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Our forgotten Afghan War heroes

They are Afghan War veterans: interpreters who risked their lives alongside Aussie diggers in Uruzgan. Some were killed in the line of duty and their families have been targeted by the Taliban.

In recognition of their status as "at-risk locally engaged Afghan employees" of the Australian Defence Force, more than 500 Afghani interpreters, along with their wives and children, were granted refugee visas in late 2013 and early 2014 under special provisions of the humanitarian settlement program. About 280 of them relocated to suburban Newcastle. After an initial ‘town hall style’ welcome meeting with government officials, they were referred to government and subcontracted support services along with other newly arrived refugees.

“We are not beggars. We have family back home who need money and who miss us."

– Mohammmad Rasool, 24, a former interpreter granted a humanitarian visa

Life as a refugee in Australia can be hard, and the Afghanis in Newcastle have struggled to find adequate housing and employment.

Despite their work experience in Afghanistan, they cannot work for the defence forces in Australia, as it will be five years before they receive Australian citizenship and become eligible for military work. By comparison, military interpreters who worked for the US and Canadian forces receive full citizenship within six months of arrival in their new country.

The hard road to Newcastle

The Afghanis in Newcastle supported the international community’s fight against the Taliban. “We had problems with the Taliban since we were teenagers. In secondary school, our lessons were shut down... We don’t have any sympathy for the Taliban,” said Bahram Noori, 29, who worked in patrol bases and the main Australian base in Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan.

He and others saw an opportunity in 2008 when the Kandahar-based company, IMS, advertised for military interpreters. A few hundred dollars a week would be a good war zone wage. Many boarded planes at Kandahar Air Base and flew 140 kilometres north to Tarin Kowt, Uruzgun. They worked with the Australian military and later worked alongside the Australian Federal Police that trained Afghani police.

One of the men, when identifying a suicide bomber attempting to enter the Australian base, lost his life when the revealed terrorist detonated. Such were the dangers they faced. Faisal Ihmady, 25, said he and his extended family were at risk of attack from “religious fanatics” as well as terrorist groups. “We are counted as infidels and some view us as spies. One man - when they found out he had a visa to come to Australia - was killed.”

They were encouraged to apply for Australian visas. A Defence spokesperson said, “Australia’s visa policy for at-risk locally engaged Afghan employees was established in recognition of the fact that some employees may encounter, or did encounter, risk of harm as a result of their support to Australia’s mission in Afghanistan.”

“This policy reflects Australia’s view of its moral obligation to current and former employees who provided valuable support to Australia’s efforts in Afghanistan,” the spokesperson said.

Their visa applications were “afforded the highest processing priority within Australia’s Offshore Humanitarian Programme,” according to a spokesperson for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

They flew to Australia to begin a new life. “Before we came to Australia we had a good home and good life in Afghanistan – the only problem was security. That’s why we left our country. We thought we would get a good home and good job here,” said Omari Zulmai, 28.

Instead, they received a reality check. “It’s hard to get a job here and qualifications are not recognised in Australia,” Omari said.

Many of the Afghani interpreters live in low-rent weather-boarders in the Newcastle suburbs of Mayfield and Wallsend. It’s a stark contrast to their former homes, many in the suburbs of Kabul. But then, these men are university-qualified, middle-class Afghanis who owned their homes and had extended families dependent on them. 

“We have signed up for Centrelink. But we are not beggars. We have family back home who need money and who miss us,” said Mohammmad Rasool, 24.

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services said the Afghanis have been treated the same as other refugees. The department “provides early practical support to humanitarian clients to help them settle into the community. This programme is delivered by service providers on behalf of the Australian Government.”

But many report being unhappy with the settlement services they have received from government subcontractors.

The interpreters were referred into an Employment Pathway Plan which sets out to overcome vocational and non-vocational barriers to sustainable employment, but many remain unemployed despite their work experience and bi-lingual skills. 

The security situation in Afghanistan is still bad, according to the men, where ISIS had set up networks in “six or seven” provinces. As they desperately try to create a new life in Australia, their minds often wander back to their extended families in their war torn home country. 

“If terror groups know where our families are, there is a big problem,” said Rassepeer Ashran, 28.

The Refugee Council of Australia is now writing a case study on the men to identify what has gone wrong with their settlement, while the men have had to appeal to the Penola House Refugee Centre for charity support.

Afghanis feel ‘hurt, insulted, disappointed’

Sister Diana, of Penola House, said it took the country so long to “get it right” with the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ who assisted Aussie diggers in Papua New Guinea, but we hadn’t learnt.

“They feel hurt, insulted, disappointed and quite angry,” she said.

“These are people of status, bi-lingual and from universities in Kabul.”

“If Australia gave them a war service loan it would cost the taxpayer about $5 million and would be paid back,” Sister Diana said.

The majority of them are now going to TAFE, she said, while some have left suburban Newcastle to try their luck in bigger cities or on the rural harvest trail.

Ken Doolan, national president of the RSL, said “it’s an issue that’s been around for decades” with various locally engaged employees. “The RSL has a long history of seeking to help and helping those who we have shared the battlefield with.”

“We do accept the judgements made by the appropriate government,” he said, and added they hadn’t pushed for a review of any particular law pertaining to locally engaged defence employees.

He encouraged the Afghani interpreters to join the local sub-branch of the RSL where they would be “embraced”.

Even so, the men feel that the country they fought for hasn’t quite given them what they deserve.

The Point

Afghani interpreters who worked alongside Aussie diggers have struggled to settle in Australia after being granted humanitarian visas

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