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Former interpreter living in Colorado speaks about the need to help stranded Afghans

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DENVER — Aurangzaib Sharifi knows firsthand how serious the crisis in Afghanistan is.

Before moving to Commerce City, where he has lived for the past seven years, Sharifi was a journalist in Afghanistan where he also worked as an interpreter with the United States Military.

Following the American troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rapid rise to power by the Taliban in recent weeks, Sharifi is concerned for Afghans who helped the U.S. military that are now living under Taliban rule. He is still in contact with many of them.

“Most of the interpreters, they’re saying that they cannot even openly go out for shopping and stuff,” he explained. “Because if they go out, they would be traced and they would be followed, and they would be killed.”

Tens of thousands of Afghans are estimated to be eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), which is reserved for people who worked with or helped the U.S. overseas. But as Sharifi notes, the process is often complicated and lengthy. Sharifi himself had to wait two years for his visa to be approved.

“SIV is a long process,” he said. “And by the time that they are going to be approved for that visa...the people will be already killed.”

Sharifi said he is thankful for the work the United States did in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, but right now he is “not happy because I could have been one of those who are left behind. But I was lucky enough that I made it to the United States and I’m safe right now.”

The desperation of thousands of Afghans was on display earlier this week when they chased after departing U.S. military planes at the Kabul airport. Seven people died in the chaos, according to the Associated Press, including multiple people who fell from the plane. U.S. forces killed two people who Pentagon officials described as carrying weapons.

Sharifi presenting to the U.S. military in Afghanistan (Photo courtesy Aurangzaib Sharifi)

[Related: Inside the desperate, dangerous scramble to evacuate Kabul as Taliban seizes control]

Colorado Congressman Jason Crow (D-Aurora), a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, echoed Sharifi’s concerns for Afghan interpreters, translators, and others who helped American forces.

“We should have started this evacuation months ago and had we done that, tens of thousands of folks could have been brought to safety,” Crow said during a press conference. “It could have been done deliberately and methodically. We think that was a missed opportunity.”

In a letter sent to Biden August 18, a group of 55 U.S. senators, including Colorado senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, urged the president to speed up the visa program.

"As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, these individuals face increased danger at the hands of the Taliban that has sworn retribution," the bipartisan group said in the letter. "For this reason, Congress provided additional authorities to improve and expedite the application process while maintaining the program's security and integrity."

As Sharon McCreary and Kandyce Pinckney point out, many SIV recipients who move to the U.S. are doing so without their families.

McCreary is the volunteer coordinator with the Colorado Refugee ESL Program, an organization that helps refugees who are new to Colorado. Pinckney, who works with Focus Points Family Resource Center, has been involved with refugee resettlement as a job trainer and English teacher for about 11 years.

“Over the course of time, the [refugee] families have sort of gauged the safety of staying in touch with their families [in Afghanistan] … And they've become comfortable and they assess their own risk. And so it's not uncommon for them to go back to Afghanistan for anywhere from one to three months, often if there's a new baby to show to the family,” McCreary explained. “And up until now that has been fine and then...the last couple of weeks happened and things deteriorated very quickly.”

Pinckney and McCreary stressed how dangerous it could be for U.S. allies in Afghanistan.

“I mean, we have stories of people that are here in Denver. I'm thinking of one man in particular, he and his two brothers … all three men in the family were interpreters,” Pinckney said. “The Taliban knew that all three of them were interpreters, and so [when] their father was riding around on a motorcycle, the Taliban found him and shot him three times for all three of his sons being interpreters. So … it's not overreacting to say that these people are in very real, immediate present danger."

Pinckney continued: “I think everybody anticipated things going badly once the U. S. troops and NATO pulled out, but I don't think anybody anticipated it going badly this quickly.”

Even President Biden himself agreed, saying in a speech on August 16 that the collapse of the Afghan government happened more quickly than his administration expected. But he had strong criticism against the Afghan government and military.

“American troops cannot, and should not, be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” Biden said.

People are especially attuned to what the future for Afghan women and girls will look like under Taliban rule. The Taliban’s violence and oppression against women is well-documented: in the past, women could not be in public without a male escort, had to cover themselves from head-to-toe, and were forbidden from working or going to school. In 2012, members of the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai in the head for advocating for education (miraculously, she survived and went on to become a Nobel peace laureate).

“The protection of Afghan women must be a top priority,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a press conference with Rep. Crow.

Speaking with Rocky Mountain PBS, Metropolitan State University of Denver Professor Sheila Rucki said, “I want to make it clear, what awaits women and children in Afghanistan is awful. I expect it is going to be awful. And the kinds of social advances women made, the ability to be educated … all of that kind of stuff will be whittled away quickly.”

However, Taliban leadership has changed its tune when it comes to violence and the rights of women.

“Women will be afforded all their rights, whether it is at work or other activities, because women are a key part of society. And we are guaranteeing all their rights within the limits of Islam,” said Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid, through a translator.

Whether people believe them is another thing.

[Related: Despite Taliban promises, Afghan women fear losing their freedoms and lives]

In Biden’s first interview after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asked the president if he thought the Taliban have changed.

“No,” the president said quickly. “Let me put it this way: I think they’re going through sort of an existential crisis about [whether] they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government. I’m not sure they do.”


Jennifer Castor is the Executive Producer of Multimedia Content at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at jennifercastor@rmpbs.org.

Kyle Cooke is the Digital Media Manager at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at kylecooke@rmpbs.org.

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