Last month, when I watched fanatical Trump supporters and white supremacists storm the United States Capitol, I was reminded of Afghanistan and the trauma I experienced at the hands of the Taliban. Like many refugees, I’d come to America to escape political and religious extremists. As the mob called for the vice president to be hanged, it felt like the world had turned upside down. But none of these images dimmed my love for America or my appreciation for this country. If anything, they made me want to work even harder to protect my new home—to show president Trump and his supporters what it really means to support and defend the Constitution.
My wife and I came to Texas as refugees one year ago, just weeks before the pandemic hit full force. I was quickly hired by Walmart and she found work at a food processing plant. Initially, these jobs seemed far less nerve-wracking than my previous work translating for the American military in Kabul. But that changed with COVID. In April, my wife’s factory shuttered for two weeks because of a COVID outbreak. In my job prepping online orders for delivery, I was often surrounded by customers who didn’t keep their distance. For a second time, we were both putting ourselves at risk for America, but we wanted to give back to the country that took us in.
We’re not unique. Across the country, more than 346,000 refugees are considered essential workers, including 176,000 refugees in healthcare, and 170,000 working in grocery stores, processing plants, and restaurants. We are vital to the nation’s economic prosperity: both more likely to start businesses and to work in industries like manufacturing, warehousing and home healthcare that are often short-staffed. We have retention rates up-to twice as high as other employees. A study from New American Economy found that after 25 years in the country, refugees have a median income $14,000 higher than the American average.
Despite all of this, the Trump administration appealed to supporters by demonizing immigrants and refugees and worked tirelessly to dismantle the refugee resettlement program. For example, although the administration said it had reserved 4,000 slots for refugees helping the U.S. military from Iraq, it admitted only 161 of them, or 4 percent, in fiscal year 2020. I was one of the lucky ones. In Afghanistan, I worked as a translator and culture advisor for U.S. soldiers and intelligence officers. I didn’t tell anyone outside my family what I did for a living. If the wrong people discovered the nature of my work, my life—and my family’s lives—would be in danger. I took solace in the fact that the Americans assured protection if my life was threatened.
That day came in 2019. After the Taliban killed Afghans working for Americans nearby, I received death threats. We made the decision to leave. I’d hoped to bring my parents and brothers with us, as the Taliban spares no one – fathers, mothers, even children of translators, have been threatened or killed. In the end, only my wife and I were approved. Leaving my family behind was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I choked back my tears as I said goodbye, knowing I may never see them again.
I pray my family can join me soon in America. I also worry about my fellow translators and intelligence aids—many thousands of them—who are stuck overseas and in danger. We were promised protection, but the Trump administration didn’t keep that promise. The same thing happened on American soil — by refusing to take the pandemic seriously, the Trump administration failed to protect its essential workers. Not just refugees but the thousands of Americans who work beside us. Yet I am heartened by President Biden’s commitment to fighting the pandemic, just as I’m encouraged by his plan to resettle 125,000 refugees annually.
I risked my life for U.S. soldiers because I believed in American democracy—including free and fair elections. From my point of view, it’s incredible to see an election be contested and then resolved through orderly, peaceful means. That rarely happens in Afghanistan, but it happened here. It’s why I still believe in this country, despite the Capitol insurrectionists. Their vision of America might not include me, but I will continue risking my life for America regardless, just as I did in Afghanistan. I will go to work every day so that my neighbors–especially those at high risk of COVID-19 complications– don’t have to leave their homes. Every refugee I know is willing to make a similar sacrifice.
I’m sure many people in my community supported Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. They may even support the Capitol extremists. But I will continue my essential work on the Walmart floor, helping them, nonetheless. In every bag I stock and in every order I fill, I will demonstrate what really makes America great.
Mohammad Zahir is a refugee from Afghanistan and former translator for the U.S. military. He lives in Dallas, Texas.
Photo: Noah Wulf / Wikimedia Commons