Like other Afghan immigrants, Faisal Razmal thought he was leaving violence behind for a new life in the United States, considered the land of opportunity.
After all, he survived an IED (improvised explosive device) blast in Kabul during five years as an interpreter for U.S. forces. Threats to his life were worth it, in his opinion, because fighting the “enemies” was the best way to serve his country - and because his dream was to move to the U.S. with a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV).
After his visa was approved, Razmal recalls how excited he was to arrive in Austin with his family and see the gleaming skyscrapers and busy highways of the Texas capital.
“It looked very beautiful,” he said.
What followed, he said, was a steady descent into a nightmare. While in California, where he took a job, he was shot in the left eye with a flare gun during an altercation with a 16-year-old youth. He has not been able to work due to the physical and psychological impact. Jaded by his experiences, he appears ready to give up on building a new life.
Things started well. “I was thinking, 'This is United States. No one can hurt you, this is a country where law rules; there is good government, good security; people are educated; there is the FBI and CIA.' I trusted America,” Razmal said.
Several throusand Afghan interpreters and their family members have immigrated to the U.S. under the SIV program, since it was established in 2008, because their work for U.S. forces put them in danger.
“I don’t believe that Afghans who come through the SIV get the necessary support to resettle,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. David Granillo, who worked with Razmal in Kabul.
“My sincere belief is that our translators provided an invaluable service to our mission and should be treated as veterans,” Granillo said. “I wish they could receive the same VA (veterans’) benefits and educational benefits that the service members they worked hand in hand with receive.”
Granillo still strongly believes that the U.S. really is the land of opportunity, but says the new wave of immigrants must bear hardships to pave the way for future generations.
Certainly, not all suffer as badly as Razmal has. Some overcome the culture shock, the challenges of getting a job or an education and even the homesickness that accompanies being in a strange new land. Some thrive.
The U.S. and refugee-support organizations try to prepare new immigrants for what they will face. There is initial financial support and counseling aimed at getting America’s new residents settled and helping those who run into trouble as they try to adjust. Sometimes, however, the toughest lesson is that freedom also brings the freedom to fail, even if a person does nothing wrong or just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or underestimates a threat very different than those he or she left behind.
A State Department letter that is sent to those about to move to the U.S. outlines a bare-bones support package that they will receive.
“The resettlement agency to which you are assigned receives $1,875 per person in U.S. Government funds, of which a minimum of $925 must be spent directly on your behalf,” the letter reads. “These funds will be used to pay for your rent and/or basic necessities.”
Word of higher payouts, however, spread. Razmal says he arrived with just $50 in his pocket after hearing from other interpreters already living in the U.S. that he would get $3,000 in “welcome money” - $1,000 for each of his family members - along with a few months’ rent and food stamps for a while.
Instead, he found himself in a rough neighborhood, where drunks played loud music in front of the apartment that the caseworker for the International Rescue Committee found for his family, along with a mattress, a sofa and some other basic household goods.
“Seeing such a situation scared my wife,” Razmal said. “It was a very, very, very poor place.”
The rent was only paid for a month, so he struggled to find work, finally landing a minimum-wage job in a taco restaurant.
“I was working in everything: cleaning the restaurant, washing the glasses, washing dishes, cooking food, making tacos, every work from A to Z,” said Razmal.
After two months, he added a second job as a security guard, then a third delivering pizzas to help pay the bills. It was hard work, but he said he accepted it as a newcomer to the U.S., and he slowly became financially stable.
Then he got a call from his brother-in-law, an Afghan-American living in Washington state, who said he was returning to Afghanistan to work for the U.S. Army and wanted Razmal to move into his home to help take care of his wife.
“He told me that I was the only person in the U.S. who he could trust, because I am the brother of his wife,” Razmal said. He agreed and got a job as a security guard.
“For the first couple weeks, they welcomed us. But after that, my sister began to find fault, arguing with my wife and so on” until tensions boiled over, Razmal said. “My sister wanted to call the police, and I decided to leave her home at 2 a.m. because it was impossible for me to continue living with her.”
Ramzal then moved to Sacramento, California, where he took a job with the same company. He said he was happy - for two months. Then, in August of 2015, Razmal met in his apartment complex’s parking lot with some former colleagues, trying to help two Afghan friends find jobs in the neighborhood.
“There was another Afghan fellow who said he can find them a job. So, I introduced them to each other,” Razmal said.
A group of youths approached, and the 16-year-old suspect demanded $1, then their cellphones. Both Razmal and his friends rejected his demands.
Later, one of his friends left, then called within minutes to say the same kids had stopped him, but he didn’t understand what they wanted.
“I rushed to them, and this young man was screaming at my Afghan fellow. I asked the young boy, `Why you are screaming and what do you want?’”
The youth, identified as Renardo Dejour Williams, pulled a flare gun from his pocket.
“I began laughing and told him, 'You want to scare me with this baby gun?'” Razmal said. “And he pulled the trigger and shot me in the face. I felt as if my face was on fire. I did not even think that such a baby gun is so powerful.”
Razmal lost the vision in his eye, then his job. Financial issues followed. His psychotherapist, Homeyra Ghaffari Sorooshian, said he has been diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, has lost hope and wants to give up.
The California Victim Compensation Program supported him for a year, but that assistance ran out last September. The program asked Razmal to bring a letter from his doctor saying how long he will be unable to work.
“It is very disappointing. When it comes to mental state, no doctor can guarantee how long it takes for a person to recover. There are so many elements involved,” Sorooshian said.
Razmal managed to get a letter from another doctor to cover a six-month period, but his payments were cut from $1,600 per month to $900. “It is not enough to support a family,” Razmal said.
A trial for the alleged assailant has been postponed several times, but for Ramzal, the real pain is his loss of independence.
“I want to work and feel ashamed to ask for help,” he said.