News: Afghans will have to find work once playtime is over
Story by Sgt. 1st Class Michel Sauret
FORT POLK, La. – Even in the Louisiana warm weather, Mohammad Rezai carries a leather jacket everywhere he goes just in case someone should turn up the air conditioning. He has an olive complexion and wears his curly, black hair jelled up. When he speaks, he comes across thoughtful and considerate.
“I’ve been amazed definitely by the scenarios... Just imagine when a bomb explodes at a market. It really makes you sad the way people scream, and everywhere there’s blood and human bodies,” he said of the training scenarios at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La.
The explosions and blood he’s describing are part of his day job. He is one of several hundred Afghan contractors who help the U.S. military recreate a believable training environment. This time around, he plays the role of an Afghan reporter. But in the past, he’s acted as an Afghan soldier, policeman and even village Mullah.
Since coming to the United States three years ago, this is the only job he’s had. He also said most Afghan contractors he knows don’t have another job. That’s because employers aren’t keen to losing their workers for weeks at a time every month. This has left many of these Afghans with little to no other work experience.
But there are several upsides to the job. The pay is relatively good, there is a sense of pride to helping soldiers train, and they can reconnect with their Afghan culture.
“For me, I prefer this job. There are many reasons. Number one, I work with a group of people like soldiers which I really love,” said Ahmad Masood Azemi, who has been doing this job for only a few months.
There are currently more than 50 contracting agencies in the U.S. that employ Afghan immigrants part-time to work for the military. Most of these companies contract between 100 and 300 Afghans at a time. Some companies employ as few as five. A majority of them are not U.S. citizens.
These role players live all over the U.S. and don’t stick to one specific training center. They jump on whatever rotation needs them. It could be as far west as Fort Irwin, Calif., or as far east as Fort Drum, N.Y. Some companies provide bus transportation from specific hubs. It’s the role players’ responsibility to get to those stations.
Currently, Fort Polk employs the largest group of Afghan role players, with up to 300 Afghans for 10 training cycles per year. The numbers vary from rotation to rotation.
The question now becomes: What type of work will Rezai, Azemi and others like them find once the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan and no longer needs cultural role players to train troops?
“I am hopeful. I am hopeful. But I am afraid something like when one rotation ends, I just talk to myself, ‘Are they going to call me for the next rotation?’ It has stress,” said Azemi.
Azemi is one of the few exceptions because he has a job waiting for him when he returns home. He is a tall man who uses calm and casual gestures when he talks. He wears frameless glasses and sports a brown corduroy jacket, long dress pants and a leather belt and leather loafers. He could be a doctor or political advisor. Meeting him for the first time, it’s difficult to picture him as a grocery store employee, slicing meat at the deli counter and scanning barcodes on food about to expire.
This is only his second training rotation at JRTC, and when he returns home to Roanoke, Va., he doesn’t take a break. His work schedule rolls right into the same grocery store where his wife decorates cakes. He said his manager loves him so much that he doesn’t mind letting Azemi go for weeks at a time. Azemi also works part-time as a medical interpreter for the Refugee and Immigration Services.
In Pakistan, he taught English to high school students. He felt heartbroken to leave that position in 2009 when he moved to America with his wife. Now he plans to stay in the U.S. and will apply for his citizenship in May.
At a first glance, their professional future looks dim for these Afghans. Many of them recognize this job doesn’t teach any applicable skills. It’s not like they’re going to move to Hollywood and start their acting careers. They can’t go back into the work force to pretend they are town mayors, market vendors or Taliban organizers. They need real jobs with real money involved. The pretend world will eventually come to an end.
But for Razei, this job has actually opened his eyes to a lot of options he never considered before. He is tinkering with the idea of joining the U.S. Army, or even become a language instructor at the Defense Language Institute, which is the schoolhouse where military members go to study language.
Also, all workers are given a thorough security screening: a strong resume booster for future jobs. They can use their supervisors for work reference, rather than applying for a job completely unemployed. Plus the role players have built a networking community and refer one another to new jobs.
According to a site manager who wishes to remain nameless, American Federal Contractors Inc. used to employ the largest group of Iraqi role players at JRTC when the Iraq war was the emphasis of training. He said that he’s kept in touch with many of them and most have moved on to government jobs and the private sector.
Additionally, this job offers the opportunity to interact with Americans, and therefore it softens the initial blow of cultural shock. It integrates Afghans into the American culture and eases their transition.
For example, Azemi said there were several terms of endearment and respect used in Afghanistan that are inappropriate in an American setting. The first few months working in the U.S., he would call his superiors “uncle” (káká in Dari) or even “sweetie” (aziz man meaning “my dear”), which gained him odd looks and defensive responses.
But a major reason for why they do this job is due to a strong moral conviction.
“I’ve heard from many soldiers that, after doing this (training), the number of casualties reduce… Imagine an 18-year-old or a 22-year-old who lived all of his life in Texas so if he goes into Afghanistan without ever seeing this training, he’s totally going to be shocked,” said Rezai.
This is a major reason many Afghans do this work.
“It makes me feel I’m here to hopefully save the lives of maybe one more American soldier and maybe one more Afghan civilian. This is kind of morally some of what we think. It helps both protect Afghans and Americans,” he said.
Another reason is the work pays well compared to most service or entry-level jobs. The Afghans get paid at an hourly rate.
Rezai didn’t find it appropriate to discuss salary, but he said that if he could do this full time, it would be enough to buy a house and live a comfortable life. This job has helped him financially to pay for eye surgery, get married and move from Houston to San Jose, Calif. He currently takes online classes on graphic and web design.
Some companies even pay bonuses for referrals to find new Afghan role players. Several Afghans said they use part of their salary to help family members back in the Middle East. A few have been able to put money aside each month toward a new business.
This is not a career option for the long haul, but it is temporary relief until the deployments end.
There is also a nostalgic reason for why many Afghans take on this job. Those who enjoy coming to these training centers have an opportunity to reconnect with fellow Afghan brothers and sisters. On any given rotation, 200 to 300 Afghans rejoin. They spend their hours together in mock villages to recreate a pretend “Afghanistan” for soldiers’ training.
“If I lose this job… I will miss it definitely,” said Azemi.
There is no certainty to what types of jobs are waiting for these Afghan contractors. For more than ten years, American forces have worked to build relationships and produce jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan. These contractors can only hope that once all troops return home, those relationships will continue to grow on this side of the globe.