Janis Shenwary, who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, is said to have saved the lives of five American soldiers. But when Shenwary tried to come to the United States - under a special U.S. government visa program for interpreters in Afghanistan and Iraq - he ran into difficulties. At that point, one of the men whose life he had saved launched a campaign to bring Shenwary to the U.S.
Army Captain Matt Zeller was embedded as a combat adviser with the Afghan security forces in 2008, when his convoy came under attack by a group of Taliban fighters. Hurt and low on ammunition, Zeller was lying in a ditch when his interpreter, Janis Shenwary, who was also trained to use firearms, came to his rescue.
"Somebody landed next to me and then I heard the unmistakable sound of an AK-47 being shot right next to my head. And I turned, and it is Janis shooting dead these two Taliban fighters who had rounded the corner of a building. Had he not been covering my back, I wouldn’t be sitting here. He literally saved my life," said Zeller.
Shenwary risked his life and killed two of his own countrymen to save an American. He says Zeller asked him why.
"I told him that you are my guest in my country. You are here to fight for my people’s freedom. You guys are here to bring peace for Afghans. So, it is our responsibility to protect you and save your lives," said Shenwary.
Shenwary’s association with the U.S. military made him a target for the Taliban. So in 2011, he applied for a Special Immigration Visa to move with his family to the U.S. But Zeller says the visa did not come through in a timely fashion.
The problem was that the State [Department] just sat on his visa and did nothing. This past summer he sent me a Facebook message and said it’s only a matter of time before the Taliban catch me and kill me. At that point, I went to the press, I started a change.org petition and got 100,000 signatures in a week and I was able to create a groundswell of support that compelled the government to do the right thing and issue him his visa," he said.
Zeller says the State Department then nearly revoked the visa because of some incorrect information about Shenwary. At that point he sought help from some members of Congress - allowing Shenwary to come to the United States. Virginia Congressman Jim Moran, one of the members Zeller worked with, says the visa process should be expedited.
"There are thousands of people still in Afghanistan who helped the United States, and their lives are at risk. And a number of them are going to be killed and tortured, and mutilated bodies will be paraded to discourage others from helping us. So, the U.S. needs to do its part as they did their part," said Moran.
In an e-mail response to VOA, the State Department said “Overall, over 2,500 Afghans who have worked for the United States in Afghanistan and their family members have benefited from Special Immigrant Visa programs."
It goes on to say "There is no longer a backlog of applicants waiting for an eligibility decision.”
Shenwary is extremely pleased to be safe in the U.S. with his wife and two children. He says he looks forward to a bright future for not just his own kids but also for the millions of children in Afghanistan.