It had been more than five years since Army Capt. Matthew Ball last saw the young Afghan interpreter who helped him navigate perilous territory in eastern Afghanistan during the 2010 surge in the U.S. war there.
Ball got to finally welcome his friend and former colleague, Qismat Amin, at San Francisco International Airport early Wednesday. Amin was greeted by Ball and friends who helped to advance his immigration case, and supporters who had read about the struggle to get him out of Afghanistan, where his life was in danger for working with the U.S. military.
“I left family in Afghanistan but actually seeing these people makes me much, much stronger," said Amin, 25. "I feel like I have a huge family right now.”
He added: "It’s something I’ve been waiting for years and years. The credit goes to this guy, Capt. Matthew Ball. He’s been supporting me in every way. I don’t know how to return this favor to this guy.”
Ball pushed for Amin to get a U.S. visa, a process that took more than three years.
As Amin shook hands with people in the small crowd at the international arrivals area, some of whom told him "Thank you for your service" and "Welcome home," Ball stood smiling nearby, taking it all in.
“I feel incredible," said Ball, 30. "It’s great to see him."
Ball said his unit depended on Amin, who began working for the U.S. at age 19, during counterinsurgency missions. He noted how Amin defused tense situations, and often helped U.S. soldiers and Afghans better understand the context of their situation.
In recent months, the pair had called or texted each other almost daily. Ball, now a Stanford University law student, took it upon himself to get Amin to safety. The Afghan's work for U.S. troops had made him a target for Islamic State fighters, who were threatening to kill him.
Ball recruited fellow Stanford students to launch a congressional inquiry into Amin's immigration case. Ball said he feared his friend's application had gotten stuck in a bureaucratic "black hole."
"I feel like we owe it to him to make him safe. He's done a lot for me. He's done a lot for our country," said Ball.
Amin had planned to arrive later in the month, but Ball moved up his flight after President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. for 90 days. Though Afghanistan wasn't one of those countries, Amin feared further travel restrictions could be coming.
"I was scared. I thought like 'I don’t want to lose this opportunity,'" said Amin. His visa was approved just days before the controversial executive order, which is being challenged in federal court.
A U.S. District Court judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the executive mandate last Friday; a higher court is reviewing the government's appeal.
Some U.S. veterans are concerned that the Trump administration's new travel restrictions are sending the signal that "America does not uphold its promises," said Kelsey Campbell, 33, of Veterans for American Ideals.
If Afghans fear that they will have no protections when they collaborate with the U.S. government, that could endanger troops and missions, said Campbell. She has lobbied Congress to increase the number of Special Immigrant Visas, reserved for Afghans and Iraqis who worked for the U.S. Government.
The demand for these visas is much greater than the number of available spots. While more than 13,000 Afghans were in the process of applying for Special Immigrant Visas as of January, the State Department had only 2,170 visas to issue for citizens of that country, said William Cocks, spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.
For the next few months, Ball and his wife, Giselle Rahn, are planning to host Amin at their Palo Alto apartment while the interpreter gets acclimated to life in California.
"He's never seen the ocean before. He's never been out of his time zone. I had to explain to him what jet lag is," said Ball, adding that he's now ready to be an interpreter for his Afghan friend in the U.S.
“I’m so excited," Amin said. "I’m going to go outside and see America.”
But before he left the airport, Amin told supporters: “You are doing an incredible job for coming out here and fighting for these immigrants."
"America is just a place like Asia or Europe, but what makes it great is because of you great Americans," he added. "You represent the values and the good of this country. So keep fighting!"
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