Canada’s resettlement program for Afghan interpreters has left families separated

Fatimah was sitting on the couch in the living room of a split-level house in Surrey, BC Her three-year-old son was playing on the carpet with a toy train.

They arrived in Canada two months ago through the government’s Afghan resettlement program and fled the Taliban’s threats to the family because of their work for the Canadian forces.

But even though they no longer have to worry that the Taliban will come to the door to take revenge, this security came with a price.

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Inside Kabul’s secure houses, where Afghans are waiting to be evacuated to Canada

The morning the family was evacuated from Kabul airport on August 25, Canadian officials told them they could not all get on the plane, Fatimah said.

So they had to make a choice: risk staying together in Kabul or separated. They were given time to make a decision.

They decided that Fatimah would take their son, Abid, to Canada, and her husband Mohammad would stay in Afghanistan with their five-year-old daughter.

That way, at least part of the family would be safe.

Fatimah’s family at Kabul airport, August 25, 2021.

Family distribution

“That day was very tough,” Fatimah said in an interview last week. “My daughter wept for me, and my son wept for his father.”

The family has been divided ever since.

In Kabul, Global News interviewed Fatimah’s husband Mohammad, who similarly recalled the pain of watching his wife and son walk.

“It was a difficult moment,” he said.

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Hope shattered by Taliban return, Kabul women see no future in Afghanistan

Four months after the federal government promised to resettle Afghans in the danger zone under the Taliban, less than a tenth of the promised 40,000 have arrived.

Evacuations out of Kabul have stalled, and Afghans waiting to flee to Canada are frustrated by what they see as the slow pace of their applications.

Although many worked for the Canadian forces in Kandahar, they said they struggled to get answers from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Even those accepted by the program have not been able to get out of Afghanistan.

Fatimah, left, watches over his son Abid in Surrey, BC, November 17, 2021.

Stewart Bell / Global News

The government said 9,535 applications had been approved and that additional immigration staff had been sent abroad to help.

“But unlike previous refugee resettlement initiatives (such as Syria), there is no existing infrastructure to support our work,” said Alexander Cohen, spokesman for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser.

“That means it takes longer to set up the program than before,” he said.

The government also worked with allies, neighbors, NGOs and veterans to find ways to get refugees out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Cohen said.

Since Canada stopped the evacuations in August, more than 1,000 Afghans on their way to Canada had fled overland to neighboring countries, he said.

Photo taken by Fatimah’s family at Kabul airport, August 25, 2021.

Family distribution

But fewer than 4,000 Afghans have reached Canada, government figures show. Thousands of others remain stranded inside Afghanistan.

It has been particularly difficult for families who have been torn apart like Fatimahs.

Thirteen members of her family share a house in Surrey, southeast of Vancouver. They have a roof over their heads and a well-stocked refrigerator, but they are missing the surviving spouses and children.

Fatimah’s sister had to flee Kabul without her husband and three of her children. Three of Fatimah’s brothers are similarly without their wives and some of their children.

Abdul, centered with his face hidden to protect his identity, with the Canadian forces in Kandahar.

Family distribution

The family said it was in danger after the Taliban came to power because two of the brothers worked as interpreters for the Canadian forces in Kandahar.

Both moved to Canada in 2011 and are now Canadian citizens, but given the Taliban’s history of settling points, they were concerned that their siblings and parents were also at risk.

Fatimah’s brother Abdul said that after he began translating for Canadians in 2007, the Taliban twice warned him to stop working for the “enemy.”

When he ignored them, a magnetic bomb was planted on his car. It exploded as he approached the vehicle, he said.

(Like the others in the family, he asked to be identified only by his first name because of the dangers that relatives still in Afghanistan face.)

Taliban checkpoint in Kabul, October 20, 2021.

Stewart Bell / Global News

Abdul moved to Canada in 2011 and now works in Vancouver’s film industry. But as the Taliban made progress this year amid the withdrawal of the U.S. military, he returned to Afghanistan to try to get the rest of his family to safety.

While there, he assisted Canadian forces at Kabul airport as they tried to evacuate Canadian citizens and Afghans who had worked for the military and embassy, ​​he said.

His family spent two days getting to the airport, where the crowds were so packed that they kept losing control of the children, he said.

Fatimah's family is waiting to board the evacuation plane at Kabul airport, August 25, 2021.

Fatimah’s family is waiting to board the evacuation plane at Kabul airport, August 25, 2021.

Family distribution

On the morning of August 25, Abdul said that Canadian forces told him that Canada was suspending its evacuations and that the last evacuation flight would leave that day.

But they also told him that only his siblings would be allowed to board the military transport plane to Qatar, not their husbands or wives, he said.

“So we had to make a decision,” he said. “It was a very tough situation, a very emotional situation.”

“Everyone cried.”

He said he was able to convince the Canadian troops to at least take the youngest children because they needed their mothers, but the rest had to stay.

Fatimah’s evacuation flight from Kabul.

Family distribution

Fatimah comforted herself with the thought that at least part of the family would be out of life danger and that her husband and daughter would soon be able to join her.

“It was hard for us,” she said.

But Fatimah’s husband Mohammad said his application to come to Canada was still ongoing, and without evacuation flights, there was little to hope for, either for himself or the many others stuck in Kabul.

“Please speed up the process for them,” Mohammad said.

The Veterans Transition Network, which has helped resettle Afghans working for the Canadian forces, said further government action was needed.

“More needs to be done,” said President Tim Laidler. “And that’s why we’re still raising money at VTN and still communicating with the government to find a solution that sees tens of thousands of people promised to come to Canada a way out of Afghanistan.”

The photo was taken by Fatimah’s family in Qatar before moving to Canada.

Family distribution

More than two dozen members of Fatimah’s family are still on the run in Afghanistan.

For their protection, they keep moving. They do not stay in one place for more than a week. They talk to their spouses over WhatsApp.

Abdul said he did not know what was holding their cases back and he could not get a response from the government.

“So now we’re worried about them,” he said. “Anything is possible over there, anything can happen to them.”

Photo taken by Fatimah's family in Qatar shows a bus transporting Afghans to the airport for their flights to Canada.

Photo taken by Fatimah’s family in Qatar shows a bus transporting Afghans to the airport for their flights to Canada.

Family distribution

Fatimah said she had not been able to sleep.

With her son on her lap, she called for a picture on her phone of her husband and daughter. She talks to the girl every day, she said.

“I miss her very much and I want her to come here soon,” she said.

“Life is good here, but if my husband and daughter and my parents come here, I will be very happy.”

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