‘Truly life or death’: Madison nonprofit, veteran group help evacuate Afghan ally’s wife, young son

Interpreter, now settled in Madison, grateful for help of military ‘brothers’ and CMC

MADISON, Wis. – It took a harrowing ordeal that had the “drama of a Hollywood movie” to bring an area Afghan immigrant’s family to safety.

That’s according to Janice Beers, the coordinator of immigration services at the Catholic Multicultural Center.

“I’ve never witnessed or been in this situation where it was truly life or death,” Beers said.

Her client, a man who asked News 3 Now to protect his privacy, worked as an English interpreter with the U.S. Marines in his home country of Afghanistan during the war.

“We’ve been just like brothers, working as a team,” he said. “We’ve been going into combat and saving each other’s lives.”

His work as a translator makes him and his family targets for the Taliban. After narrowly escaping targeted attacks such as bombs, he fled his country, getting a Special Immigrant Visa and relocating to the U.S. in 2015.

He’s since made a home in Madison, but his wife, who he married back at home in 2016, and their three-year-old son were in Afghanistan waiting on their visas – a slow process further held up during the pandemic.

“Their life is really, really, really at high risk,” the interpreter said.

That’s why this week he needed help fast.

“As soon as I saw in the media the Taliban take over Afghanistan, I was very scared,” he said. “I was just hopeless. I was like OK, I cannot be alive any more if they kill my son, my innocent son, innocent wife.”

That’s as chaos unfolds with Americans and Afghan allies hoping to flee from the Kabul airport. The departure of U.S. troops looms, set to evacuate by Aug. 31.

“If you’re watching this unfold all week you know that time is of the essence,” Beers said.

The translator came to Beers for help, and she knew getting his family to safety would take a village.

“I came to understand that this case in particular was going to take something more than expertise in immigration legal work,” she said.

Help came in an answer to a CMC Facebook post when UW-Madison Law School Lecturer Megan McDermott connected CMC with Team America. That’s a group of volunteer veterans led by former infantry officer Joe Saboe who work to evacuate Afghan allies.

“I also have a couple of friends who are former Marine Corps veterans who are involved in these teams that are doing extractions from Afghanistan,” McDermott said. “I put two and two together and said wait a minute, there’s a need here. I have friends who are doing this, maybe they can help.”

They did. While Team America coordinated with special forces overseas to help the wife and son avoid Taliban checkpoints, McDermott, Beers and the interpreter watched from afar.

“It was up and down for about three days there,” McDermott said.

Beers invited her client to her office Tuesday when the meet-up between his family and special forces was supposed to happen.

“The first meetup point didn’t pan out. It was such a letdown,” Beers said. “I didn’t want him alone when this happened because it was a long shot.”

She called the experience a roller coaster, especially when her client’s wife lost her phone and there was no communication for about 20 minutes.

“It was very, very emotional,” Beers said. “Shortly after that, he received a call from special forces — it’s very emotional for me, too — saying I’m with your wife, I’m with your son. We’re taking them in. They’re OK … we sat together in my office crying for some time.”

“The fact that they were out there for 72 hours surrounded by Taliban, hoping for the help of strangers they had never met, it’s just amazing to me,” McDermott said.

With his wife and son now safe in Qatar, the translator is grateful others had his back when he needed it.

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“People like Megan, like Joe, like Janice … I really appreciate (the help) from my Marines brothers. They took out my wife and my son,” he said. “I helped them as interpreter. I’m really proud of that. I know now I did a good job. They saved my son and wife.”

CMC is working to get his family back to Wisconsin. He looks forward to a bright future for his son, but still worries about his family members who remain in Afghanistan.

With refugees staying at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, CMC expects to keep busy with legal work. Those interested in helping can donate directly to their immigration program here or visit their website here.