Denied American Visas, These Afghans Were Forced To Make a Perilous Escape After Helping U.S. Troops for Years

Unable to tap into the immigration pathway for Afghan helpers, these men and their families opted to flee elsewhere.


August 31 will mark the end of U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden announced today. That departure will also include thousands of Afghans who have helped the U.S. military over the years as interpreters, as engineers, and in other critical roles. "There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose," Biden said. "We will stand with you, just as you stood with us."

The president's announcement puts a long-awaited exclamation point on the conversation about the fate of those Afghan helpers. The immigration pathway established to serve Afghans who assisted American forces is called the special immigrant visa (SIV). Its intensive 14-step application, its strict qualification requirements, and human errors during processing have kept many long-serving Afghans from taking advantage of the opportunity supposedly afforded to them in return for "faithful and valuable service to the U.S. government."

Thanks to their connections to the U.S., these Afghans face grave risks in their home country. With the American option looking unlikely, many are fleeing to other countries instead, fearing murder at the hands of the Taliban. Two men who were unable to get visas through the SIV program have told Reason the stories of their dangerous escapes from Afghanistan.

Habibullah started working with the U.S. Army in 2009 as an occupational health and safety manager, a position that took him to some of the most dangerous districts of Afghanistan. In 2019, the Taliban took notice of his work and began threatening his life. Having worked for the U.S. forces for almost 10 years, Habibullah decided to apply for an SIV. All his application materials were in order apart from the requisite letter of recommendation from a supervisor.

"Everything was normal" in Afghanistan until then, he explains, saying he had no plans to leave. "So I did not request any recommendation from my supervisors." But as the U.S. withdrawal approached, the Taliban started seizing more territory and tensions escalated. Unfortunately, Habibullah's supervisors had "already left the country" by the time the situation in Afghanistan pushed him to look for a way out. He wrote to his former supervisors asking for help but received no response.

That left his escape options limited. He and his family tried Turkey, but they were denied visas. They resolved to make the trip illegally, fearing they'd be killed by the Taliban if they stayed.

One of Habibullah's friends introduced him to a man who coordinated illegal passage to Turkey. He charged the equivalent of $1,500 per head for the journey—$9,000 total for Habibullah's family to make it out. Their journey took three miserable weeks. Smugglers crammed 20 passengers into cars intended for just five to seven people. There was no water or food for up to 15 hours every day. Drivers raced across rough terrain out of fear they'd be caught by immigration authorities.

His children "start crying" when the journey comes up in conversation, says Habibullah. They recall marching for several days through mountains, deserts, and forests.

The smugglers kept them captive for 10 days until the family agreed to pay $2,400 in addition to the agreed-upon $9,000, threatening to kill them otherwise. They stole their mobile phones, jewelry, watches, and anything else of value. When Habibullah's family finally reached Turkey, they couldn't walk properly for "weeks and months" because of the brutal journey. Their bloodied socks stuck to their feet. Even so, it could've been worse. Habibullah remembers seeing several deceased immigrants along the route through Iran, their bodies neglected by the authorities.

Habibullah couldn't work in Turkey, since he and his family had come without papers. He returned to Afghanistan to make money for his family and apply for a visa. He received it and is now legally present in the country, though his wife and children are not and he does not have a work permit. His four young children cannot go to school. "I am trying to find any chance to move to USA for my kids' future," he says. His visa expires soon, leaving his future unwritten.

Saberi worked as a contractor for a U.S. company from 2010–12 under a supervisor from New Zealand. For security reasons, he asked that Reason not reveal the exact country he and his family have settled in—a country that he criticizes for political repression, limitations on the press, and a lack of compassion for his situation. After applying for an SIV in 2014, he learned that his letter of support could not come from his foreign supervisor, even though they had both worked for an American organization. His immigration case fell apart.

Then his safety in Afghanistan became deeply compromised. Saberi had taken up work as a freelance reporter for a news agency, and he wrote an article about an Afghan policewoman who had been raped by two of her commanders. According to Saberi, those two officers were powerful and well-connected and threatened to kill him if the report led to their conviction. He wasn't willing to chance it. About three months ago, before a verdict was finalized, he decided to leave the country, fearing he and his family could be killed—either by the two officers or by the Taliban. 

With the U.S. visa option out of reach, Saberi first tried to escape to Turkey. Like Habibullah, he paid dearly to be smuggled into the country. But the smugglers he hired kidnapped him and his family. Blackmailed for $3,000 in order to be freed and still far from Turkey, Saberi settled in another country, now penniless and forced to work a simple job despite his highly qualified background. He filed a complaint against the thieves but the police did not take it seriously, he says.

When asked what life is like for his wife and young children in their new country, Saberi says: "It is really bad and tough for them."

Both men dream of what they would do if given the chance to immigrate to the U.S. Saberi would like to continue his studies of law and become an attorney. He dreams of giving his family a chance "to be a part of the greatest nation of the world," helping his kids "grow in a better culture." Habibullah runs an Afghan handmade rug business that he operates online, but he wishes he could bring it to the U.S., since that's where most of his clients are. "USA is land of opportunities," he says. "So I can continue my business easily." He too wants to go the distance for his kids: "Their future will be bright and safe from everything." He writes, "I wish I could come to USA, I am trying every possible way."

Despite their extreme challenges, neither man expresses regret for assisting the Americans or resentment that they've been unable to obtain visas. Habibullah says he was "really proud" to work with U.S. forces and calls his years of service a "golden time for me and for our country." He says he'd be lucky—and happy—to work with the Americans once more. "We are really thankful to all the nations who support us and our country," he stresses. Saberi likewise speaks of the American "big heart officers," who he calls "great people."

The SIV program desperately needs reform. Without it, Afghan interpreters and contractors with ties to the U.S. could suffer a bloodbath. In the meantime, the cases of Habibullah and Saberi are important reminders that even loyal allies may find themselves barred from the visa pathway established as a reward for risky service.