A heartfelt story of war, friendship, and language
BY CAMERON RASMUSSON
Interpreters already face a stressful enough job. But for Saifullah Haqmal and his brother Ismail, their work was a matter of life and death.
Their decision to assist the US military as interpreters during the War in Afghanistan forged a lifelong friendship with soldier Robert Ham. But as the Taliban regrouped and ultimately retook the country following the American withdrawal in 2021, the brothers found their lives endangered. Though promised safety in America in return for their language service, bureaucracy often moves slower than the situation demands, and Haqmal found himself reaching out to an old friend in hopes of expediting his family’s escape.
The harrowing story is told with heart and verve in the new documentary Interpreters Wanted. Directed by Ham, the documentary follows both the filmmaker during his overseas deployment and Haqmal’s decision to assist the US military as an interpreter. Ham and Haqmal formed a fast friendship over their time serving together, and through both the fraternity and stress of warfare, their bond developed the depth and trust shared by brothers.
“On a day-to-day basis, interpreters do a variety of work,” Ham said. “Some of it is translating pamphlets, speaking with locals, interpreting for the Afghan soldiers, and much more. For most interpreters, working for the US was a death sentence.”
And on a battlefield, danger was everywhere.
“When interpreters went on missions with soldiers, they were also in danger of getting shot in firefights, or blown up in vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, and their families were in the same level of danger,” Ham said. “If these interpreters were found out by the Taliban and captured, they could be executed, from getting shot, to getting their heads cut off, or being held in prisons indefinitely.”
Considering the perilous circumstances, soldiers and interpreters quickly formed a high degree of trust. They worked together in a war that followed them long after they returned to their homes — a war that Ham, in retrospect, doesn’t believe was worth the psychological scars and bloodshed.
“I think, looking back over our engagements in the Middle East since 9/11, we have not reaped the benefits that we were promised,” he said. “In fact, our military may be weaker, we’re trillions of dollars in debt, we have a crisis in the VA with returning veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, other disabilities, and suicide, and we may have caused more harm than good in those countries.”
“We should take a deep look at who we’ve become as a country since 9/11 and learn from our failures so we can make a better future for our children. And specifically toward our Afghan and Iraqi allies. We need to be vigilant in following through with our promise to not leave them behind,” he later added.
Ham learned the lesson of that importance firsthand after his deployment ended, and he returned to the United States, gradually losing touch with Haqmal over time. That changed one day when he received a message from his old friend requesting his help. Though the US promised him relocation to the States for his and his family’s safety, Haqmal experienced difficulty securing his exit from the wartorn country. Each day, he lived in fear that his family would be targeted for reprisal.
“I remember when I first got the text from Saifullah that he was being hunted by the Taliban and that he needed to get out of Afghanistan, and I was heartbroken, angry, and feeling helpless,” Ham said.
It was the beginning of a long journey in which Ham did everything within his power to work his connections, appeal to government officials, and make sure that the US honored its commitment to its interpreters.
“This whole journey has been somewhat of a roller coaster of ups and downs and everything in between,” he said, adding, “It took six years from when I first met Saifullah to get him to America, and when he finally did, it was truly one of the happiest moments of my life.”
After his deployment ended, Ham embarked on a new journey: earning a master’s degree in film and television at the University of Southern California. As he considered potential film projects, he soon realized that his experiences with interpreters in Afghanistan, as well as his and their efforts to bring them to safety, was a story he could not ignore.
“I wrote a short scripted film that was supposed to be my thesis film called The Interpreter about an Afghan translator being hunted by the Taliban,” he said. “My team and I then raised some money on Kickstarter for the film, but we had a lot of production issues and then realized that Saifullah and Ismail’s story was much more compelling and decided to switch to a feature documentary film.”
Veteran interpreter and MultiLingual editorial advisor Barry Slaughter Olsen, as well as interpreter Katharine Allen, played a behind-the-scenes role in bringing the project to the finish line. Through InterpretAmerica, the interpreter professionals raised funds through their peers and colleagues, earning Olsen and Allen producer credits on the film.
“For me, it was a clear example of how the professional interpreting community wanted to show solidarity with interpreters in conflict zones, and InterpretAmerica was able to get the word out to the right audience, which led to the interpreting community helping fund this important film,” Olsen said.
“I am just grateful that we were able to provide crucial support to Robert early on in his creative journey,” he added. “We also provided input at different stages of the creative process. The idea started as a scripted fictional piece based on the stories of Afghan interpreters and, over the last eight or nine years, morphed into the compelling documentary it is today.”
With so many personal emotions wrapped up in the story, managing the mental stress of the project was a challenge in itself. Every day while working on the film, Ham had to balance his personal well-being with the need to tell a complete, accurate account of interpreters’ predicament.
“It was very hard, if not impossible, for me to keep my emotions in check,” he said. “I actually think it made the editing process kind of excruciating, and I am thankful for the help of my co-editor Tyler Gates, but since I was the main editor and was so emotionally attached to it, I needed a ton of notes from folks.”
“I probably have done 30 different cuts of this film and ended up cutting about 15 minutes from it in the last couple of months,” he added. “I’ve found myself to be a very personal filmmaker, and this film is no different. I kind of throw my whole heart out there and hope it finds an audience.”
But at last, the job was complete. The Haqmal family was safe in the United States, and they had a completed cut of the film Interpreters Wanted.
“Now that we’ve finished the film, I’m so thankful, relieved, and excited,” he said. “[There are] so many feelings, and I can’t wait to have others experience it with this film.”
Equally rewarding is the fact that Saifullah and Ismail are thriving in the US, pursuing new opportunities for themselves and their families.
“Saifullah, Ismail, and I talk often,” Ham said. “I consider them brothers. I’m so proud of who they are and how they’ve adapted to being in the US. As you’ll see in the movie, Saifullah is now a US citizen, and Ismail is an advocate for peace for Afghanistan from here in the US (considering he can’t really go back to his home country). Both of them work very hard at a variety of different jobs to raise their families.”
But the reality remains that the US hasn’t yet met its obligations to many interpreters of its overseas wars. It’s a fact that continues to frustrate Ham, who maintains his advocacy for veterans and language workers. Ham believes every US presidential administration from George W. Bush to Joe Biden bears some responsibility in the crisis of over 100,000 Afghan interpreters and their families.
“Ultimately, I’m very dissatisfied with how our government has handled the Special Immigrant Visa Program and our Iraqi and Afghan translator brothers and sisters from day one,” Ham said. “I talk about this in-depth in the film, but putting aside the complete failure of our strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan that led to this humanitarian crisis, the fact that we have such a bogged-down bureaucracy that makes interpreters wait years to get their visas is a horrible injustice.”
And with Interpreters Wanted hitting festivals and screenings, it’s a chance to spread the word about a plight shared by thousands of brave language workers. Ham hopes the film will touch people’s hearts and remind them that the heart of honor is following through on a commitment.
“I think one of the biggest lessons I’d like people to take away from this film on a personal level is when you’re open to friendship with someone you may consider the ‘other,’ you may find that to be your deepest friendship,” Ham said. “As a Christian, my faith teaches me to love others, including my ‘enemy.’ Now I have friends from a place that I never expected, and they’re now my brothers.”
To keep tabs on Interpreters Wanted, learn about screenings, and keep up with Ham’s career, visit hammrproductions.com , subscribe to his blog, follow him on Instagram and Facebook.
Cameron Rasmusson is editor-in-chief of MultiLingual Media.
Subscribe to stay updated between magazine issues.