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Robbed of his American dream, a former U.S. Army translator is now a desperate shooting victim

Woman holding US flag. (Dreamstime/TNS)

For Mahir Ahmad Amiri, yesterday is last year is tomorrow is a decade ago.

What remains of his memory is trapped and jumbled inside a damaged brain. But there is a blank space. That is where the shooting goes. That moment, when a drug dealer put five bullets into his back and neck around 3 in the morning on Dec. 20, 2018, at an infamous Far East Dallas gas station where he worked security, he does not recall.

Mahir Amiri is here, trapped in an electric wheelchair parked in a small, dingy nursing home room, but he is not.

In a city where residents once again tally homicides like dollars on a telethon’s tote board, where a mayor who once ignored rising crime until giving the police chief a month to cough up a crime prevention plan, Amiri isn’t even a statistic anymore. He’s just a forgotten year-old headline in a frail, shrinking body paralyzed from the neck down. His life was stolen, his family shattered, by a gunman who still remains unidentified and at large.

The 33-year-old spent eight years in his native Afghanistan working as a translator for the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. Considered a traitor by the Taliban, his life in danger for a few hundred dollars in salary each week, he and his family were given Special Immigrant Visas three years ago so they could come to the U.S. When Mahir arrived in Texas, he believed a better life awaited him and his wife and their children. Now he barely has one at all.

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I have written about Mahir before — in June, after Dallas City Hall filed a lawsuit against the owner of Texaco where he was shot by dealers conducting business near the gas pumps. But we hadn’t met until Wednesday, when I was invited to visit with him and his family at a nursing home and rehab center on Meadow Road near Greenville Avenue — his home for the last three weeks, after nine months spent at Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation near Deep Ellum.

Debra O’Banion, who met the Amiris at Baylor when her son was in a room across the hall, had found those old stories and emailed me on the one-year anniversary of Mahir’s shooting. “This family is in need of desperate help,” she wrote. She said that they have no money and that their Medicaid was cut off after a neighbor launched a GoFundMe that wound up raising around $24,000 to help cover his medical expenses.

The family, which speaks no English, had no idea a friend’s kind gesture could impact their Medicaid eligibility. This means, too, they cannot provide proper medical care for the couple’s 9-year-old daughter, who was left disabled after contracting meningitis three days after her birth.

Mahir’s parents came to Dallas from Kabul in June, after Congressman Colin Allred helped them secure the visas for which they had previously been denied three times. As CBS 11 reported in March, Allred sent a letter to John Bass, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, asking for his help in bringing them to Dallas “to say their final goodbyes.”

But almost seven months later they remain here. Mahir’s father, Shir, was forced to abandon his successful dress-making business in Kabul. Now he and his wife, Farzana, take turns sleeping on a cot next to their son.

While other families were celebrating the first day of the new year, Farzana tried to get her son to swallow a few sips of water from a small plastic bottle. Mahir’s wife, Zahra, ran a razor across his face. The couple’s 3-year-old son, dressed in a button-down shirt and button-down vest, played with his Spider-man action figure, oblivious to the grim scene. Their 9-year-old daughter sat quietly, rocking back and forth. The couple’s 7-year-old sat alone, her knees gathered to her chin.

O’Banion’s partner Tom Manuel came along Wednesday, as did Bahar Hamedani, a dietitian at Baylor who once helped feed Mahir via a tube inserted into his stomach and now helps his family as often as she can — as translator, food fetcher, whatever she can do, whenever she has the time. These three are the closest the Amiris have to a support system. But they have their own lives, their own worries.

“My heart just went out to these people,” O’Banion said. “The mother and father, they never leave his side. He seems like a warm, kind person — so appreciative. I wonder what goes on inside his head. I don’t know what I would be thinking.”

There were moments Wednesday when his eyes were open, clear, alert; when he looked at the face of the person talking to him or about him; when he whispered a few words in response to short, simple questions asked of him. But those moments were few, fleeting. Hamedani and O’Banion said they are becoming increasingly rare, especially after he had to move out of Baylor, where he received round-the-clock attention and therapy not offered at the Vickery Meadow nursing home.

The city’s lawsuit against the Texaco to which he was dispatched in December 2018 means nothing to Mahir or his family. He is just a passing mention in the nuisance complaint — one of the “multiple shootings” cited among the reason to shutter the gas station along Ferguson Road off Interstate 635, near where Dallas abuts Garland and Mesquite.

City attorneys call the gas station and convenience store “a place to which persons habitually go to commit crimes of delivery, possession, manufacture or use of controlled substances, aggravated assault, aggravated robbery, reckless discharge of firearm, and unlawfully carrying weapons.” This is the same thing attorneys said about the apartment complex behind the service station, and the same thing they said about the strip mall next door.

The lawsuit against the owner of the Texaco drags on, as the city seeks to clean it up or shut it down. A judge has already ordered two 24/7 security guards, new lighting and surveillance cameras, among other measures. A temporary injunction hearing is scheduled next week in advance of a trial due to begin in June. In recently filed court documents, the city alleges that owner Avish Patel, of Pearland, has “failed to address” the crime there “with reasonable preventative measures.”

Patel, since June, has blamed the police for allowing the crime: “They know there are known criminals there and they aren’t arresting them,” he told me last year.

This is the same Texaco, too, where in November Dallas police staged a media event announcing the launch of its Starlight program, which uses surveillance cameras armed with sensors that tell DPD when to tune in — and send someone out. When Dallas Police Chief U. Reneé Hall on Thursday made public the crime reduction plan Mayor Eric Johnson demanded in December, the Starlight program was mentioned as one way the department is creating “an intelligence-led policing division.”

Which does not help this family now.

Attorney Charles Bennett, who introduced the Amiris to the media last summer, said this week he is still “investigating” likely parties to a lawsuit. Perhaps he, too, will sue the gas station’s owners or Agile Security, which kept sending Mahir back to that gas station even after he had been threatened for recording the activity taking place on the premises — something Mahir picked up while working with the military’s criminal investigators.

“I am looking at all the different avenues for recovery that may be possible,” Bennett said Tuesday. Messages left at Agile Security on Thursday morning were not returned.

“I think in these situations, there are some obvious ones and maybe some non-obvious ones,” Bennett said, “and it would be wrong to rush into something without doing a full investigation to capture all of the responsible people.”

Toward the end of our visit, I asked Amiri if he knows why he is confined to this place, this life or what passes for one. He stared into the distance for a moment, as if searching for the answer. He nodded off for a moment, then awoke suddenly, looked me in the eye and shook his head as he smiled, slightly.

His family says he smiles frequently. They do not know why. But it is one of the very few things he can do by himself.

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© 2020 The Dallas Morning News