Andrew Biggio leaned heavily on local interpreters during his time in Afghanistan — and now the Marine veteran wants to repay those who resettle in his home state of Massachusetts.
Afghan and Iraqi translators who flee to the U.S. after working with the military during nearly 13 years of war receive some assistance upon arrival here, similar to other refugees. But Biggio believes they deserve more — even as much as a returning veteran, he said.
The former sergeant with 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, knows intimately what benefits former warriors are owed. After leaving the Marine Corps Reserve, he took a job as a veteran service officer in the Boston suburb of Saugus, Massachusetts. It's a position that sees him guide local veterans to state and federal resources.
But Biggio's interest in helping translators and linguists took center stage when one of his former interpreters unexpectedly popped up in Boston in December.
"I had another Marine reach out to me and say, 'hey man, interpreter X, he showed up in Boston; the guy doesn't have a nickel to his name. He's pretty much ready to live in church with a bunch of other refugees,'" recalled Biggio, who declined to identify his former translator out of safety concerns for the man's relatives in Afghanistan.
He and other vets sprang into action, trying to find a temporary home for the translator as well as other necessities, like food stamps and health insurance. Still, until one of Biggio's friends agreed to put the man up with his family, the former interpreter looked destined for a shelter.
Biggio said he realized while veterans have a slew of transition assistance or benefits when they return from war, the interpreters they worked with often fled to the U.S. empty handed.
"I thought these guys were getting some sort of government pension check when they came to the U.S.," he said.
Now Biggio is fighting to have state veterans' benefits extended to the interpreters who worked alongside U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Massachusetts, veterans can apply for an assortment of benefits, including financial bonuses and help with rent.
Translators merit the same aid, said Biggio, who hopes to convince the state legislature to see it his way.
"I think we should be able to open up these benefits to the interpreters," he said, noting that his translator was a university professor in Afghanistan at one time. "They can speak English; most are educated. They can find work here."
Biggio isn't alone in his thinking. Ben Juvinall argued for similar measures on the federal level in a 2013 issue of Michigan State International Law Review, decrying the plight of military interpreters who arrive in America.
"Those fortunate enough to make it to the U.S. live lives fit for paupers," Juvinall wrote while arguing Vow to Hire Heroes Act, which provides employment help for veterans, discriminates against Afghan and Iraqi translators. "…If the government treats interpreters like soldiers while at war, the government should treat interpreters as veterans once the conflict is over."
A new life
Mohammad Usafi said he experienced a better transition then some when he left Afghanistan for the U.S.
The former Afghan interpreter adjusted quickly to life in the U.S., with the help of a Marine vet he served with during the war. He had a place to stay and got a job within just a few weeks.
But many of his compatriots struggle to adjust. A few even return home after a few months, he said.
"There were people from all over the country that were providing help," Usafi said. "There were people helping me, helping me get my driver's license and stuff like that. The transition for me went very good. But not everyone is very lucky like me. There are a lot of interpreters that, when they get here, they're not being paid attention [to]."
Translators who lack the social safety net Usafi relied upon typically receive about six months of government housing and aid. After that, they're on their own, he said.
They then face problems he did not need to worry about, like finding a home and earning a living.
"They never had a chance to go to school or learn something," Usafi said. "Those are the people that, when they get here, they're lost. They don't know what to do or where to go, how to live here."
Since resettling in the U.S., Usafi has become an advocate for fellow interpreters. He recently appeared on HBO's "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" and attended the State of the Union address as the guest of U.S. Rep. Eric Salwell, D-Calif.
Asked about Biggio's plan to extend veteran benefits to former translators, Usafi did not mince words.
"That would be something that would be really great — if that happens," he said.
Returning the favor
The challenges facing former interpreters here largely has been overshadowed by the struggles of those still overseas — and for good reason.
As the U.S. military gradually pulled out of Iraq and later Afghanistan, many of the interpreters American troops worked alongside were left behind. Though a pathway to the U.S. exists, it remains notoriously difficult to navigate.
Known as Special Immigrant Visas, these travel documents are issued to Afghans and Iraqis who assisted U.S. efforts in their native countries. But in Afghanistan, none were issued between 2009 and 2011.
Only about 5,500 of the 20,000 visas made available were issued to Iraqis between 2009 and 2012.
Tweaks to the system have helped — as of this past summer, about 15,500 visas have been granted to Iraqis and more than 7,000 to Afghans — there is no way of knowing how many more remain waiting.
That leaves former comrades in limbo as well as danger. Aiding and abetting U.S. interests during the long wars puts them and their families in the cross-hairs of militants who view them as traitors.
Usafi knows this personally. While he worked as an interpreter, his father was killed. His brother was murdered a few years later.
With help, Usafi was able to get the rest of his family stateside.
"Because of those situations, when I got here, I was psychically here, but not mentally here," he recalled. "I was thinking, 'What is going to happen?'"
Biggio is well aware of those kind of troubles. Another former interpreter, one that his unit became particularly attached to while stationed in Delaram, contacted him via Facebook asking for help securing an SIV.
"I wanna say a year ago he reached out generally, asking for a letter of recommendation," Biggio recalled. "[In 2014] he sent the more desperate message, saying I'm f---ed, basically."
His SIV application was denied, according to Biggio, and militants had gone through his village. Though the former interpreter survived, he remains unable to come to the U.S. Biggio said he eventually hopes to find another way to get his translator out of Afghanistan.
"He went through what any Marine went through," Biggio said. "He went above and beyond."
It's a situation to which Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., can relate. Deployed to Iraq four times as a captain with the Marines, the freshman congressman helped several interpreters navigate the byzantine process required to get to American soil, including his translator and friend Mohammed Harba.
"These are people who put their lives on the line, not just for their country but for ours," Moulton said. "We couldn't have done our jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan without them."
Moulton's family housed Harba, who sought asylum while here on a Fulbright grant during the height of the civil war in Iraq, until he could get on his feet. He later became an Arabic teacher.
In Moulton's view, taking care of former interpreters is a federal issue, one that speaks to what he describes as the nation's "broken" immigration system. And the present situation puts future U.S. troops at risk, he said.
"Our ability to work with people like [these interpreters] in foreign countries in the future will be impacted by how well we take care of them when the war is over," Moulton said. "At this point our care for our interpreters has been pretty awful, by and large."
Like Moulton, Biggio credits his translators with helping the Marines get their jobs done. Insider attacks were common when he last was deployed in 2011. Back then, he was tasked with putting an Afghan face on the war effort.
It meant regularly dispatching his translators to a local Afghan highway patrol unit with orders and using them as a go-between.
"That was a big deal: I was commanding them to do something," Biggio said. "They've been so … very supportive in the state, here in Massachusetts, as far as veterans go. Obviously, I've got to get the point across that we wouldn't be here alive if we didn't have proper interpreters."