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The inspiring story of a Marine infantry officer who arranged for a former Afghan interpreter and his family to be rescued from the hell outside of Kabul’s airport may ultimately have a tragic yet common ending.

Maj. Tom Schueman co-authored the book Always Faithful along with his former interpreter Zainullah “Zak” Zaki about how the two men formed a friendship in Afghanistan that culminated with Schueman working feverishly in August 2021 to make sure that Zak and his family would be among the 124,000 people rescued by the U.S. military after the Taliban captured Kabul.

Schueman credits Zak with saving his life several times when he deployed to Sangin, Afghanistan in 2010 with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, known as the Darkhorse Battalion, which suffered the most casualties of any Marine unit during the Afghanistan war. In one such incident, Zak ran through a minefield to find and tackle a Taliban commander who was preparing an ambush for Schueman’s Marines.

But on Monday, Schueman announced on social media that Zak’s Special Immigrant Visa application had been denied for the final time, and now Zak and his family face the prospect of being deported, although it’s unclear if they might be sent back to Afghanistan.

Afghan interpreter rescued by Marine officer denied visa to stay in US
Cover of Always Faithful by Tom Schueman and Zainullah “Zak” Zaki.

Zak works a construction job to feed his wife and five children, so he does not have the option of hiding if immigration officials try to deport him, Schueman told Task & Purpose.

The official reason why Zak’s application was turned down was that he allegedly had not worked for the U.S. government long enough to qualify for the visa program, according to his Nov. 30 letter of denial from the U.S. embassy in Kabul’s chief of mission, which Schueman posted on Instagram. The letter noted that Afghans must have worked for the U.S. government for at least one year to qualify for a visa.

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However, Schueman has also posted the human resources letters from his former employers required for his visa application, which show that Zak worked for the U.S. government for nearly two years.

“I can’t fathom how they’re saying insufficient time when those two documents are in existence and were submitted,” Schueman told Task & Purpose. “I don’t even know how to kind of describe it or approach it, because it’s just so clear that he has the required time.”

Afghan interpreter rescued by Marine officer denied visa to stay in US
Zaninullah “Zak” Zaki and his family on an Air Force C-17 leaving Kabul in 2021. (Courtesy of Tom Schueman and Zaninullah “Zak” Zaki) 

Zak’s letter of denial did not include any information about how the State Department had determined that he had worked for the U.S. government for less than a year.

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on why Zak’s application was denied even though he met the one-year requirement because visa records are confidential so U.S. officials are not allowed to discuss individual cases.

The spokesperson added that 297 Afghans were denied Special Immigrant Visas in the third quarter of fiscal 2022, but 137 of those applicants were later approved after they submitted more information. 

But the letter Zak received made clear, “There is no further appeal of this decision,” adding that he can try submitting an entirely new visa application.

Always Faithful
Zaninullah “Zak” Zaki and his family outside of Hamid Karzai International Airpoirt in August 2021. (Courtesy of Tom Schueman and Zaninullah “Zak” Zaki)

For reasons that remain unclear, the letter marks the end of Schueman’s efforts over the past six years to help Zak attain a Special Immigrant Visa, which were intended for Afghans who helped the U.S. government  — many of whom were left behind after the Taliban captured Kabul in August 2021.

Zak is now represented by an immigration attorney who is helping him to apply for asylum inside the United States, Schueman said.

“I think the SIV program is somewhat probably broken beyond repair,” said Schueman. “I don’t think they’re going to be able to, probably, fix it. And so, our only option that I can see at this point moving forward is claiming asylum, which is really unfortunate because there’s a program designed for people like Zak. We spent six years to get Zak what he was entitled to, based on that program.”

Meanwhile the Afghan Adjustment Act, a proposed law that would offer a pathway for Afghans evacuated to the United States to become permanent legal residents, has languished in Congress for months. There is no guarantee lawmakers will vote on the legislation this month given the mountain of other tasks that Congress needs to get done before the end of the year, such as passing the Fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.

Zak’s situation is all too familiar for Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas, said Peter Lucier, a Marine veteran and the social media lead for #AfghanEvac, a non-profit group that helps Afghans legally immigrate to the United States and other countries.

Afghan interpreter rescued by Marine officer denied visa to stay in US
Tom Schueman and Zaninullah “Zak” Zaki reunite in Minnesota in February 2022. (Courtesy of Tom Schueman and Zaninullah “Zak” Zaki) 

Many Afghans worked for more than one company on several contracts, but under the visa’s strict eligibility requirements, obtaining valid verification from all the employers can be difficult, or even impossible for applicants, leading to denials, Lucier told Task & Purpose.

“We’re stuck with a system where we consistently see very well qualified applicants being denied despite paperwork that should more than verify the veracity for their eligibility for the program,” Lucier said.

Separately, the process of applying for asylum is not suited to deal with the tens of thousands of Afghans who made it to the United States, Lucier said. Proving that someone faces persecution is difficult and requires a lot of paperwork  — each application can end up being roughly 110 pages.

The U.S. government is encouraging Afghans who are now inside the continental United States to keep applying for Special Immigrant Visas to avoid adding to the backlog of the asylum process, Lucier said.

“The U.S. government is basically begging folks that if they are eligible, they should go through the SIV route,” said Lucier. “So, to see folks inside of the continental United States, who were evacuated as part of the military evacuation being denied SIVs despite really good paperwork for minor inconsistencies is incredibly frustrating and kind of flies in the face what we’ve seen DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and DoS [Department of State] have repeatedly asked Afghans to do. They’re saying one thing and then the reality that Afghans inside the United States are facing is something else entirely.” 

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