Grand Haven veteran’s Afghan interpreter evacuated from Afghanistan to Canada

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

An Afghan interpreter who worked for the U.S. Army and has ties to Michigan was evacuated safely to Toronto ahead of the Taliban’s takeover of the country, he said.

The interpreter, Rahim, had waited for years for the U.S. government to approve his special immigrant visa to the United States — approval that never came, despite his 27 months of work for U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan and threats against his life by the Taliban.

Instead, Rahim, age 29, applied to a program offered by the Canadian government and was evacuated to Toronto last week by the Canadians, along with his wife and children, he said.

Afghans wait in long lines for hours to get visas in front of the Iranian embassy, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15.

His disappointment in the U.S. government ran deep Sunday as Taliban fighters took over Kabul, the Afghan capital and last city under government control, as the U.S. rushed to evacuate its embassy there.

“They captured the whole Afghanistan. The U.S. have given this opportunity to Taliban. … All the blood are on U.S. hands,” Rahim said over Facebook Messenger. “There are thousands of my brothers left behind. The U.S. cheated us — just used us.”

He was referring to the thousands of interpreters and others who, like him, worked alongside U.S. military and had applications pending under the troubled U.S. special immigrant visa program. 

Rahim had hoped to be evacuated to the United States to live in Michigan with Gerald and Lynette Keen through the program, which allows Afghans and their immediate family to claim refugee status and resettle in the United States.

Gerald Keen, 55, met Rahim in 2016 when Keen was deployed with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Rahim interpreted for him and other officials during high-level meetings at a mountain outpost, and the pair became close. 

Former Afghan interpreters hold banners during a protest against the U.S. government and NATO in Kabul, Afghanistan, in April.

► MORE:Grand Haven veteran fights to get former Afghan interpreter out ahead of US withdrawal

Keen later sponsored the visa paperwork for Rahim, whose full name The Detroit News is not using due to safety concerns for his family who remain in Afghanistan. 

"The fact that the U.S. is unable to provide for folks who worked alongside our effort, but our NATO partners like Canada are able to move heaven and earth while we sit around — should be to our unending shame," said U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, a Republican from Grand Rapids Township.

For months, Meijer has sharply criticized the Biden administration for failing to expedite the evacuation of Afghan civilians who had helped the U.S. military, an effort that didn't begin on the ground until late July amid the U.S. military withdraw.

The special immigrant visa program has a backlog of about 18,000 applicants. But Meijer said Sunday the latest available information he had was that just over 2,000 Afghans had been evacuated so far, out of the 60,000 to 80,000 estimated to be eligible under the program, when family members are included. 

The expectation is that those Afghans and their families could be targeted and killed by the Taliban in retaliation for aiding the United States, he said. 

"Probably over 95% of those we need to get out, we’ve left behind," Meijer said in an interview. "Probably 50% of those are outside of Kabul, with no ability to get to the airport or who would have to cross through multiple Taliban checkpoints in order to even get to Kabul."

► RELATED: Westerners rush to leave Kabul, rescue Afghans as Taliban close in

Administration officials had conveyed that the U.S. had months to complete the civilian evacuation before the Kabul-based government might fall, Meijer said. Instead, it took just eight days from when the Taliban toppled the first provincial capital to Sunday, when they were in the presidential palace

President Joe Biden deployed additional troops twice in three days to try to help evacuate the U.S. embassy and Afghan nationals from the Kabul airport. 

"The U.S. intelligence community and Defense Department wholly failed to anticipate the degree of local and regional cooption of the Afghan government," said Meijer, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and later advised humanitarian groups in Afghanistan.

"This is an intelligence and operational failure on the level of Iraq's 'weapons of mass destruction' and the downplaying the rise of ISIS in the Obama administration."

Watching the Taliban's swift advance across the country in recent days was "gutting," Meijer said. 

"I was supportive of a withdrawal. That was under the assumption that this was something had been thought through, planned out, coordinated," he said. "We saw absolutely none of that. I feel just furious."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday defended the administration’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, claiming that the offensive by the Taliban likely would have commenced even if the U.S. had remained, and that the Americans would be back at war with Taliban forces.

"The idea that the status quo could have been maintained by keeping our forces there, I think, is simply wrong," Blinken said on CNN.

Blinken also said the U.S. was "doubling down on efforts" to evacuate Afghan interpreters and others who are at risk as the Taliban takes power. 

Keen and his wife, Lynnette, had been pressing U.S. officials for years to act on Rahim's application to the special immigrant visa program at the State Department, which is beset by processing delays, staffing shortages and cumbersome interagency approvals. Applicants wait three years on average for approval. 

Lynnette said Sunday she's still hoping that the administration will move on Rahim's paperwork, and that he will be able to come to the United States from Canada. 

Since their arrival last week, Rahim and his family have been quarantined at a hotel in Toronto, as per Canadian COVID-19 protocols, Lynette said on Facebook. The Keens plan to travel to Toronto to see the family next Sunday for a week. 

"It still seems unbelievably that we will see them and be able to hug and touch!" she said.

Rahim is thankful to the Canadians for bringing his family to safety, but he's worried about his parents and his brother who remain in Afghanistan and now under Taliban rule. 

"They're in the threat because of me," he said. 

mburke@detroitnews.com