Dozens of U.S. soldiers battling the Taliban in Afghanistan relied on a young man named Faisal Razmal to look out for them. He was their interpreter, a savvy, fun-loving guy who kept them loose in the face of death.
Razmal routinely navigated deadly situations, sometimes identifying Taliban posing as Afghan soldiers. He and his special response teams survived roadside bombs and firefights. All the while, he risked his life just by associating with Americans.
Razmal, 28, managed to make it out of Afghanistan alive – only to be assaulted in Sacramento. He had left a war zone, found a seemingly safe new home in Sacramento with hundreds of other Afghan refugees, and then suffered the type of violence he thought he had escaped.
Today, his left eye throbs with pain from a piece of shrapnel that severed his optic nerve. Razmal was ambushed by a neighborhood teenager who shot him with a flare gun outside his Arden Arcade apartment last summer, police said.
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He had just ended his security guard shift and returned to the Skyview Villa apartments, a complex of beige stucco buildings on Edison Avenue just south of Business 80. It was a warm August night, and he had gathered some former interpreters in the parking lot to tell them about job openings at the Citrus Heights shopping center where he worked.
Police say a group of teens approached the Afghans, and one of them, a 16-year-old named Renardo Dejour Williams, demanded cash and cellphones from Razmal and his fellow Afghans.
Razmal, a teddy bear of a guy with a slight paunch, tried the diplomatic skills he had used in the Afghan conflict. “I said, ‘Why do you do this? Put down your pistol, we’ll talk,’ ” he recalled. They left, then came back a few minutes later. It was then, police said, that Williams shot Razmal in the face.
“It felt like my face was on fire,” Razmal remembered three days later. He crumpled to the ground, screaming. A neighbor called 911.
Razmal said he was afraid to return from UC Davis Medical Center to the apartment complex that he and about 50 other Afghans and their families now call home.
“It was my dream to be in a safe place; back in my country, the Americans told me to come to the U.S.,” Razmal said shortly after the shooting. “But what happened here is more than everything I faced in Afghanistan.”
Razmal and Skyview Villa’s other Afghan residents came to Sacramento with Special Immigrant Visas granted because of their service alongside U.S. and NATO forces. Many of these new arrivals have been grouped together by refugee resettlement agencies in low-rent apartment complexes in Sacramento County.
Skyview is occupied almost entirely by Afghan refugees, said Dr. Fahim Pirzada, a special visa holder and former protocol officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. He now works as a medical translator and runs a nonprofit called VIRTIS (Veterans, Immigrants and Refugee Trauma Institute of Sacramento) to help his countrymen deal with trauma.
Skyview, he said, “has become a refugee camp.”
‘Third World’ housing
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Some high-ranking American veterans and public officials say the predicament of Skyview’s Afghan residents is not unusual – it’s being replicated all over the country. They say the United States has fallen far short of providing adequate housing and resettlement services for people who put their lives on the line.
The chorus of critics includes U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, who authored the 2008 law allowing Afghans who worked for the U.S. in the war to qualify for Special Immigrant Visas.
“Before we are done, we will have probably spent $2 trillion on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and its aftermath, and we can’t spend the time and money to deal with people who protected Americans and made it possible for them to successfully operate,” Blumenauer said, his voice breaking, in a phone interview with The Sacramento Bee. “The quality of SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) housing can be downright Third World. We have an obligation to smooth their re-entry into society, to help them with accommodations that are not primitive, that are safe.”
In Sacramento County, most of the new Afghan arrivals have been placed in housing by four refugee resettlement agencies: International Rescue Committee, World Relief, Opening Doors and the Sacramento Food Bank. They are housed in a dozen apartment complexes – places Razmal and his friends call “compounds” – that offer relatively low rent and aren’t particular about the immigrants’ lack of a U.S. credit history.
Skyview Villa, where Razmal lives with his wife and two young children, has become a focal point of anger among its Afghan residents. They point to horrific roach and bedbug infestations, and say their landlord does little to keep criminals from trespassing.
“Faisal was trying to help friends,” said fellow refugee Shafiulla Hotak. “Now, most of us are looking to move.”
Skyview’s owner, local real estate investor Sumit Sharma, said he has worked hard to clean up the complex, which he bought in 2012. He said the Afghans are good tenants and a vast improvement over the gang members, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes who previously inhabited Skyview. He said he charges the refugees about $700 a month and takes a lenient approach if the rent check is late.
Afghan special visa holders, he said, are “the cream of the country.”
“They helped us in the war and put their lives in danger because of us,” he said.
Sharma’s Afghan tenants contend that their lives are still in danger. Some report seeing gunfire outside their windows. Cockroaches skitter on the floors and walls in daylight. Bedbug bites leave inflamed red welts on their children, who scratch day and night.
Like many busy streets in the unincorporated county, Edison Avenue lacks sidewalks. Each day, Afghan women and children walk on the road’s shoulder on their way to and from the nearby elementary school. A newly arrived engineer, Mustafa Rafi, was hit and killed on this road last year, and his young son gravely injured. Dr. Najai Mohib was also struck and injured as she walked her daughter in the bike lane. She and her family have since moved out of Skyview.
Resettlement agencies say they don’t have many housing options, given the refugees’ limited resources. Razmal wasn’t placed in Skyview; he moved there on his own because he heard other Afghans lived there and that Sacramento – which has resettled tens of thousands of refugees from around the globe since 1989 – was a good place to launch a new life.
“The complexes have allowed people to stay there who have no rental history,” said Cherilyn Neider, who teaches an acculturation class for refugees at the International Rescue Committee, the region’s largest resettlement agency.
The State Department offers Special Immigrant Visas to Afghans who risked their lives translating and providing other services to U.S. and allied forces during the war on terror. Sacramento's ethnic diversity and mild climate have made it a magnet for these refugees, making California’s capital city home to 2,000 Afghans with these special visas. Their transition has been difficult. They’ve faced poverty and violence, and some long for their war-torn homeland. Jessica KoscielniakMcClatchy
Danger back home
Razmal comes from Khoshi district in Logar, a mountainous province not far from the Pakistan border. He describes it as “the worst, most dangerous province in Afghanistan – you don’t know who’s following you.” A suicide bomb in 2011 destroyed a hospital and killed about 30 people, including pregnant women and children in the maternity ward.
“If I stay there, maybe some of my family works with the Taliban and hands me over, so the Taliban will kill me, and they will take my property,” he said.
His cousin, who joined the Afghan National Army in 2013, was one of the casualties, Razmal said. He was shot in front of his 5-year-old son when members of the Taliban noticed his American pistol.
Razmal worked as a mechanic in Afghanistan. But he also had an affinity for languages. In addition to English, Razmal speaks Pashto and Dari, Afghanistan’s main languages. He signed on as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in 2009 and worked alongside American troops for five years.
Three times, while transporting high-ranking officers or defense contractors from one base to another, Razmal’s convoys were attacked by insurgents.
U.S. soldiers who served with Razmal said they are alive today because of their Afghan interpreters. U.S. Army Staff Sgt. David Granillo, 31, worked with Razmal as U.S. forces trained the Afghan army to take over. Granillo now lives in Ripon, San Joaquin County. He said Razmal and the other interpreters helped identify Taliban or other insurgents who had infiltrated the ranks of the Afghan recruits.
“Faisal had his ear to the ground, picking up any signals,” Granillo said. “On any given day, he’d be able to tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Maybe we need to go over here today, or put on our body armor.’ ”
Part of what made Razmal so effective was his natural sense of humor – which he used to bridge the two cultures, Granillo said.
“Faisal is a million laughs,” Granillo said. “He was a goofball, a contemporary guy in a strict Muslim country caught in the struggle between his proper Muslim upbringing and a more Western style, being able to cut loose. If there was a party in Kabul, he’d be able to find it.”
Granillo said once during the month of Ramadan in November 2009, when the Afghan soldiers’ Muslim faith required them to fast from sunrise to sundown, he looked for Razmal. “I finally found him in our Humvee, crouched down eating Pop-Tarts and drinking Gatorade,” he said. “He said he ‘never liked that rule.’ ”
Granillo said two of the team’s interpreters are now in California. A third was killed when he returned to his village last year.
“It’s good to see these guys get special visas to get out of that dangerous situation, but it’s mind-boggling that (Razmal) grew up in a war zone, survived the most dangerous situations and had an active part in the global war on terror, and comes over here and gets shot in the face with a flare gun. It sucks.”
John Schloeder, a team leader in the Army infantry, now works as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson, S.C. He said Razmal and other translators took the greatest risks of any coalition troops, both out in the field and inside their villages. “One out of every three translators I’ve had has either gotten shot or maimed while over there,” he said. “They’re known targets – seen with U.S. troops all the time – and are constantly receiving threats on their lives.”
They survived sniper attacks, firefights and IEDs together, and Razmal was always willing to go out into the local community to get chicken wraps or naan for the U.S. soldiers so they wouldn’t have to eat their plastic-wrapped military meals, Schloeder said.
“He was serious, but you’d never know it,” Schloeder said. “He always came off as a very happy guy, always tried to bring up our morale and help us out as much as possible.”
They thought of him as one of their own. They helped him write a résumé and apply for a visa.
Promise falls short
Razmal enjoyed a comfortable life in Afghanistan. He and his wife, Madeema, now 22, shared a spacious three-bedroom apartment in Kabul with his brother’s family, in a neighborhood he described as nice and clean, about a mile and a half from the U.S. Embassy.
Razmal said the U.S. Army paid him $665 a month when he was in Kabul, and $915 a month when he saw combat outside the capital. That doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a sizable sum in a country whose average annual per capita income is about $680.
As the war wound down, Razmal said he knew returning to his hometown in Logar would have been too dangerous.
“Everybody knew I worked for the U.S., and we are targeted,” he said. “One of the interpreters I know was stopped on his way home to visit his village on a regular bus, and they pulled him out of the bus, cut off his head, and then posted a picture on Facebook and the media saying, ‘This is what we will do to other interpeters.’ ”
In November 2014, Razmal arrived in the U.S. with Madeema and their baby daughter, Bib Maryam, now 2. They settled in Texas, then moved briefly to Edmunds, Wash., where he found work as a security guard. They relocated to Sacramento in June after friends told him Afghan refugees were flocking here. Last November, the couple had a second child, a son, Malik Mohammad Omar Razmal.
Razmal quickly landed a $10-an-hour security job at Marketplace at Birdcage Shopping Center in Citrus Heights. He drove to work in a 1998 gold diesel Mercedes he bought for few thousand dollars. The Razmals moved into Skyview Villa, where they pay $625 a month for a one-bedroom apartment furnished with items found on Craigslist and in thrift stores. The entire family sleeps in the living room, keeping the lights on because they’re afraid bugs will crawl on them.
Razmal posts pictures on Facebook of his daughter wearing colorful dresses and hugging her baby brother in their Sacramento apartment. More photos show him smiling with friends or holding his kids, though in some recent shots he wears sunglasses to protect his wounded eye. The family eats on a tablecloth spread out on their living room floor, the Afghan custom. Razmal’s phone is encased in the American flag.
Yet he said his family is miserable living in Skyview. Madeema’s arms often are covered with bedbug bites, as is her toddler daughter’s scalp.
“They don’t sleep because they’re too busy itching,” Razmal said.
He said he brought one of the little black bugs to the apartment office.“An old man with a jerrycan just sprayed the apartment. He doesn’t say cover the food or protect the kid, he just sprays,” Razmal said. “So I borrowed money, went to Home Depot and got my own bug spray.”
Other threats come from outside the complex’s black metal gates, which are often left open. That was the case the night Williams, Razmal’s alleged assailant, sauntered into the complex with his friends.
Williams is a tall, slender youth with severe asthma. He made the JV basketball team at San Juan High School, but has been in and out of the criminal justice system most of his life, said his mother, Marlo McKelvy. She admitted going to jail for three days for beating him with an extension cord when he was nine, not long after he was expelled from third grade for bringing a steak knife to school in his pocket.
Police said Williams is an active member of the Trigga Mob Gang, which has been linked to drug dealing, robbery, assault and murder. He is currently awaiting trial on charges of felony attempted robbery and assault with a deadly weapon.
McKelvy said she doesn’t believe her son is guilty. He told her one of his friends was the shooter. “Renardo’s been misbehaving, but he’s not cruel or evil,” she said. “He did not shoot anybody in the eye, and now he’s facing life in prison.”
Sharma, Skyview’s owner, said he heard that Razmal’s assailant was related to one of the tenants he evicted from the complex. “The poor guy was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “Faisal’s a good fellow who is pretty much helping everyone around him.”
Bills pile up
Razmal spent two days in UC Davis Medical Center following the shooting. Doctors there told him he was blind in his left eye and they might have to replace it with a glass eye.
During a visit last September, Dr. Nathaniel Gebhard, the ophthalmology resident handling Razmal’s case, said the eye looked better and they might not have to replace it. But he did not offer any hope that Razmal would regain his sight.
“There’s a piece of shrapnel that has severed the optic nerve behind the eye, and at this point, and even if you had millions of dollars to spend, we don’t have the biotechnology to regenerate it,” Gebhard said. “I’m so sorry. … Hopefully in the future you can get back to your life. No heavy lifting, but you’re 20-20 in your right eye and could potentially go back to work in the near future. I would just wear sunglasses outside.”
While he recovered, Razmal smoked marijuana to ease the pain and watched Afghan TV and American films, especially those with Jean-Claude Van Damme, who made several action thrillers set in Afghanistan. Dinner was often Little Caesar’s veggie pizza with ketchup. His medical costs were covered by Medi-Cal and the California Victim Compensation Program.
By January, Razmal was laying the groundwork for a new life in Hayward or Fremont, home to many well-established Afghans. Madeema had given birth to their son. He got a big boost from the victim compensation fund, which awarded him $6,000, three months’ salary, to offset his lost wages as a security guard.
But by spring that money was gone. He now receives $710 a month in cash assistance and $520 in food stamps from the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Razmal sat in his apartment talking about his situation. He sank into the plush red sofa he’d found on Craigslist. On the wall above him hung the Muslim protection prayer found in many Afghan homes. He and Madeema hung the prayer after their new son was born.
Razmal clutched a new batch of papers he needed to fill out in his year-long effort to get disability benefits. The latest snafu: his family’s move to an upstairs apartment, which the couple thought would be safer.
“They said they don’t have my new address on file and have to start over,” he said.
Razmal said he’s ready to get back to work, but it’s been hard to find a job that pays enough. In response to the shooting, Sharma hired an Afghan-owned security company to patrol Skyview for $17 an hour. The firm hired Razmal, but would pay him only $10 an hour. When he asked for more, they let him go. The complex subsequently canceled the contract.
Right now he is helping a friend who works for the new security contractor at the complex do security at night. His friend splits the money with him. “Every little bit helps,” Razmal said. Neither of them wants to patrol the complex alone.
Razmal said he tried washing dishes and cars and worked as a gas station janitor. The jobs paid $10 an hour, but the dishwashing job was only three days a week, three hours a day, and the car washing and janitorial jobs offered no guarantee of hours, either. And if he works too many hours, he said, his food stamps and welfare will be cut.
Razmal said he owes $650 on his credit card, and more than $4,000 to Afghan friends who have loaned him money to pay his rent. “I’ve gotten three eviction notices with three days’ notice,” he said on the verge of tears. “I have no food, no money, no nothing. I applied for disability nine months ago and haven’t received one penny.”
Meanwhile, he said, his left eye still itches and is getting worse, but he’s had several eye doctor’s appointments canceled. “I was told I had to go through a primary care physician, but my family doctor couldn’t see me for more than a month,” he said. “I can only read a few lines, and I’m feeling dizzy.”
Razmal said he is seeking psychological treatment for trauma and memory loss.
Hoping for job, justice
Madeema Razmal sometimes breaks down in tears in frustration with their situation. She has watched her husband deal with losing his job, his sight in one eye and his stature as a person who takes care of others. His left eye now droops and the pupil doesn’t track properly. The couple worry that his appearance will prevent employers from hiring him.
“He has no job, nobody to help him,” Madeema said. “And his relatives in Afghanistan won’t leave him alone.”
On Fridays, Razmal takes care of his baby son so Madeema can attend English class, and some weekends he goes to the Bay Area to scout out possible apartments and jobs. “I want to move to a clean area; I don’t want my kids to grow up in this area,” he said. “There are still drug dealers in the complex. I want to get a permanent job working with human beings.”
He wants to see justice done and doesn’t understand why the court system here is so slow. “I picked the guy out of a photo lineup in three seconds and I recognized him in court,” he said. “I worked with U.S. Army Intelligence in Afghanistan, and I know how to recognize a person who’s a bad guy. I’ll never forget his face or his voice.”
Razmal said he’s worn out by the events of the past year. “The world is too big in the United States – nobody does their job and everybody passes it on.”
Doctors have told him there is no way to restore sight in his blind eye, but Razmal can’t help but think things would be different – if he had money. “I think to myself, how this is the United States, it’s a powerful country,” he said. “They do a lot of things, but they can’t fix my eye?”
The Bee’s Phillip Reese and Renée C. Byer contributed to this report.
Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini