Passengers riding in Ajmal Faqiri's Lyft sometimes catch his accent, peer over their smartphones and ask how an Afghan came to live in the United States. It's not a question of how, Faqiri says, but why.
He served alongside American troops for seven years and survived brutal firefights, which he says makes him a U.S. war veteran — just one who happens to be from Kabul province.
Afghan and Iraqi citizens like Faqiri, who now lives in Sterling, Va., helped the U.S. wage costly counterinsurgencies. The United States needed cultural experts and native speakers of local languages. Faqiri, 31, who speaks Dari, Pashto, some Urdu and English, signed up to translate for American forces in 2006.
"We thought the war would be over in Afghanistan. We wanted to bring peace," Faqiri said as he drove his black Toyota Camry in downtown Washington, an ear tuned to a ping from the Lyft ride-hailing app announcing a new rider.
Instead Faqiri joined 69,000 Iraqis and Afghans — translators, contractors and their families — who have fled since 2008, when the State Department began issuing special immigrant visas to those who risked their lives to translate for U.S. troops.
What followed has been a years-long clearance process and a backlog of applications.
"We have increased the resources dedicated to [special immigrant visa] processing, and have undertaken steps to streamline the process at every application stage," a State Department official said.
Still, nearly 14,000 applicants are waiting, not including family members, with only 3,500 spots allocated in 2018.
Poverty is the new threat for translators in the United States. Despite efforts by nonprofit groups to locate and subsidize housing for interpreters, translators often lack work history to land even basic jobs and have no credit history to obtain loans or apartments.
Their migration has prompted a question yet to be fully answered: If the U.S. believes it is a sacred obligation to provide health and housing safety nets for veterans, what should be done for translators who sacrificed just as much, if not more?
"We have done something for the people of the United States and its military. We want some honor for it," Faqiri said.
Afghanistan was a deadly place for Faqiri's work.
When he was off-duty, icy stares and blunt comments from neighbors told him what he needed to know: The longer he stayed in Afghanistan, the more dangerous it was for his family.
But, he said, those were known dangers. Translators who arrive in the United States are blindsided by other issues.
"They don't know the problems like finding jobs. They can't pay rent," Faqiri said of fellow interpreters. He spent a combined $16,000 of his own and borrowed money on plane tickets for him, his wife and two children in a race to arrive at San Francisco International Airport before New Year's Day in 2014, the day their visas expired.
Faqiri's family arrived minutes before midnight, and even one delay would have invalidated their visas and sent them back to Kabul at a time of Taliban resurgence in the region. Militants closely track interpreters, offering rewards for their capture.
Sometimes interpreters have only enough to get themselves to safety, and like Faqiri in those early days, cram into apartments with other refugees to avoid living on the street.
Nonprofit and business support has recently popped up to aid translators in their most vulnerable moments. Lyft, the ride-hailing company, launched a pilot program in Washington in October to provide translators with driving jobs. In some cases, the company supplies cars and ride credits to help them make appointments, like consular and doctor visits.
Washington is a crucial testing ground for the pilot program, said Steve Taylor, the general manager of the District's Lyft office. Nearly 10,000 special immigrant visa holders live in the metropolitan area, more than any other city.
The pilot is a joint effort with No One Left Behind, an advocacy group focused on getting more combat zone translators to the United States and providing guidance and financial assistance. It has helped about 5,000 translators and family members since it was founded in 2013 by Matt Zeller, a former Army officer. Zeller's interpreter Janis Shinwari saved Zeller's life in a firefight in 2008 by killing two Taliban militants, sparking a revenge campaign against him and an effort by Zeller to bring him to the United States.
"The only difference between me and Janis is where we were born. Interpreters are more of a veteran than I am," Zeller said. "I only did one tour. Janis served nine years."
As he ferried passengers between Washington and Old Town Alexandria, Faqiri stressed translators should not be treated with pity.
"We just need support, then we're like a natural-born American. We can do anything we want," he said. Faqiri left San Francisco for Virginia in the weeks after his arrival, and he eventually landed a job selling cars then transitioned to real estate.
"Most people have never thought about translators. It's a very important element of the U.S. military," he said. Riders and home buyers who hear his story offer a sometimes heartfelt refrain familiar to veterans: Thank you for your service.
It's appreciated, Faqiri said, but he worries some Americans view translators with doubt, harboring suspicion they may be militants.
But he carried a weapon to defend U.S. troops against those insurgents. If translators aren't recognized for their service, he said, it will be difficult to find people like him in the next war.
"If other countries see the U.S. left behind their allies, they won't help them," Faqiri said. "It's very important for the United States to keep its word."