Anyone who approaches the Taste of Persia food truck during lunch hour in downtown Washington D.C. will likely be greeted by Afghan refugee Mohammad Mashooq Dowlati. Dowlati is the face of Taste of Persia because, as a former interpreter for the U.S. army in Afghanistan, he speaks good English.
The fields of the Afghan war are a long, long way from the streets of D.C. – and Dowlati has found the way to be fraught with difficulties and challenges he never imagined. Even the decision to go was wrenching.
“I’m going to be away from the entire family maybe for many years or maybe forever, and that decision was really, really important,” he says “It was so hard, emotionally hard.”
But staying would have been hard too. Both his and his family’s lives were in danger.
“A lot of interpreters got killed. They were kidnapped and then killed. In the worst situation, they were beheaded," Dowlati relates.
The family he left behind is still in danger because of his work with international forces. Dowlati says they have no protection.
“Honestly, they just have to rely on God, and they have to be careful … they cannot move to the remote areas … because if they go there, they will be kidnapped by bad guys, insurgents and get killed. They stay most of the time in the city centers.”
Dowlati, his wife and two children at the time (he now has three) came to the U.S. four years ago on special immigrant visas (SIVs). Some 15,000 Afghans are currently in some stage of applying for these visas that were created by Congress in 2008 for Afghan military translators and later expanded to cover other Afghans who served the U.S. government.
The SIV program was halted in March when the number of available visas ran out and has just recently been re-started after Congress authorized an additional 2500 SIVs.
Dowlati is grateful for the visas, but says he did not realize how difficult life in the U.S. was going to be. Away from her family, his wife faced challenges adjusting to the west and suffered from depression. And he had a rude awakening: job hunting.
“I was very anxious to start my education right at the beginning of my presence in America,” he says, “but then I found out that it’s probably too early for that. I have to find a job to make enough money to afford the family.”
Dowlati and other Afghan interpreters he has met in the U.S. were proud of the work they did to serve their country. “We were the connecter between the international forces and the local Afghanistan government forces and people,” he says. “So we had a very sensitive, important job.”
When they came to the U.S., they had expectations that with their English skills and their service to the U.S. government, they should get slightly better treatment than other refugees in the form of work.
“I am not saying we should become a manager of a very important organization, but at least, we should have a simple or basic office job. Unfortunately, the United States or relevant organization have not helped us in this regard at all.”
Dowlati says he speaks on behalf of thousands of Afghan interpreters, many of whom he knows. “They were, we were expecting to be treated a little better.”
Getting to okay
Minus any assistance, Dowlati had no idea what to do to find or apply for a job. With another Afghan refugee, he walked from business to business to talk to owners face to face. He did that for six months.
Dowlati finally found work in a chicken restaurant, cleaning and prepping food. It was hard on him. “I was not… how to explain… I was not accustomed to that kind of job.”
Used to office work, Dowlati had hoped to find a job in an office using his English and computer skills. “But because you’re new here, nobody knows you. It’s really hard to find that kind of work,” he says.
Worse, the restaurant job did not pay enough to support the family. Dowlati would need a second job. Luckily, he bumped into the Iranian owner of Taste of Persia, another refugee. That was three years ago.
“I was speaking in the same language with him,” Dowlati says. “We’re still working together.” And they are making plans for the future: to become partners and share the truck or perhaps open another one.
Dowlati still hopes to continue his education and find an office job but along with, not apart from, his work with the food truck. In the meantime, his wife is feeling better about life in the U.S.
“To be honest, we were thinking differently before we came here,” Dowlati says. "We had different perspection (sic), different understanding: If we go there, everything is going to go the way we want.”
It didn’t turn out that way. “But overall it is OK,” he concedes. “We are satisfied with it.”