CREDIT: CBS News
An Afghan interpreter who saved the life of an American soldier has finally found asylum in the United States after years of living in fear of the Taliban.
When Janis Shinwari landed in Washington, DC with his family on Tuesday night, he was met by Capt. Matt Zeller (ret.), the soldier whose life he saved. Shinwari worked as an interpreter for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan for seven years. When the men were ambushed in 2009, Shinwari killed two insurgents before they could reach Zeller, an act which landed him on the Taliban’s kill list.
In an interview with “CBS This Morning,” Zeller, who drew awareness to the case with a Change.org petition that drew hundreds of thousands of signatures, could barely contain his relief. “I got my last member of my unit home,” he said. “I can breathe a sigh of relief for the first time in five years. I got my buddy home.”
Shinwari’s path to safety in the United States was a difficult one. Living as a marked man in Afghanistan, Shinwari admitted “each minute of my life I thought that I would get killed.” Finally, he was granted a special visa in September. But before he could leave Afghanistan with his family, his visa was revoked, possibly due to fake tips by the Taliban that pointed to him as a threat. But Zeller refused to stop fighting for the man he calls a brother, warning at the time that if Shinwari weren’t issued a new visa, “He’ll die. He’ll die. No question about it.”
The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program was designed to quickly grant visas to Afghan and Iraqi locals who served with American soldiers as interpreters or in other critical positions. But the program has faced numerous problems.
Zeller’s efforts helped raise awareness of Shinwari’s plight and his family were reissued visas. When asked if he ever lost hope in reaching the United States, Shinwari smiled. “I had a brother here to fight for me, and I was thinking that I can make it.” Unfortunately, not all interpreters who risked their lives to fight alongside Americans have effective advocates. As Congressman Earl Blumenhauer (D-OR), a longtime advocate for Iraqi refugees, admits, “There are thousands of people who are in similar situations. Thousands. We’ve been able to get out fewer than 10 percent of the people we could have.”
Tens of thousands of visas set aside for Iraqis and Afghans who fought alongside Americans remain to be issued. Janis Shinwari’s brother-in-arms fulfilled his promise: “He told me that one day he will bring me home, and the United States is my home.” It remains to be seen if the United States will live up to its own promise, though there is reason for hope. In early October, a bill extending fthe SIV program for Iraqis for a year was passed in Congress, after a brief lapse during the government shutdown.
Watch “CBS This Morning’s” full interview:
Christopher Butterfield is an intern for ThinkProgress.