Mohammed Farzan was a lawyer and an interpreter in Afghanistan. Now he'll settle for any job in Virginia that can deliver a steady paycheck.
"I'll do admin jobs, I'll look at some manual labor. Whatever we have to do to survive," the 35-year-old immigrant said, smiling. "We've been here for five months now, and we just keep spending money. I've got to get back working."
In his homeland, finding work wasn’t a problem. Farzan worked three years as an interpreter for U.S. troops fighting the against Taliban insurgents, and three years after that with various American agencies and contractors. The money was good. His family’s safety wasn’t.
But survival has taken on a new meaning in his new home. His Afghan legal knowledge is worthless to Virginia law firms. Online job applications that ask for proof of an American high school diploma or simple employer references filter him out before every interview stage.
"The best I have gotten is an email that says 'thank you for applying,'" he said.
That’s what brought him Thursday to Nationals Park, about a mile south of Capitol Hill, for a veterans-only job fair held by RecruitMilitary. The firm has held almost 100 such events across the country in the last year, but the Washington, D.C., fair was one of the first to admit foreign interpreters alongside the U.S. service members.
"They've earned special status through their service," said Peter Gudmundsson, CEO of RecruitMilitary. "A lot of them did great work protecting our men in women in those conflicts. We need to show we are grateful as a nation for that."
Officials teamed with the non-profit No One Left Behind, which works to help resettle translators from the two war zones to the United States. For individuals like Farzan, that process can take years, and "success" means still having to integrate into a new community and culture.
And finding a job can be an incredible new challenge, even for individuals who have already faced plenty of them.
Farah Marcolla, right, fills out an information form for PNC Bank during a March 24, 2016, job fair at National Park in Washington. Marcolla worked with the U.S. military as an interpreter during the Iraq war and later fled to the United States seeking safety and a fresh start.
Photo Credit: Alan Lessig/Staff
Farah Marcolla, who started working as a linguist and engineer for U.S. troops in Baghdad at age 18, spent seven years waiting for her visa paperwork to go through. Because of her ties to American forces, her house was burned down, her father kidnapped, and her husband killed.
She was forced to move to Turkey with her two young sons when, in 2012, American forces closed down Camp Victory — her only refuge from angry militants — in 2012. Her visa paperwork was finally approved in 2013, and shortly after moving here she remarried a Navy service member who helped shepherd her family here.
But the 31-year-old still wants to give back in some way, and has been trying for two years to find a job putting her language skills and wartime experience to work. So far, hundreds of resumes have produced only one job interview.
"Even after you have a green card," she said, "it’s very difficult to get companies to look at you," she said. "I’m not quite sure what I can qualify for. What I am sure of is if I get an opportunity, I can be great."
Before Thursday's event, staffers from No One Left Behind prepped the interpreters on how to present themselves to potential employers, how to ready their resumes, how to quickly explain their background and skills.
RecruitMilitary implored employers to take a close look at the immigrants, and to think about them in the same light as the veterans seeking jobs: smart, skilled individuals with a background of impressive skills and noble service.
The interpreters totaled only about 15 of the 450-plus job seekers at the event, and Gudmundsson said he expects similar small percentages at future events. But the point isn't the number, it's the opportunity.
Farzan said he was appreciative of that chance.
Anthony Paolino, left, from General Dynamics, speaks with Farah Marcolla, right, during a March 24, 2016, jobs fair. Marcolla is an Iraqi interpreter who worked with the U.S. military and government in her home county.
Photo Credit: Alan Lessig/Staff
Several of the 20-plus company representatives gave him potential leads. A representative from Heavy Construction Academy promised to upload his and other interpreters' resumes into their jobs database, which includes a broad array of construction, engineering and training firms.
Other recent job fairs have been far less welcoming and productive, he said. He's hopeful he'll get a call back for an interview soon.
"It was difficult for me to leave [Afghanistan], but it was the right decision for myself and my wife and my daughter," he said. "But for us to stay here, I have to find work."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.