Mohammed Younus Yousafzoy walked off Lufthansa Flight 440, bleary-eyed and dizzy from the two-day trip from Kabul.
Then the 24-year-old Afghan spotted his former boss, Mike Hudson, waiting for him, and smiled with surprise and happiness.
“When I saw him, I thought, ‘I have a family now,’ ” he said Thursday. “I don’t have to worry.”
For Hudson, a U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel now stationed at Ellington Joint Reserve Base, the relief was just as tangible.
“It was overwhelming,” he said of watching his old interpreter finally arrive.
The moment was four years in the making, a trip Hudson feared Yousafzoy might not live long enough to make.
Yousafzoy — who also goes by “Jay” — had begun translating for American-led forces in 2011, when he was 17. He started working as Hudson’s interpreter in 2013.
They lived in the same forward operating base, supporting U.S. Army Special Operations teams trying to help local villages rid themselves of the Taliban. Now he’ll be living in Hudson’s suburban home in southeast Houston as he settles into a new culture and way of life.
“Jay is a special kind of guy,” said Hudson, 44. “He didn’t judge anybody. He was very honest, very forthright. … He would represent me. They were judging me by what they’d see in him.”
WAIT TIME OVER 900 DAYS
Yousafzoy arrived at Bush Intercontinental Airport Wednesday after receiving a special immigrant visa available to interpreters and others who helped the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. The visas were first approved by Congress in 2009 under the Afghan Allies Protection Act, but have dwindled in recent years.
The delays have left thousands of former interpreters — who risked their lives to help the U.S. military since 2001 — waiting to get out of the countries where their support has now exposed them to additional dangers and violence.
The average processing time for a special immigrant visa is now more than 900 days, said Henrike Dessaules, with the New York-based International Refugee Assistance Project.
“Every day is of the essence, so any delay like that could be the death sentence for one of our clients,” she said.
Yousafzoy wanted to come to Texas because of Hudson and his family but also because he’d heard of its reputation for diversity, of opportunities for immigrants — and because of the heat.
In Kandahar, Yousafzoy and Hudson worked side by side, coaxing governors of local districts to improve conditions for farmers so they could grow crops besides poppies. They encouraged officials from the United Arab Emirates to invest in Afghanistan by visiting local villagers.
They worked together to coordinate with local police and military to try to improve security.
On his off time, Yousafzoy studied and lifted weights.
Six months later, in 2013, Hudson returned home from Afghanistan. Soon after, Hudson got a panicked email from Yousafzoy.
His application for a special interpreters visa had been held up. What should he do and could Hudson help?
Hudson wrote letters to the State Department and contacted the embassy in Kabul but couldn’t get any answers. “It’s definitely something that kept me up at night,” Hudson said. “Other interpreters I worked with before — none of them are alive. I didn’t want to see that happen again.”
Almost two years later, Hudson returned to Afghanistan on another deployment. He got Yousafzoy rescreened and then hired him for a new assignment with a group of advisers training Afghan commandos and special forces.
He figured that assignment would keep Yousafzoy safe. Then he sought help from lawyers in Chicago and from the International Refugee Assistance Project.
‘HE JUST NEVER WAVERED’
More than 9,000 applicants are still waiting for their visas, according to a U.S. government report issued in September on the status of the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Program.
The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, meanwhile, estimates more than 1,000 Iraqi interpreters died at the hands of terror groups. Unknown others have died in Afghanistan.
Yousafzoy got word in October that his visa had come through.
“Our client never wavered — he just never wavered,” said Julie Fournier, an attorney with Chicago-based Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg firm, which handled his case.
Yousafzoy told his parents he’d been approved. His mother — who has diabetes and fainting spells — was happy he would be safe but sad he was going so far away.
“It was hard for me to let her go,” Yousafzoy said. He didn’t let her accompany him to the airport because he worried she might become so distraught she’d collapse.
He said goodbye to his four sisters — the youngest is 7 — and two brothers, and packed his bags. Then came the trip, through Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Frankfurt, Germany, and on to Houston, where he met Hudson, his wife, Cristela, and Yullina, their 7-year-old daughter.
‘EVERYTHING IS NEW’
Thirty-nine minutes after he landed in Texas, two days after he left Kabul and four years after he first applied to come to the United States, Yousafzoy walked out of Bush airport with his mentor.
In Hudson’s blue Honda Odyssey, they drove the 40 minutes to Hudson’s spacious home in southeast Houston — a quick trip, Yousafzoy thought, compared to the clogged arteries of Kabul.
He carried his backpack and two other bags into the second-floor bedroom and dropped them on the thick carpet.
He knew there would be much to do over the next few days. A caseworker from Catholic Charities would be by Thursday to show him around town and help him obtain his Social Security card, his drivers license and everything else he’d need to begin life as an immigrant in the U.S.
On Saturday, the Hudsons plan to pick up a Christmas tree.
Yousafzoy had to figure out his education, as well. Because of his job, he stopped attending school in the 10th grade but took annual exams, instead.
“I’d love to go back to school,” he said.
And he wants to find a local gym to continue the bodybuilding regimen that has left him able to squat 450 pounds and bench 125-pound dumbbells.
But first came dinner — Texas barbecue. Downstairs, there’d be smoked chicken, macaroni and cheese, Spanish rice — he’d tried that before — and some brisket.
And there were neighbors to meet.
A new town. A new country. A lot to take in.
“I’m sure I’ll have some thoughts soon,” he said, smiling. “But now I don’t. … Everything is new.”