, including me, we were 109 people. Some of them were introduced to me by Congress, some of them were introduced to me by my friends and they were also interpreters, and some of them were contractors or were working for the U.S. government. We were so many, and the Baron Hotel was the one and only option for us to be able to enter. But, after so many checkpoints and abuse and insults from Taliban, we were so close to Baron Hotel Gate, and it was like something comes up or someone tells you to not go there. And we stopped and one of the guy who made it with me back in New Jersey, he told me like why, and I was like, I wish it was just me and you. We have like 3 years, 4 years old kids with us and there are like thousands of people. How we going to make it? When we turn back, so after 3 or 4 minutes, the explosion happened where hundreds of people died.
Walsh: You also mentioned going really across Afghanistan from Kabul, and what was the name of the city again that you had to go to where you got the flight eventually?
Ahmed: We were asked to go to Mazar-i-Sharif. It's the north of Afghanistan, where we had a chance to get out of there. But, as I've said before, it took us one month every day flight, but the Taliban would not let us fly and we will get cancelled again. So, basically the whole month flight cancelled, flight cancelled. And everybody was so sad, and they had depression, anxiety. Everybody, they weren't really able to go back. Everybody was saying what if, what if we don't make it to U.S.? Where will we go? We cannot go back to our house. We cannot go back to our town. What we going to do? Especially me, since everybody knew about me that I was interpreter. It was a horrible time. Back in that time, it was like everybody thought it's unreal because nobody imagined that the Afghan government will collapse in 9 days and the Taliban, they will take over again, as they took over last time, and killed thousands of people for no reason. It was a horrible time for everybody, for every Afghan living under the security or protection of the Afghan government and the U.S. forces and NATO forces.
Walsh: How did you get from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif, if I'm saying that correctly, was it by a bus? How long a trip is that?
Ahmed: It was like 12-13 hours, and we were supported by our friends here, financially, and we had two buses full of kids, women, and it took us 13 hours to go to Mazar-i-Sharif, and then we had to separate and go to different restaurants and hotels to live.
Walsh: Because of your ability to speak English, were you assisting all of those people in that process?
Ahmed: Yes, that's true.
Walsh: You told us, as we got ready to have this conversation, about when the day finally came, that you got a flight out, could you talk about that?
Ahmed: As I said before, for one month, flight and then getting cancelled, flight and then getting cancelled, it started getting over me. It was too much for me, so I told the guys that I can't take it anymore because so much depression — every day you pack your stuff, nobody had anything but still a backpack where they had few pairs of clothes and that's it. And they would get really excited and, at the end, the flight would get cancelled. It just wasn't working and one day, finally, when I was doing my lunch, Travis Astrom, I have never met him; he's from Oregon, I think, but the best human being ever. He spent two months with us, non-stop talking to us, never knew us. Never saw us before. He kept calling us brothers and brothers. And we did mean something to him. I was doing my lunch, and he called me and he told me, it's your time to fly. To be honest, I didn't take it seriously because it's going to cancel like in one hour or something. We started packing up, and we went all of us, one by one, two, three to the location where we were supposed to and the buses came. They loaded us, and we went to the airport. That was the best time because I would always tell my mom, mom, I'm leaving, and she would say that no, you are not leaving because it's not happening, and when I called her from the airport and told her that, mom, I'm leaving and she said stop joking around. You've been saying this for the past one month and it's not working. I told her maybe staying here in my country, for one more month was in my luck. But I did tell her that yeah, I'm inside the airport, and we are flying pretty soon. When I went to Kabul, I didn't even have the chance to say goodbye to my mom and dad or to hug them. Everything happened suddenly. Taliban took over suddenly or movement started suddenly. We flew away. Everything was certain for us. It was like a miracle.
Walsh: When you got on the plane were all the 109 people that you had brought from Kabul with you?
Ahmed: Yes, everybody was there, and I was counting each and every one, kid, female, male. And when they all got into the plane, I started taking their pictures and I sent them to the guys or angels, Travis Astrom, Major Josh, Christopher Carbone, Charles Djou, who was also a former congressman representing Hawaii, and Jackie Conant. She also works for the Congressman Ed Case. She was the greatest help for all of us. It was a team which is called Operation North Star. And we managed to come out, 109 people. The Operation North Star accomplished.
Walsh: Thank you so much, Ahmed.
Stanley: You arrived at Fort Dix in New Jersey just before we started working together?
Ahmed: Yeah, four days, it was like a palace for us after spending all those days on the roads and crowd and here and there, hiding from Taliban. When we got to Fort Dix, everything was available for us — food, clothes, shelter, which was the best thing you could ever have. After spending almost two months in the middle of nowhere, I got to make more friends, U.S. Air Force, then Major Josh. He called me and he said, since you're doing nothing at Fort Dix, is it okay if you work for the law firm and I said, I think that would be great. So, he introduced me to one of the finest lawyers of WilmerHale. Then I started working as an interpreter for WilmerHale. Alexandra Stanley, Sidney Warren, John Abby Bhashani, Lily Potter, all the cool guys. So, it's been an honor working with for the WilmerHale.
Stanley: And we've had a great time working with you, and we are always amazed by your never ending willingness to give your generosity of time and spirit. And, I know, it's hard because often as you're translating people’s stories, it causes you to relive the traumas that you've been through. So, I think the work that you've done for us is incredible. Thank you for that.
Ahmed: It's my pleasure.
Stanley: We'll keep doing more and more cases. We've got gotten a couple together now. Our first case that we started working on was in December last year and it was a case involving an Afghan policewoman. She had been evacuated to a refugee camp in the UAE. What has it been like for you to work on her humanitarian parole application and on the humanitarian parole applications of so many others?
Ahmed: For me, when I do interpreting, every translation is same for me, but it also depends on what's going on with the client. Her name is not to be mentioned. She was a former Afghan police officer and she was moved to Dubai, UAE because of life in danger and Taliban trying to find her. She was a police officer, and everybody knew her face and everything, but when we did started working with her and helped her file, the humanitarian parole things seemed nice or okay and we thought we might get the answer pretty fast. It's been like almost a year that we haven't seen any progress regarding the female refugee who is still in UAE.
Stanley: That's right, we submitted that application in February. And, at that time, we were thinking it's a three month processing time, so we were expecting some news in late April or May, but, as of now, the processing time for most humanitarian parole applications is about one year.
Ahmed: Yes, exactly.
Stanley: It's frustrating for both of us, I know. I think we both feel kind of helpless and frustrated as we're unable to do things to move her application along in any way.
Ahmed: Yes, exactly, waiting plus getting to know others horrible story their life. The way they used to live, the way they are trying to live, and the difficulties that they faced trying to save their lives.
Stanley: Right. I think, at this point, we should also mention our second case, which is your wife.
Stanley: You've been separated since you had to flee in late August of last year, and I know that's been so difficult for you. I really can’t even imagine.
Ahmed: I wish I was able to bring her down with me, but since my life was in danger, I didn't want to put her life in danger. Being here, living alone, for me it's so much pain since you don't know anybody here, and you need family, their support. I have left everything behind, my family, my house, my friends, my country. Living here is amazing. I feel like I'm living in a heaven and I love it here, but as we say, we still need our family, like my wife. I couldn't even spend like one month with her, and then I had to fly and she was left behind. So, it's not just hard for me, it's also hard for my wife. She's a woman and a lot of people talk about me being in the United States or being called infidel, that I have worked for the US government, the hypocrites, the bad people. This is what Taliban think about me and about the U.S. government. But I wish I could prove them wrong. I wish it was just about me, so I would take it, but it's also about my wife. It's been really hard, but hope we get help down here. With the help of WilmerHale.
Stanley: Yeah, well, we're certainly trying our hardest and, I know, that a lot of people that you met at Fort Dix also left their families behind and are also kind of struggling a little bit to become more integrated here.
Ahmed: Yes, exactly. When we moved from Afghanistan, I was one of the 76,000 Afghans including woman and children. I'm pretty sure like more than 20,000 people were single. They left their families behind, their kids behind, because they were working for the U.S. government. They were working for the Afghan Government, and their lives were in danger, and they had to leave their families behind. A lot of them, they can't even speak Dari, which is all national language. They only speak Pashto, so they don't know how to speak English. And now they are here, and to be honest, I don't see any support for them. So, that they could get help to bring their families down, and file some kind of applications for their families. As I have seen, I don't see any support for them, and as Alexandra Stanley mentioned, I speak English, I'm good. I have a lot of friends that I used to work for, as I have WilmerHale, and hope to become electrician. I'm getting what I want, and I'm also worried about the people here living in U.S.. And, they are not getting any support, as I said. People in Dubai, UAE and also maybe some countries back in Europe, Some people, some families are still stuck in Pakistan. They have already left everything behind their home, their families, everything. So, I request the U.S. government, state department, USCIS, and all other departments who are involved in this immigration crisis, to please help them because they need help. They deserve to be here, since they were working for the U.S. government, shoulder by shoulder, as the U.S. Army had a word for this — shana bashana, means shoulder by shoulder back in our country. So, I really request the U.S. government to help them, and to bring them down because they deserve to live happy.
Stanley: That means so much coming from you, Ahmed, as somebody who worked on behalf of the U.S. government, and has now worked as an interpreter on these cases. You really have an unparalleled view into this issue. You have done so much for so many people in this process, and, I know, it's been tough for you, so I did want to ask you. I guess knowing what you know now, if you could go back in time, would you still choose to work for the U.S. government.
Ahmed: Actually yes, I would love to and I will always work for the U.S. government as an interpreter. When I started working for the U.S. Army as an interpreter, at first, I didn't really know anything about the United States. When I found out that I can become interpreter since I knew how to speak English, I would say that was the best time of my life. The best experience, if I go back, I will start working for them again.
Stanley: That's great, so I think we're coming to a close, but if there is one more thing that you could share today, Ahmed, with our listeners, with the U.S. government, with other Afghans that might be able to listen to this, what would you say to them?
Ahmed: All I would like to say is that, again, I request to help them. I request each and every person in the United States, the U.S. government, the donors, the departments, USCIS State Department to help them because they need help. I was the lucky one. All the 76,000 Afghans they were the lucky that they made it to the United States. But some people are still stuck in Afghanistan. They need help. They need support back in Pakistan, UAE and I just want help for them. That's all I want because they need it and, I think, they deserve it, too.
Walsh: Thank you, Alexandra and Mr. Ahmed, for sharing your stories with us, also for your important work to support Afghan refugees. We at WilmerHale are committed to this issue, and will continue to partner with nonprofit organizations working on it, including the New York Legal Assistance Group, the Malala Fund, the Pars Equality Center and other nonprofits whose websites are listed in the episode notes for this episode of In the Public Interest. If you want to support those efforts, we really encourage you to visit their websites.
Ellsworth: Thank you to our audience for joining us for this episode of In the Public Interest. We hope you will join us for our next episode. If you enjoyed this podcast, please take a moment to share it with a friend, subscribe, rate and review us. See you next time on In the Public Interest.