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Fleeing fear, finding freedom: an Afghan interpreter arrives in St. Peters


More than 7,200 miles now lie between ZZ and her family. Between ZZ and the Taliban. 

The 24-year-old was one of the passengers on the last commercial flight to leave Afghanistan. Approximately 10 hours later, the Taliban had control of the airport in Kabul, where thousands of Afghans, who helped the U.S. and its allies in their 20 years in Afghanistan, remained alongside U.S. troops. 

In the early morning hours of Aug. 15, ZZ (a nickname) left her home in Afghanistan with her family and headed to the airport in Kabul. She covered her entire body in a burqa for the 40-minute trip. 

Upon her family’s arrival at the airport, she said she was thinking, “I’m safe right now” because there were military people there.

With the situation rapidly changing as Taliban forces closed in, ZZ couldn’t be sure the flight would take off as planned. Fearing a delay or cancellation, she said relief didn’t come until the plane took off. 

“I couldn’t control my happy tears,” she said.

In Afghanistan, ZZ became good friends with Capt. Katy Smith, who returned from her overseas deployment to stand by ZZ’s side in St. Peters on Aug. 26. ZZ calls Smith her best friend and says they’ll be “friends forever.” (Photo: Cassandra Langley)

At her new home in St. Peters, ZZ is still surrounded by U.S. military – a family she knows and loves. She is staying with U.S. Navy Lt. Allen Nash and his wife, C.J. ZZ met Nash in 2019 while working as an interpreter in Afghanistan.

Her journey to interpreter (her first mission came in 2012) and her eventual arrival in St. Peters began in 2011, when she was kidnapped by the Taliban, escaped and given safe haven by the U.S. military. With help from the U.S., ZZ got an education and learned how to type, write and speak Dari, Farsi, Pashto and English. Not only did she need to learn the common usage of those languages, she also needed to learn how to translate technical engineering speak into languages where such terms did not exist. 

“It wasn’t easy and she did it with amazing grace and charm,” Nash said.

ZZ also studied politics in college in Kabul. 

“She’s an advocate not only for Afghans, but for women,” said Nash. “The current story with Afghan – you’ll learn if you put the parallels together, it parallels well with our suffrage, problems that we had to go through about 100 years ago. And by the Taliban doing what they did, [they] stepped back another 100 years.”

ZZ risked her life as an interpreter working with the U.S. military and coalition forces in Afghanistan. She’s as grateful to them as they are to her, and as proud. 

Despite the death threats her family received while ZZ worked as an interpreter, they encouraged her to continue. Her brother was kidnapped with her in 2011 and received threats while she was supporting coalition forces in Afghanistan. 

“[My family] was saying, ‘What you’re doing is the right thing. Keep doing it,’” ZZ said.  

One of the people who played an instrumental role in securing ZZ’s travel to the U.S. was Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) and his staff, who worked to secure a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) for ZZ and many others. SIVs for Afghan interpreters who supported the U.S. have been available since 2014 but face backlogs and a burdensome paperwork load. 

As for what is next for ZZ she said she will return to school. Educated as she is, she still needs to get her U.S. GED certificate. She also plans to pursue a master’s degree in international politics or journalism and she will continue to work on her English pronunciation to help her with the book she plans to write. 

Recalling her first National Anthem on American soil, which came at a marching band practice, ZZ said, “I stand up and put my hand on my chest and I was feeling proud and thinking that finally I’m able to start my new life with peace and safety.”

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