An Afghan Military Interpreter Finds Footing In The U.S. Gig Economy Ajmal Faqiri came to the U.S. on a Special Immigrant Visa after working as a interpreter and translator for the U.S. military in his home country of Afghanistan. Now, he works the gig economy.

An Afghan Military Interpreter Finds Footing In The U.S. Gig Economy

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Now the latest installment in our series Brave New Workers, about people adapting to the changing economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I need a job, and I don't have a skillset other than flying.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: One day, you might be cleaning the toilet. The next day, you might be doing some potentially Nobel Prize-winning science.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: In 1979, I started my trucking career, and I wanted to have the American dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCAMMON: One of the big economic stories of the past decade has been the rapid growth of private contract work across the United States. According to a recent NPR-Marist poll, 1 in 5 jobs in the U.S. is currently held by a contract worker. Now, the gig economy has been criticized for failing to provide workers the benefits and stability of full-time employment, but it has also allowed many people to supplement their income on a flexible schedule. Ajmal Faqiri has experienced both.

AJMAL FAQIRI: I don't like working as an Uber driver but I have to.

MCCAMMON: Since Faqiri, his wife and their two children emigrated from Afghanistan in 2013, he's worked numerous jobs as he's tried to get a foothold in the U.S. labor market. This isn't the first time that Faqiri has had to navigate a drastically new economic landscape. Growing up in Kabul, he dreamed of becoming a doctor. The war against the Taliban derailed those plans, but it also brought new opportunities. And the whole reason Faqiri has been able to resettle in the U.S. is because of the job he chose in Afghanistan - as an interpreter for the U.S. military.

FAQIRI: I could help save American lives, train Afghan National Army, be the cultural adviser for them and be - talk their language. I started as a translator at the beginning of 2006 all the way to the end of 2013, so almost eight years. But the first four years, I was in the frontline fighting against terrorism, Taliban. And it was very tough job because it was scary. Definitely, you could see bullets crossing your head. And you could see it, but still, you had to go there.

The remaining of the time as a translator, I was in the training centers as a trainer translator between United States troop and Afghanistan troop. When I started working as a translator, there was not even the rumor that they would bring us to the United States. And then things changed. I got some phone calls. A couple of times, people called me and said, you are infidel. You're not Muslim anymore. We will kill you. You're working with the Americans and so on and so on. But that didn't stop me from what I was doing.

It's all about - insurgent - we'll kill any American, any the people who work for them, especially, especially, especially the translators. Once the United States decided to withdraw some of their troops, a lot of people lost their job. I didn't lose my job, but a lot of people did. That was the first thing that was like, OK, once I lose my job, then my duress will be much more higher.

MCCAMMON: The U.S. government enacted the Special Immigrant Visa or SIV program in response to threats on the lives of Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters assisting the U.S. military. But by 2009, the number of visas available through the program was capped at 50 per year.

FAQIRI: I applied for a visa in 2010, and then it took almost three years. And they gave my visa on December 29, 2013. We left Afghanistan the next day, and we came straight to United States. I was happy. And I was sad. I was happy that I was going to go to safety. It was sad because I had to get away from my family, from my loved one, from the people that raised me. They educated. They always supported me. Unfortunately, I had to say bye to them.

When I was in Afghanistan, we were told that we will give you a job. We will give you almost everything. But unfortunately, most of those things, they didn't come through. Seems like I had to do everything by my own. First job I found was in a car wash. And then I had to get the job to start my life in the United States.

MCCAMMON: Since then, Faqiri says he has worked more than 10 different jobs, always on the lookout for better opportunities.

FAQIRI: I worked in construction, mobile furniture store, package delivery man, car sales associate, a realtor, real estate agent.

MCCAMMON: Faqiri still works as a real estate agent but depends on driving for Lyft and Uber to supplement his income. Neither job alone is enough to make ends meet. He says he doesn't always enjoy driving, but his previous job has made it easier.

FAQIRI: It's kind of helped me to improve my English. And also, it kind of like educated me because that's how I learned a lot of things about the United States before coming to the country.

MCCAMMON: Faqiri's now enrolled in college courses and hopes to get a degree in IT. For the time being, he's got a more practical goal.

FAQIRI: I want to have - instead of three, four jobs, I want to have only one job. My biggest hope in the future is I want to send my children to finish their education. As a father, I want to take that responsibility to make sure that I facilitate everything for them that they want. That's the most important thing in my life.

MCCAMMON: That's Ajmal Faqiri, a former U.S. military interpreter from Afghanistan. In addition to his jobs, Faqiri works for No One Left Behind, a non-profit that helps translators and interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan settle in the U.S. He spoke to us for our series Brave New Workers about adapting to a changing economy.

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