Afghan refugee who served as interpreter for U.S. Army helps Catholic Charities welcome new arrivals

Wardak says he is indebted to Catholic Charities for their help

Sayed Wardak, a former interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, meets with Afghan refugees at the diocesan offices in Allouez last November. Wardak was hired by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay to interpret for newly arrived Afghan refugees. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

ALLOUEZ — Sayed Wardak, 32, spent five years as a translator for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. In 2016, after nearly a year of hiding from the Taliban and in fear for his life, Wardak and his wife, Sairah, immigrated to the United States.

Knowing firsthand the perils of life in Afghanistan, and the challenges of resettling in a new country, Wardak now assists newly-arrived Afghan refugees in Green Bay as an employee of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay.

Wardak said his part-time role at Catholic Charities is to serve as an interpreter. He helps refugees who speak Dari, the most widely spoken language in Afghanistan, and translates Dari into English for other Catholic Charities staff members. “I take people to the doctor, show them how to find a grocery store, help get their driving license, find jobs and legal documentation,” he told The Compass.

According to Wardak, when he arrived in the United States, he had limited help in making the transition into American society. Making that transition easier for fellow Afghans “means a lot to me,” he said.

“I know the first stuff is hard when you get to a new country,” he said. “You don’t know the culture, you don’t know the people, you don’t know the grocery store. That was hard for me to figure out for myself. Now I know … and that’s why I want to pass it on.”

Wardak, who was born and raised in the Baghlan Province of Afghanistan, attended the Afghan Technical Vocational Institute in Kabul to learn English. He graduated in 2011 and was hired as an interpreter for the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, serving in the Kandahar Province. 

His work with the U.S. military led to death threats from the Taliban. 

They wrote letters and they gave me a phone call when I was in the American base. They called and said, ‘If you don’t quit your job, you will be hurt,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Even if I quit, they are not going to leave me alone.’ That’s what’s happening right now in Afghanistan. People are not in the Army anymore, but they are still individually finding them and killing them right now.”

Wardak said that’s why he went into hiding.

I was at the Army base for three years,” he said. “I was going out, but I was far away from my hometown. Every six months, I had 15 days vacation, but I was not taking it.”

He and his wife, whom he married in 2014, were granted special immigration visas. They paid their own way to fly to the United States and begin a new life in Green Bay, where they stayed for about one month, with a cousin who now lives in Chicago.

One of the first places Wardak turned to for assistance was Catholic Charities, he said.

“When I came here to the United States, I found out about Catholic Charities from one of my friends living in a different state. He said, ‘You go to this place, they will help you out,’” he said. 

“I called So Thao (Catholic Charities refugee resettlement services coordinator) and I went to the office. They took my documentation and gave me some welcome money,” said Wardak.

Each refugee receives money, provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for such things as rent, food and items not covered by donations, according to Tara DeGrave, Catholic Charities associate director. “An initial $150 is given directly to the client. The rest is used for basic needs,” she said.

When Afghan refugees began arriving in Green Bay, following the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, Catholic Charities contacted Wardak.

“With the refugees coming in, they (asked) if I am able to help them out and I said, ‘Yes, sure. Why not?’” he said. “I started helping them. I was working two months as a volunteer and then I was hired part-time.”

According to Karmen Lemke, Catholic Charities director, having Wardak as an interpreter has been a godsend.

“We are grateful to be working with Sayed, who, for many years, was a client of our refugee program,” she said. “Sayed’s story is one that we wish to emulate for our newest arrivals — a story of challenges, but now his success in our community.”

Lemke said Wardak has been “invaluable in helping us welcome the Afghan folks.”

“He has been able to instill in them that Green Bay is a good place to live and work and has much to offer them,” she said. “He is comforting to them, helping bridge a language gap, which has made it so much easier to communicate.”

Lemke said Catholic Charities has welcomed and received 96 Afghan refugees to Green Bay. These include single men, couples and many large families, she added.

“Between now and the second weekend in January, we are preparing to welcome 31 more, for a total of 125,” she said. “We are evaluating our capacity and the community’s capacity to consider assisting more beyond that.”

Wardak said adjusting to a new culture and a new home was a difficult process, but he is happy to enjoy a new life without fear of persecution. Since his arrival, he and Sairah have welcomed two sons, now 2 ½ and 15 months old, and recently purchased a home. He works full-time at a local cheese factory and, on Dec. 21, Wardak became a U.S. citizen. His wife gained her citizenship in October.

“I am so happy I am part of America right now,” he said. “I can vote, I can select my own president. …  I am safe, I can drive at 2 o’clock in the morning. I don’t be scared, but I am still worried about my (siblings) in Afghanistan.”

Wardak has two sisters and two brothers living in Afghanistan. “I don’t know how to figure some way out to get them to the United States,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”

The influx of Afghan refugees may raise questions for some people, said Wardak. He said people should be open and understanding to them.

“The new arrivals, refugees from Afghanistan, they are all nice people,” he said. “They’ve been through a lot of stuff. The culture and everything is different here. I just tell the people who are reading the news to be understanding. If they hear someone doing a mistake, it’s not because they are doing it on purpose. It’s because they don’t know what they are doing.

To let them know the right way, that would be appreciated.”

He is also indebted to the role Catholic Charities plays in helping all refugees.

“Catholic Charities, they are helping them. I know they have a lot of needs right now, because they don’t know anything about the doctor, about the system here, about the law,” he said. “It takes time. It’s hard to learn all about some country you’ve never been to, and even some of them don’t speak English.”

Lemke said community support for Afghan refugees has been inspiring.

“We have been so blessed with many parishes and other faith communities reaching out to help,” she said. “The needs will continue to be many, as we go into 2022 and continue to walk with our arrivals as they begin the next phase of their lives.”

Catholic Charities continues to welcome monetary donations, as well as prayers for the Afghan refugees, said Lemke. To learn more, visit catholiccharitiesgb.org/afghan-assistance.