Struggling to get out of Afghanistan: Military interpreter tear gassed, beaten

Kate Cimini
Fort Myers News-Press
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For days, Najeeb Rahimi has walked from gate to gate outside the Kabul airport, pleading with Afghan security forces to look at his documents and let him inside.

He has waded through tear gas, stood for 12 hours at a time in unbearable heat that left his three young daughters vomiting. He and his wife have been beaten with sticks by Afghan security forces, his daughters hanging off the soldiers’ arms, sobbing not to hit their parents. They have been trampled by panicked crowds running from warning shots.

And still, he keeps going back to the airport, desperate to get into the U.S.

By the way:Biden said no one predicted Taliban would take over so quickly

Marines assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit fly to Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021.

Immigration attorneys say tens of thousands of Afghan interpreters and women are facing the same barriers after their worlds exploded this past week.

Rahimi cannot stay in Afghanistan. Taliban will rape and kill him and his family, as retribution for the work he did as an interpreter for the U.S. military a decade ago, his former supervisor said.

The Taliban has already begun searching for anyone who worked for the U.S. His days in his home are numbered.

"I am begging you guys to help me out as soon you can," Rahimi said in an email. "I am the father of three daughters ... and I don't want my family to be killed (at) the hands of Taliban.” 

Previously: Fort Myers veteran fights to bring Afghan interpreter home to America

In a phone conversation, Rahimi described the chaos that surrounded the airport, the beatings he and his wife had endured and the cries of his daughters. So far, they have returned to their hiding place every evening, unsuccessful. They tuck themselves away in one room, the lights off. He doesn't answer his phone, worried that someone has given his number to the Taliban.

He still hopes, though. Still believes he and his family can make it out, together.

"My American friends are working together as brothers," he said. "They are very dedicated. They are still working to find a solution and get me out of Afghanistan."

Rahimi’s friend and former colleague Jeffery Trammell, a retired U.S. Army captain who lives in Fort Myers, Florida, has been working feverishly to get Rahimi into the airport and on a flight to the U.S. Rahimi interpreted for Trammell for two years. Trammell said couldn’t do his job without him.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is their home,” Trammell said. He keeps hearing stories of former interpreters who made it out of Afghanistan. Every time he’s happy for them, but he doesn’t understand why Rahimi keeps getting left behind.

“It’s a gamut of emotions,” he said. “You think you’ve found a solution, but it’s just a gut punch when it fails.”

'The process has blown up'

As an interpreter, Rahimi spent years as the face of the U.S. military in Zabul, meaning Taliban soldiers know him by sight. If, by some luck, they don't recognize him, his paperwork makes it clear that he worked for the U.S. military, a life-ending association.

Trammell simply cannot understand why, in the decade he has been applying for a spot in the U.S., that Rahimi hasn't already been welcomed by the U.S. government. Why his letters of recommendation haven't been enough. Why the Biden Administration pulled out without a clear evacuation plan for people who had been promised a safe home in the U.S.

"The process has blown up," Trammell said. "As a 24-year-old infantry lieutenant, I had the ability and authority to level buildings and send white phosphorous mortar rounds onto hilltops. I don’t understand how you can give me that authority, but if I write a letter of recommendation, it's suspect."

This news organization has reviewed Rahimi's passport and spoken with his former supervisor to confirm his identity.

According to Trammell, Rahimi is normally a joyous, positive person. He likens him to Samwell Tarly, a character from Game of Thrones, who only wants to help others. 

If Rahimi is caught, Trammell said, the future that awaits him, his wife and daughters is both graphic and devastating.

First, Trammell said, they will rape Rahimi's wife and their daughters. Then they will rape him. His wife and daughters will either be married to Taliban soldiers or sold into sex slavery. Finally, they will behead Rahimi.

"If they're merciful, they'll just slit their throats," said Trammell. 

He said he knows that from his own experience in Afghanistan: that is what he saw done to people who worked with the U.S. government in 2009 to 2010.

Since this news organization first reported on Rahimi and Trammell's efforts to secure his family's safe passage, national print and television outlets have reported on his desperate efforts to escape death.

Trammell believes that if his friend can speak with American troops, he will find a spot on a plane. But after days of trying, Rahimi is still struggling to even get inside the building.

Exhausted, he recounted over the phone how he spends his days: wandering from gate to gate surrounding the Kabul airport, his injured wife and children in tow. 

There is still a chance he and his family could get on a flight out of Afghanistan and find a new home in the U.S., but he is somewhere in a very, very, very long line. Rahimi qualifies for an Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), but many others who are at risk do not.

'It's lawlessness, it's chaos'

According to reporting from USA TODAY, over the last week, Afghan women, journalists, human rights advocates and former translators for the U.S. military have flooded the inboxes of U.S.-based refugee groups with desperate messages seeking a way out of their country now that the Taliban have taken control.

Immigration attorney Mahsa Khanbabai, who's been elected director of the board of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and is co-chair of AILA’s Afghan taskforce, said U.S. immigration attorneys have heard similar stories from their clients in Afghanistan. 

“This is what everybody is going through, so it’s really tragic,” said Khanbabai, who's based in Boston. “It’s almost as if it’s all chance. You’re putting your life at risk by trying to get into the airport and do you risk that because you know that if you don’t leave, your life is going to be at risk?

“It’s lawlessness, it’s chaos. It’s the most depraved situation we can imagine.”

Khanbabai added that she understood the U.S. government is trying to negotiate with the Taliban to ensure safe passage into the airport, but even getting to the airport is incredibly dangerous, with Taliban checkpoints set up along the way.

Afghan women in particular are in danger, she said. Many have grown up with much more freedom of choice and expression than the Taliban permits. Some became judges and journalists, some ran schools for women and girls. Those women are now being targeted, she said.

Virginia-based immigration attorney Parastoo Zahedi, another member of AILA, relayed a threatening message she had been sent by another attorney whose client, a professor working at the University of Kabul, received from a student organization believed to be affiliated with the Taliban. Zahedi translated the message.

“Don’t be afraid to come out,” the message began. “Continue to go to school, go to work, go about your life as you normally would. We won’t bother you, but if you wear lipstick, wear nail polish, wear clothing that is unbecoming, our blood will boil and we will cut off (your) hands, cut off (your) lips, cut off (your) head.”

The professor in Kabul hasn’t been able to get out of Afghanistan yet either.

Another client Zahedi is working with, an Afghan woman who lives in the U.S. with her American husband and children, was visiting family in Afghanistan with her children when the humanitarian crisis began. She is trying to get out but has not yet been able to enter the airport either because of the masses of people outside the gates.

In the meantime, the Taliban are walking around, knocking on doors, searching for these women and the men who worked for the U.S. government or any outside government.

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Persistence in the face of growing danger

Khanbabai advised people to call on their congressperson to pressure the Biden Administration to create broader visa categories for Afghans, offer temporary protected status to Afghans already in the U.S. and ask them to expedite SIV visas, the kind that Rahimi is eligible for.

Additionally, she said, people should ask their congressperson to push for more money for the state department to help process visa applications. The department is overwhelmed by applications right now and cannot process them quickly enough after a number of staff departed under the Trump Administration and funding dropped drastically during the pandemic when applications took a nosedive, she said.

“The department has basically imploded from within,” Khanbabai said.

People can also ask the Biden Administration to commit to a later exit, she said.

“They need more than 12 days. How do they plan to get five to nine thousand people out per day, when people can’t even get in the airport?” 

U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan beyond the end of the month, if necessary, to ensure all Americans are evacuated, President Joe Biden said Wednesday.

“We’re going to stay until we get them all out,” Biden told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos.

Biden announced last month that the U.S. would withdraw all troops by Aug. 31, a quicker pace than the Sept.11 deadline he set earlier in the year.

But the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country threw the exit plan into chaos.

There are still between 10,000 and 15,000 Americans in Afghanistan as well as tens of thousands of Afghan allies that the U.S. is helping to evacuate.

Despite Trammell's belief in the process and in his friend, Rahimi still has not been able to find asylum in the U.S., even with the growing danger from the Taliban. When they talk, his friend's normally joyful voice instead is heavy with despair.

"He really believed in the mission," Trammell said. "He really believed in the United States. I think that’s the hardest thing about all of it, that slow realization that he might get left behind."

Trammell spoke with staff from the offices of U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Byron Donalds (R-Florida), requesting help for Rahimi. Both Schiff and Donalds have reached out to the State Department this week requesting they prioritize Rahimi's case. 

For days, Rahimi has watched planes take off from Kabul's airport, their bodies dark against the sky. He wishes he and his family were on them.

USA Today contributed to this story.

Kate Cimini is an investigative journalist. Share your story at (831) 776-5137 or email kcimini@gannett.com. 

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