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Former Afghan combat interpreter, WA immigrant becomes US citizen

Candidates for U.S. citizenship recite the oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony at Naval Air Station Sigonella. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Erica R. Gardner)

A rocket-propelled grenade hit the U.S. Army compound where Baidar Hammad, an Afghan interpreter, was stationed in summer 2012.

Within minutes, Hammad’s Special Forces unit was gearing up to find the Taliban soldiers who fired the rocket from high in the mountains surrounding their base in Kunar province, an infamously rugged region bordering Pakistan that has seen intense fighting over the years.

Hammad was tasked with listening for radio communications between Taliban fighters while he stood near his unit’s tactical vehicle.

“They said, ‘Try to shoot the interpreter first,’ ” Hammad remembered. They wanted to interrupt “the communication between the Afghan commandos and U.S. Special Forces.”

His commanding officer told him not to worry. The Taliban fighters couldn’t easily pick him out of the group, because the Pasthun interpreter was dressed in a uniform similar to the Army Special Forces.

But as he continued listening, he heard a shot ring out.

“Zwooosh. Tass,” Hammad said, imitating the sound of the bullet whizzing by him. “They hit our truck, but they missed me.

“I was feeling like God gave me a new life,” Hammad continued. “That bullet could have hit me in the head.”

Before many missions, Army officers told Hammad and other soldiers that the chance they could die was great. He said he saw live fire countless times.

But putting himself in danger, Hammad said, was all worth the end result: immigration to the U.S.

The decision to apply to be an interpreter was difficult, but ultimately he knew it was his best chance to create a better life for himself.

That process came full circle Tuesday morning during a citizenship ceremony at the Thomas S. Foley United States Courthouse.

“Today is probably one of the best days in my life,” he said.

The 29-year-old grew up in the Goshta District of Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan, when the Taliban was in power. Some people in his community armed themselves to keep the Taliban out, but any time he left his relatively peaceful village he could be in danger at government checkpoints.

In Goshta, he had little access to technology and limited schooling. Speaking out against the Taliban regime could have deadly consequences.

Hammad said he watched American movies about New York and Las Vegas. He dreamed of learning English and immigrating to the United States.

Then, after the events of 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban fell out of power. U.S. troops made their way to Goshta within two years.

“After the fall of the Taliban, everything changed,” Hammad said. “Afghanistan has changed a lot because of the sacrifices of U.S. troops.”

Hammad went back to school, where he could learn English, and took English courses at a private institute as well. He eventually started leading his own English courses to share his knowledge.

“I knew that if I wanted to make change in my life, I had to learn English,” Hammad said. “These days everything is in English – all of the technology”

After he graduated from high school in 2009, Hammad said he finished about a year of a political science degree program while working another job before discontinuing his studies.

In September 2010, he saw a chance at a better life: apply to become a combat translator for the U.S. military and earn a special immigrant visa for his service.

The SIV program granted U.S. visas to more than 52,000 Afghan and Iraqi interpreters and family members between 2007 and January 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported. That number has been cut to 50 applications per year for translators and their families.

Hammad, who knows Dari, Pashto and some Urdu, was embedded with Army Special Forces until February 2014. His job involved translating between American and Afghan forces during special forces missions, as well as communicating with local communities during patrols and translating Taliban radio communications.

After Hammad was released from his unit and sent home to Goshta, he almost immediately started getting death threats via phone and email, he said. He contacted the U.S. government to let them know he was in danger, and he stayed inside his home during daylight hours while he waited for his visa.

“I know a lot of people who have served in Afghanistan. Every time I get to to meet them, it brings all those stories back,” he said. “And the respect I receive from people is beyond words”

Hammad immigrated to the U.S. in June 2014. He then made his way to Spokane, where his aunt, uncle and cousins have lived since immigrating more than a decade ago.

While looking for jobs, he connected with the owner of Millwood Grocery & Spirits, Sarbjit Singh, an Indian immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 2006. He has worked there since.

Hammad said he has crossed paths with soldiers who served in Afghanistan and their family members many times since immigrating.

“I was born and raised in a warring country,” Hammad said. “It gives me a lot of hope when I see veterans’ families.”

At one point, a soldier who served in Afghanistan offered to pay for his meal, then asked Hammad if he recognized him.

“Then I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I met you!’ ” Hammad said.

For the last several months, Hammad has been awaiting approval to become a citizen. That process became official when he recited the oath of allegiance with 32 people from 20 other countries at a citizenship ceremony.

Soldiers from Hammad’s former unit offered to travel to Spokane for the ceremony, but Hammad told them he had family that would be there.

“Many of you have completed a long journey to this courtroom,” Magistrate Judge John Rodgers said.

Rodgers said the new U.S. citizens would “inevitably bring new ideas, new ways of looking at old ideas,” and urged them to participate in the democratic process.

“In some ways, you are literally the strength and future of this country,” Rodgers said.

His last piece of advice was, “Don’t forget who you are and where you come from.”

Now that he is a citizen, Hammad aspires to get his law degree at Gonzaga University and apply to work at the FBI. He also plans to help his family through the immigration process.

“I’m going to get my passport and go after whatever dream I have,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that Baidar Hammad did not earn a political degree. He discontinued his studies after one year.


© 2019 The Spokesman-Review