The Afghan interpreters left jobless and penniless in Spain

Translators who worked with Spanish troops feel abandoned in their new country

Ana Carbajosa
Ehsan Nader (l) and Mohammad Shuaib, two of the interpreters who worked with Spanish troops in Afghanistan and now refugees in Spain.
Ehsan Nader (l) and Mohammad Shuaib, two of the interpreters who worked with Spanish troops in Afghanistan and now refugees in Spain.© Carlos Rosillo (EL PAÍS)

In a small apartment in a Madrid suburb, four young Afghan men are trying to come to terms with their situation. They once worked as translators for the Spanish troops stationed in Afghanistan, and after a long struggle were finally given asylum here. But they now find themselves jobless and penniless.

“We dreamed of coming to Europe, but we never imagined it would be like this,” says Daryuush Mohammadi, a 24-year-old who worked as a translator for three-and-a-half years at a military base in Afghanistan. “We’ve been abandoned.”

They performed extremely well: they accompanied the soldiers everywhere, even when they were under fire” Colonel Luis Herruzo

Like the others, he was allowed to come to Spain, but is unable to find work, and is no longer in receipt of any government financial help. “If Spain can’t help us, it should let us go to another country,” he says.

Three years ago, when Spain’s troops pulled out of Afghanistan, thousands of people signed a petition calling on the Spanish authorities to allow the translators to come here. Eventually, around 41 people, including family members, were given asylum.

But the Afghan refugees had little idea of the difficulties they would face in their new home, and they accuse the authorities of abandoning them to their fate. Lacking any support network, and still traumatized by their experiences in Afghanistan, they have been unable to find work and are now feeling hopeless.

Mohammadi says he began working for the Spanish armed forces as an interpreter in 2010. For the next three years he was stationed at a military base in Qala-i-Naw and traveled with troops in Kabul, Herat and Badghis. One of his jobs was to accompany soldiers in advance units that would clear the terrain for patrols. He has survived mine fields, ambushes and bombardments.

In late 2013, Spain pulled its troops out of Badghis. After three years working with Spanish forces, the translators had been warned by the insurgents that they and their families were not safe. Mohammadi says he slept in a different place each week. But his family continued to receive death threats. “In Afghanistan many people believe that if you work with foreigners, you will end up sharing their beliefs,” he says.

In Kabul they kill you with a bullet, and here they do it through hunger” Mohammad Shuaib, former translator

Eventually, the Spanish governor agreed to take them and their families out and they were initially held in refugee reception centers in Spain. “They have been treated like anybody else,” says a spokesman for the Red Cross, the organization tasked with looking after them. Mohammadi and Mohammad Shuaib, one of the three others with whom he shares the apartment, spent seven months in a reception center, and left four months ago. Since then, they have received €370 a month, which is just enough to pay their rent and to eat one square meal a day. On September 15, they were told that their stipend was being withdrawn.

Shuaib’s wife and children are still in Afghanistan. He intended to bring them over once he was settled in Spain, but has since changed his mind. “What is the point? So they can sleep in the street?” he asks.

Colonel Luis Herruzo served two stints as a military attaché at the Spanish embassy in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2013, and is still in touch with some of the translators he worked with. He says they could be put to work helping other refugees. “They performed extremely well: they accompanied the soldiers everywhere, even when they were under fire. But they now find themselves in a very tricky situation in terms of finding a job in this country,” he says.

Ashabadin Jallali, another of the translators, is now working in a kebab restaurant for €350 a month. He says that of the group of 30 translators who came to Spain, barely five others have managed to find work, all of it badly paid.

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Din Mohammad, who is still in a refugee reception center in Seville, says the eight Afghans – four of them with families – with whom he shares a dormitory are all unemployed, and that next month they will have to move out. “In other countries, our people have been given a dignified life,” he says. “Spain should at least give us a passport so that we can try to make a life somewhere else.”

Shuaib and Mohammadi spend their days visiting factories, bars and shops, dropping off their résumés. They also search for work on websites such as InfoJobs and Linkedin. So far they have had no success. Over the last four months, Mohammadi says he has only managed to find four days work through a temping agency. Shuaib has found nothing.

“Our families were expecting something else from us, they thought we would be able to send them money,” says Mohammadi, a graduate in social studies and Spanish. He speaks the three main languages in Afghanistan, as well as English and Spanish. “At this rate I will be begging in the street. All we are asking is for the Spanish authorities to let us leave, to let us try our luck in another country.” The four have barely enough food to eat, he says: “In Kabul they kill you with a bullet, and here they do it through hunger,” says Shuaib.

The Red Cross says the four young men’s situation is similar to that of other refugees who have sought asylum in Spain.

In another area of the city, in the northern dormitory town of Alcobendas, 27-year-old former translator Jallali works for up to 18 hours a day in a kebab restaurant for €350 a month – though for the last three months he has had to work without pay. After four years employed with Spain’s troops, he now finds himself sleeping in a tiny room rented to him by an Ecuadorian family. He says he curses the day he decided to work for the Spanish armed forces.

One of these days my family is going to be killed, and I will be here, unable to do anything about it” Ashabadin Jallali, former translator

He is now seriously considering returning home to his family in northern Afghanistan. His relatives have been threatened, and warnings have been posted on his Facebook page. “I would prefer to be killed by the terrorists rather than to die like this,” he says. “My family should have come here, or at least moved to another province, but we can’t afford it. One of these days they’re going to be killed, and I will be here, unable to do anything about it. We’ve been left out in the street, just like every other immigrant.”

Defense Ministry washes its hands

A spokesman for the Spanish Ministry of Defense says the interpreters were brought to Spain last year and are now under international protection, adding simply that their status in Spain is the same as that of any other refugee, and that it has no authority to intervene in asylum requests. “Officially, we have no relationship with them,” says the spokesman.

Other translators who have worked for members of the former US-led military coalition in Afghanistan have suffered worse fates. In August, an interpreter who worked for the British, was killed by the Taliban while trying to escape from the country. Sir Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British army, has called on his government to be “more generous” toward the young Afghans who worked with British troops. NATO says it is up to individual member states to decide on how they treat the Afghans who worked for them.

Meanwhile, Mohammadi and his three friends have been ground down by bureaucracy and see their situation as hopeless. “One day, I had hoped to study, but for the moment, all my energy goes on simply staying alive. I am desperate.”

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