Former Afghan translator living in US finally reunited with family

By MARK EMMONS | San Jose Mercury News (TNS) | Published: December 3, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO — For nearly a year, Mohammad Usafi has been living safely in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Taliban could no longer harm him. But he still feared that they would go after his family — his father already had been murdered — because he had helped the U.S. Marines as an interpreter in his native Afghanistan.

Not anymore.

When Usafi’s mother and seven younger siblings emerged from customs at San Francisco International Airport on Wednesday, a year’s worth of worry disappeared. A smiling Usafi first embraced his mother in a long hug and then, one by one, he warmly welcomed each of his five brothers and two sisters to their new country.

The poignant moment was the culmination of the family’s harrowing exit from their homeland that forced them to hide from people looking for them right up until their plane left the ground in Afghanistan.

“The last week has been so scary,” said Usafi, 25. “I haven’t slept because we’ve been so scared. The U.S. Consulate told them, ‘You have to leave. It’s not safe for you here anymore.’

“But now, I’m just so happy.”

And relieved.

Usafi immigrated to the U.S. last January thanks to the dogged efforts of his comrade-in-arms Adrian Kinsella, an active-duty Marine captain who now attends the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

Since then, they’ve led an intensive lobbying effort that stretched from the Bay Area to Washington, D.C., to help Usafi’s family follow him out of harm’s way. The family, which had been hiding in Pakistan, received the good news last month that their long-shot application to enter the United States under what’s called the “humanitarian parole” program had been approved. But that also put them in even more jeopardy.

After learning that unknown people were looking for them, the family slipped across the border back into Afghanistan earlier than planned. They drove 11 hours in three vehicles, then stayed secretly in Kandahar for two days, anxiously waiting for their flight.

The day after they left Pakistan, Usafi said, people from “the government” came to where they had been staying, asking about the family’s whereabouts.

“This is when they were in the most danger,” he added.

Monday night, the family flew out of Afghanistan, starting a day-and-a-half trip that took them to Dubai and then Shanghai and finally SFO — where they were welcomed by a group of people who had spent months helping them reach America.

“This is maybe straight out of ‘Argo,’” Kinsella said of the Ben Affleck film. “But all of this is just making up for what Mohammad did for us over there. They all deserve this. I’m looking forward to them all becoming American citizens.”

Usafi’s mother and his siblings, who range in age from 5 to 21, looked a little overwhelmed by the attention.

“Thank you so much to all the people who helped and supported us,” said Gulsharina, the mother, whose words were translated by Usafi. “It means so much to us.”

San Jose Mercury News readers were introduced to Kinsella and Usafi last summer, and how their close friendship was forged in the crucible of the Afghanistan war zone.

Kinsella then was a second lieutenant leading a platoon during his deployment. Usafi, who was so respected that Marines affectionately nicknamed him “Yoda” after the wise “Star Wars” character, was his interpreter.

Usafi paid dearly for his service. His father was killed in 2009 after Usafi’s work as a translator was discovered by the Taliban. Later, his youngest brother, Musameel, then 3, was kidnapped and Usafi had to pay a ransom of $35,000 — his life savings — to secure his release.

A special visa program was created for translators like Usafi who faced reprisals as American forces were drawing down from Iraq and Afghanistan. But even with the help of Kinsella, who attends law school with assistance from the Pat Tillman Foundation, it took Usafi three-and-a-half years to navigate the frustrating, bureaucratic system. Once here, Usafi quickly landed a high-tech job after a chance meeting with the company CEO at a Super Bowl party.

But he couldn’t fully settle into his new life with his family still at risk.

The only chance of them joining him was through a humanitarian parole, which Kinsella described as a “Hail Mary” because so few are issued by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“It’s really like a one-in-a-million chance of succeeding,” added Katherine Reisner, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project’s national policy director, who helped with the effort. “The odds are so low. But it’s hard to imagine a more compelling case than this. This family had no options.”

About 80 people — including other Tillman scholars — worked on letter-writing and social-media campaigns that resulted in 13 congressional offices inquiring about the family. More than 93,000 people signed an online petition. But the tipping point was an appearance by Usafi on the HBO show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” which uses humor to shed light on serious issues.

Within weeks, the wheels suddenly were in motion for Usafi’s family to come to the U.S.

The family now can stay in the country for one year as they apply for asylum. Kate Jastram, a UC Berkeley law professor and refugee law expert, will act as the supervising attorney on their case, Kinsella said.

While their story has a happy ending, there are still 9,000 Afghan citizens who served U.S. forces caught in the backlog. Reisner said the State Department soon will run out of visas and Congress has to extend the program.

“There are a lot more people like Mohammad and his family,” added Kinsella, 29, whose work on behalf of Usafi and his family has been as a private citizen.

Usafi remains so concerned about his extended family that he still requests that his real last name not be made public. He has adopted “Usafi,” which is the name of his Afghan tribe.

But he no longer has to fear for his mother and siblings.

They happily posed for photos and the now 5-year-old Musameel, a bundle of energy, darted around the international terminal. Then the group headed off for San Jose, where Usafi has rented an apartment for the family near Afghan friends. Kinsella planned a first meal that would combine Afghan food and Chicago deep dish pizza.

A new world awaited.

“Today is the day I’m really going to start my life,” Usafi said. “I don’t have to worry about my family. Adrian always told me that this day would come, but it was hard for me to believe.”

©2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)