An Army Veteran Documented the Near Decade-Long Effort to Help His Afghan Interpreters Come to the US

Filmmaker Robert Ham during his time serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. (Interpreters Wanted)

Afghan interpreters who served alongside American service members in their country are being hunted by the Taliban. Most of them were promised Special Immigrant Visas so they and their families could seek refuge in the United States, but those visas are not coming fast enough. Because of Congress' inaction, the people who once helped U.S. troops accomplish their missions are being tracked down, tortured and killed.

This is the message Army veteran and filmmaker Robert Ham set out to tell Hollywood and the rest of the country when he first began making his film, "Interpreters Wanted," in 2014. Ten years later, he finished the movie. Unfortunately, the message is still relevant.

"People were surprised by what happened at the withdrawal [from Afghanistan in August 2021]," Ham told "No, this has been happening for a decade. Every time we have a new administration, it has a new policy and it changes for the Afghan people. The process is not moving fast enough, and we've been screwing these people over."

"Interpreters Wanted" follows the stories of brothers Saifullah and Ismail Haqmal, both of whom aided U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan. Saifullah served as a brigade interpreter and cultural adviser for the U.S. Army in the country between 2005 and 2013. Ismail began working for the Army in 2006 when he graduated from high school and became a field interpreter, going on near-daily missions. Ham met the brothers while serving in the Army's 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division in 2009.

"There are a lot of bad guys out there, especially in Afghanistan," Ham said. "But it's not like World War II, where we just kill the other side. It's counterinsurgency. We had to rely on interpreters, and they became our right- and left-hand people. They became closer to me than most of my friends."

Over two decades of conflict in Afghanistan, an estimated 50,000 interpreters served with American forces in the country. More than 330 were killed by the Taliban in that same time frame. Some 70,000 interpreters and their families made it to the U.S. under the SIV program between 2009 and the summer of 2021. The Biden administration believes more than 150,000 SIV-eligible applicants are currently waiting to escape the Taliban fighters searching for them in their home country, while advocacy groups like #AfghanEvac put the number much higher.

Ismail was wounded in a roadside bomb attack in the course of his duties. He was nearly killed during the 2009 attack on Combat Outpost Sabari, after running through a hail of bullets to correct another translator who misread the enemy's location. Saifullah interpreted national media coverage, including the first reports of Bowe Bergdahl's disappearance. The brothers each experienced troubling times while helping the United States.

"It was a very difficult time, seeing so many men get killed," Saifullah said in the film. "But what I was doing was good, and I was very proud of it. I was helping my people, my country and the U.S. military do good things."

Saifullah Haqmal in "Interpreters Wanted." (Interpreters Wanted)

Both Saifullah and Ismail experienced violence and threats against their families while working in the country. The brothers were forced to flee from their native province of Khost and, eventually, Afghanistan through the SIV program -- but it took a long time.

When the program was first created in 2008, it required Afghan nationals to serve for two years before they were eligible for the visa. Saifullah first applied for an SIV for him and his family in 2008, and it was supposed to be ready within the next year. But as 2009 passed, nothing happened.

With the help of advocates and a lot of congressional pressure, Ham helped Saifullah, Ismail and a number of their family members escape from Afghanistan. Saifullah wouldn't get his visa until 2016. Ismail's story is more complicated: He came to the U.S. in 2017 but returned to Afghanistan in 2021 to pay respects to his father, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic, and retrieve his children.

Today, they live in Texas, where they went to school, work, started a business and help local charities. They also suffer from medical conditions related to their service, which is an issue talked about far less often. For now, Ham is continuing to advocate for those left behind through his film.

Ismail Haqmal in "Interpreters Wanted." (Interpreters Wanted)

"More than anything, I really was trying to bring awareness to something people were talking about," Ham said of "Interpreters Wanted." "I want to dedicate it to the people of Afghanistan and remind people I'm just one very small, little piece in this whole huge tapestry. There are people who have been doing a lot of work in this area, who spend every day trying to get Afghans to this country; people every day on the front lines trying to do this stuff. So my story with Saifullah and Ismail is just one little microstory that illustrates some optimism in an otherwise horrible situation."

"Interpreters Wanted" is showing at the Dances With Films Festival in Los Angeles this month. It will be available for streaming and on VetTV later this year.

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