Despite political differences, Ottawa Co. families unite to save Afghan interpreter

Ottawa County

HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — When Bill Christensen saw News 8’s story about an Ottawa County veteran’s efforts to bring an Afghan interpreter to the U.S., he knew he had to help.

“First, the story got under my skin. Then, it reached my heart, and I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something,'” recalled the Holland business owner.

Christensen was particularly moved when Army First Sgt Gerald Keen described the close bond he’d built with the translator when the pair worked together on Keen’s Army base in Afghanistan.

“(Keen) talked about him as a ‘son,’ and I can’t let someone lose a son,” explained Christensen, whose own son, Jeff, died in 2009 from a drug overdose at age 21.  

“Jeff was the most compassionate human being, and this is a fight he would have taken on. He would have seen the injustice here. This is something he would have stood up for,” said Christensen, who works to honor and remember his son through acts of compassion.

Christensen first donated to a GoFundMe page set up by Gerald and Lynnette Keen to help with their efforts to support the interpreter who risked his life to serve U.S. troops.

Rahim, a 28-year-old husband and father of four young children, is one of thousands of Afghan allies to whom America promised fast-tracked visa consideration.

Right now, more than 17,000 Special Immigrant Visa applicants, including Rahim, remain stuck in Afghanistan as America prepares to withdraw its troops.

Already, Taliban violence has escalated, and thousands of interpreters, including Rahim, are among its targets.

One of Rahim’s relatives, also a translator, was shot and killed — allegedly by Taliban — as he drove his ten-year-old son to school.

“I felt an overwhelming urge to reach out to (Rahim) and the Keen family,” recalled Bill Christensen.

“This (interpreter) has served the United States of America,” Christensen said. “There are many Americans here today, alive, with all of their limbs, because of people like him. We made a promise to them,” he said, referring to the United States’ pledge to help Afghan allies move to America if they choose to do so.

Christensen was preparing to reach out to the Keens directly when his wife noted some posts on Lynnette Keen’s Facebook page.

“She said, ‘you do realize Lynnette’s on the liberal side,'” recalled Christensen.

Indeed, a quick review of both family’s Facebook pages makes clear their political differences.

In one post, Christensen declared President Donald Trump one of the best leaders America has ever had, showing a picture of Trump, Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln against an American flag backdrop.

Lynnette, on the other hand, described Trump as an “idiot” in one of her posts.

But both families quickly recognized that politics has no place in the cause at hand.

“None of that stuff matters right now,” said Christensen to the Keens, when the two couples met Thursday evening to strategize over dinner.

“From opposite sides of the spectrum, we can find common ground and get things done. Don’t focus on what we can’t agree on, focus on what we can. The only thing that matters is getting Rahim and his family here to you,” Christensen said.

Lynnette Keen said she’s grateful for Christensen’s willingness to help and the bipartisan bond the families have developed.

“We’ve joined forces. From both sides. Both sides of the aisle, as they say,” she said.

The Keens, who keep in touch with Rahim weekly through online video chats, have been working to get the translator’s visa approved since Gerald left Afghanistan five years ago.

“I don’t think this is a Republican or Democrat issue,” said Gerald Keen.

“I think it’s about humanity,” he said. “(Rahim and I) went through some very intense moments together. Mortar fire. Small arms fire. Indirect Fire. Taliban trying to get on our compound. War. I trusted him with not only my life, but with my guys’ lives. He led us through the dark moments on trust alone.”

To Gerald Keen, the war is not over until they bring the allies home.

“They fought side by side with us every day,” Gerald Keen said. “We got to go home. They’re still fighting every day to survive. It’s unimaginable.”

The Keens, who plan to have Rahim and his family stay with them initially, provide financial support so Rahim’s daughters can attend school.

The Grand Haven couple also funded solar power for Rahim’s home, purchased a washing machine and had a submersible pump installed to make water more accessible.

Rahim shares the pump with the rest of his village.

The Christensens, too, are building a relationship with Rahim, talking to him often via Facebook.

On Thursday, in an online video chat with the Keens, Rahim talked about his conversations with the Christensens.

“He’s very worried about me and my family’s future. He is very excited to take me out from Afghanistan to U.S.” said Rahim over Facebook, noting that Christensen offered him a job at his business, Christensen Fiberglass in Holland.

Rahim is grateful for the support from both families — the Keens and the Christensens.

“He refers to me now as ‘uncle’, and I requested that,” explained Bill Christensen.

“I said, ‘if (the Keens) are going to be your parents, I want to be your uncle.’ So it’s Aunt Shelly and Uncle Bill,” Christensen said.

In addition to donating to the GoFundMe page, the Christensens have already sent letters to Michigan’s congressional delegation regarding the plight of Afghan interpreters.

They’re urging others to do the same.

The Association of Wartime Allies, an advocacy group that’s urging the prompt evacuation of Afghan allies to safe harbor countries, published a step-by-step guide on what you can do to help.

You can help by writing to your local representatives, such as Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Rep. Peter Meijer, Rep. Bill Huizenga and Sen. Gary Peters. You can also write to the White House.

The State Department, which oversees the special immigrant visa program, told News 8 it remains committed to Afghans who served the U.S. government at great personal risk.

“We are processing SIV applications as quickly as we possibly can,” wrote a state department spokesperson in an email exchange with News 8.

“The Department of State has prioritized the Afghan SIV program by identifying process improvements and directing additional resources as necessary, including by augmenting staff to process applications as expeditiously as possible. Additional resources include augmenting domestic staff in Washington to process applications. The Department also approved a temporary increase in consular staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to conduct interviews and process visa applications and will continue to do so contingent on the security situation in country,” the spokesperson wrote.

Meanwhile, the Keens and Christensens are strategizing what they can do to put additional pressure on the American government.  

“You’re only as good as your word,” explained Christensen, referring to America’s promise to give expedited visa consideration to Afghans who worked for U.S. troops.

“You’ve got to do what you say you’re going to do. If you told them you’re going to get them out, then you get them out,” Christensen said. “I hate to be embarrassed as an American by what our government is doing. I hate for them to behave in such an unethical manner. It’s degrading to us as a nation. To us as a people.”

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