For days, Qismat Amin, a former interpreter for the US military living in Dallas, hasn’t been able to sleep, consumed by fear of what the Taliban could do to his family in Afghanistan.
Awake in the middle of the night in his apartment, Amin repeatedly calls home. “Is anyone hurt?” he asks. “Is everyone okay?”
While he worries for his entire family, including two college-educated sisters, he is particularly concerned about his brother, who also worked as an interpreter for more than a year, starting in 2011. Amin earned a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) in 2017 for doing the same job and shortly after moved to the US.
His brother was not as fortunate — his initial application was turned down, though he has since reapplied. He told BuzzFeed News he feels exposed: Everyone in the family’s neighborhood in Jalalabad, which the Taliban took over this weekend, knows of the work the brothers did for US forces.
“It is a nightmare. We are trying to figure out how to have my family survive, to not be tortured or beheaded. I can’t focus. I’m not hungry. I can’t work,” Qismat Amin added in an interview. The family has taken to hiding in their home, he said, leaving only to get food when necessary. His mother has stashed all of his brother’s documents in case someone comes looking for them.
“This is a big risk for us,” Amin’s brother said on Tuesday. He requested anonymity given the crisis unfolding in the country.
Amin’s family faces a threat now confronted by thousands of others in Afghanistan who helped the US government over the nearly 20 years it was in the country. The Biden administration has helped fly out nearly 2,000 Afghan allies and their families who are in the final stages of receiving SIVs. Still, more than 20,000 Afghan allies and tens of thousands of family members were in the processing backlog as of this year.
Immigrant advocates have long criticized the process, arguing it was being held up by political and bureaucratic obstacles, even though visas were implicitly promised to Afghans if their lives were at risk. These organizations are calling on the Biden administration to now evacuate Afghans facing violent retribution, including individuals who have yet to be fully approved for their visas. Amin said he believes interpreters who helped the US military should get priority.
"The Biden administration must take immediate action to uphold our promise to protect the tens of thousands of Afghan allies and their families who are in imminent danger," said Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). "We are receiving desperate messages from clients who have followed all the rules, met all the requirements, and waited for years to receive their visas. We need to vastly expand evacuation efforts to the United States before it is too late."
On Wednesday, IRAP filed a series of emergency petitions with the State Department to help Afghan applicants in the SIV process. One of the organization’s clients, identified as Mr. Azizi, said that he had heard of five interpreters who had been murdered recently by the Taliban, according to a statement released by the organization.
“I do not know when [it] is my turn but they will find me too. I do pray not just for myself but for all my teammates to stay safe and find a chance to refuge from Afghanistan alive and live in a secure place. I do not want to hear any bad news regarding my teammates … who have provided services for years to both the U.S. and Afghan government and I love them all,” Azizi said in the statement.
The Biden administration has said it is dedicated to helping those who assisted the US and has reportedly been in negotiations with countries that would be willing to take Afghans still in the application process for a visa to the US. The administration has also opened up a process for Afghans to apply for refugee status after working for US-affiliated entities.
"We have long said we are committed to supporting those who have helped the US military and our diplomatic personnel perform their duties, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families," a State Department spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. "We are actively working on every possible contingency to make sure that we can help those who have helped us."
Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday defended the efforts to evacuate people from Kabul, describing it as the second-largest effort in US military history. US officials have also said no one could have predicted the speed with which the Taliban took control of the country.
But for Qismat Amin, his only focus has been on a way to get his family, including his brother, out. He recently told his brother to not let on that he worked for the US military.
“I’m trying to figure out some way to get you out of there,” Amin said he told his brother recently. “Don’t tell people you are afraid, keep a low profile.”
He has pushed his family members to be ready to evacuate to any other country in the coming weeks. In early August, he helped his brother resubmit an application for an SIV. A requirement of two years of work with the US Army may hurt the application, as his brother worked only 18 months with the US forces. His brother’s initial application had been denied because he failed a language test and lost his job, Amin said.
The application, provided to BuzzFeed News, included a glowing recommendation from a platoon sergeant who worked with Amin’s brother.
“[Amin’s brother’s] support to the United States government, to the United States Army, and to my team personally has been unwavering. His work throughout Kunar has not come without personal risk. Hundreds of people see him working alongside Coalition Forces every day, and some of those are surely insurgents who have blended in with the local populace. [Amin’s brother] is aware of this fact, yet he never allows it to affect his performance,” a US platoon sergeant wrote.
“Despite the potential risk to his well being [he] continues to work hard due to his strong sense of duty and the desire to see the country of Afghanistan flourish.”
Matthew Ball, a US Army major and Ranger who worked with Amin in Afghanistan and later helped him come to the US, said that the US had a responsibility to help those like Amin’s brother.
“What's so infuriating to me about Qismat's brother's situation is that it was completely preventable. There's a lot of talk right now about the need to evacuate all the SIV applicants, and that's true, but the underlying issue is that the SIV process has been broken for years,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Qismat's brother risked his life working for American forces nearly a decade ago, and he first applied for an SIV in 2014. He should not be waiting for an SIV in 2021.”
As he plots out what’s next for his family, Qismat Amin finds himself surrounded by a crisis that he can’t escape. He’s been going to a Dallas-area lake to be alone and cry.
He saves his strength for his family, whom he has promised to take care of, regardless of what happens.
“I will always be here. I give them hope. I am here,” he said he tells them in his late-night calls. “I am working on things. I will take you guys out. I will never let anything happen to you. I will figure it out.”