Andrea Hsu / NPR
Ahmad Zai Ahmadi was just a teenager when he encountered a group of US Marines in a bazaar in his hometown of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2003.
“I just started saying ‘Hi’ and ‘How are you’, and they say ‘Okay, you speak English. Do you want to translate for us?’ I say: ‘Of course, yes!’ “Recalls Ahmadi, now 36 years old.
He then worked as an interpreter for US forces for nearly a decade, a job that took him all over Afghanistan. He befriended US servicemen, including a number of high-ranking officers. His nickname was Rock.
In 2009, he applied for a special immigrant visa to come to the United States, a program set up for Afghans who had served the US government and faced threats because of their jobs.
It took 11 years to get his visa.
At that time, he had a wife and three children. And soon after arriving in the United States in early 2020, he discovered his biggest test yet: he had to find a way to support his family.
This is the central challenge facing tens of thousands of Afghans who have fled their homeland in recent months as the United States retreats from a 20-year war. In the first few months, the US government provides a safety net for newcomers – refugee resettlement agencies help families with immediate needs such as food, medical assistance, shelter, and schools for children . But when it comes to finding a job, Afghans who have come to the United States in previous years say they were largely alone.
Noah Coburn, anthropologist at Bennington College and author of Under contract: America’s invisible world war workers, interviewed more than 100 Afghans who visited the United States
Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images
Over the years, he has heard countless stories about their struggles to find employment despite their skills and experience, often acquired while working for American entrepreneurs.
“They end up doing things like landscaping. They end up driving for Lyft, for Uber. They end up working in some of these big box stores, because it’s really the best they can do,” Coburn explains.
A recent survey by the nonprofit No One Left Behind found that up to half of Afghan special immigrant visa holders drive for Uber, Lyft or Amazon.
Coburn calls on the many private companies that held important US government contracts in Afghanistan to step up and do more.
âThe subcontractors who have benefited so much from the war in Afghanistan, and who have benefited so much from the relatively low wages of these Afghans, really have a real moral obligation here,â he says.
Ismaeil Hakimi, originally from Ghazni province, Afghanistan, trained as a lawyer in Iran. Shortly after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, he returned home to help rebuild his country. After working with the United Nations, he was hired by American entrepreneur PAE to work on his Justice Sector Support Program, to help build a just and efficient criminal justice system for Afghanistan.
After surviving a Taliban attack on the Justice Department and many other threats, a colleague urged him to apply to come to the United States through the special immigrant visa program. His application was approved in 2014, and he and his family moved to San Diego, where thanks to a friend, he found work as a teacher’s assistant at a prep school.
The cost of living in Southern California was high, so after a few years, Hakimi moved his family to Salt Lake City where the scenery was reminiscent of his home. His children, then of working age, found work at Target, Walmart and the airport, but he struggled more. He didn’t expect to be able to use his legal training given his unfamiliarity with the US legal system, but he couldn’t even land a job at the local Harmons grocery store.
Hakimi was out of work for three months until he finally got what he considers a big break. He was hired at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah, to help students and other patrons with their research. Today, he is working on building the library’s Middle East collection.
He considers himself lucky. Her children are now at the University of Utah studying computer science and medicine.
âWe are very happy here,â he says.
Jina Krause-Vilmar, CEO of Upwardly Global, a nonprofit that helps refugees find professional jobs, says Afghans often arrive with skills that aren’t exactly what employers are looking for.
âThey get lost in limbo a bit,â she says.
Some people need additional certifications to work in the United States. Some need to be introduced to jobs that did not exist in their country of origin. Often what they need most is help in presenting their experience in a way that makes it more marketable to American employers.
She points out that many of the Afghans who arrive here are university graduates. They are lawyers, engineers, accountants.
“It’s talent that we leave at the table,” says Krause-Vilmar. “This is a missed opportunity for our country.”
At this particular time, it’s a huge opportunity, given how desperate employers are to find workers, she says. There are currently nearly 11 million jobs open in the United States.
Andrea Hsu / NPR
This was not the case when Interpreter Ahmadi landed in the United States in January 2020. The coronavirus was taking off around the world. In the spring, tens of millions of Americans were made redundant.
Taking into account the advice of the Afghan community in northern Virginia, Ahmadi obtained his driver’s license. With the help of a retired American colonel, he was able to buy a car. He started delivering food for Grubhub and DoorDash, working 8 am-8pm, seven days a week. Later, he also started driving for Uber and Lyft.
It’s decent money, but the labor costs in the odd-job economy are high. He has to pay for gasoline and insurance, and he cannot see his children.
Last year, he got a job at McDonald’s for five months as a cashier and customer service representative. But the hourly wage of $ 10 was not even enough to cover the rent. He then moved to Walmart, which was paying $ 12 an hour, but the hours were irregular and the pay was still not enough.
Ahmadi has a high school diploma and various certifications in Afghanistan. Over the many years it took to get his U.S. visa, he worked as the managing director of a fuel delivery company and established his own travel agency, accumulating a multitude of skills including database programming.
But he has yet to find the opportunity to put those skills to good use in the United States.
âMy certification doesn’t work here,â he says.
He would like to get an American degree but cannot afford to take time off work to enroll in classes.
The United States’ exit from Afghanistan opened up a brief opportunity, one that allowed Ahmadi to take a break from work for a few weeks.
He heard that interpreters were needed at the exhibition center near the Washington Dulles airport to help process Afghans arriving in the United States.
The pay was good, so he doubled down from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. to put as much money as possible in the bank while he could. What he saw during those long hours was sobering. Many of the newcomers he has met don’t even speak English.
âI am so worried about these people,â Ahmadi said. “Life is very difficult in the United States.”