Hameed Khan and Ghulam Faizi worked as interpreters with the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan before Kabul fell to the Taliban. Since then, they have fought to bring their families, who are actively under attack by the Taliban, to safety in Canada, along with a group of more than 300 interpreters facing the same fate. The Canadian government, they say, has repeatedly broken promises and delayed the processing of crucial documents. After two hunger strikes on Parliament Hill, they remain desperate to get their loved ones out of harm’s way. This is his story.
HAMEED KHAN: We fight shoulder to shoulder with the Canadian Armed Forces. We were their eyes and ears on the ground. There are performers among us who have lost limbs at the front. We have seen our colleagues and friends blown to bits. We have lost family members in the war. We live with lifelong trauma. Now our families are in danger because of our relationship with the military.
The Taliban operate on an extremist and medieval concept. If they can’t punish you, they will punish your brother. They will punish anyone they can get their hands on. My little brother was killed last year, even before the fall of the democratic government. An interpreter from our group has had 11 family members killed by the Taliban.
GULAM FAIZI: When the democratic government of Afghanistan fell to the Taliban on August 15, 2021, the Canadian government organized military evacuation flights. We send emails on behalf of our families to designated Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) addresses, but only receive automated responses. On August 30, the military evacuation flights stopped for good.
We started organizing with our fellow interpreters the next day, when we realized that the government was not going to do anything for us.
KHAN: We organize protests in Canada, including in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. The goal was to inform the Canadian public and legislators about what was happening. On September 15, having received no significant communication from the government, we went on a hunger strike on Parliament Hill.
Mike Jones, who was chief of staff at the IRCC at the time, agreed to sit down with us and listen to our concerns. (Editor’s note: He is now chief of staff to Marco Mendocino, the minister of public safety.) During an hour-long call, he promised that the government would initiate a public policy process to bring our extended families to Canada. He promised that within 48 hours of the effective date, our families would obtain unique client identifier (UCI) and G numbers; these numbers are a crucial step that allows all other immigration and refugee processes to begin. He said that he expected the first batch of family members to arrive in the first quarter of 2022.
FAIZI: The launch of the policy was delayed from month to month until it was finally unveiled on December 9. We present all the relevant documentation in a matter of days. Initially, our list included the interpreters’ extended families and had 15,000 names, but Mike said the government would not be able to provide resettlement assistant program (RAP) support for that many. We agreed to reduce it to 4,888. That’s an average of about 20 family members per interpreter and includes only parents, siblings and their dependents.
By January 10, we received UCI numbers for only about 35 percent of our group members. Then they stopped issuing numbers altogether.
In the meantime, we met weekly with Mike and other IRCC members. We reminded them each time, and they just said, “We’re working on it.” By March, we hadn’t had more traction to get UCI numbers.
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KHAN: Not a single family member had arrived in Canada at that time. On a very cold March 31, we launched our second hunger strike on Parliament Hill. That one got a lot of media attention. Eventually the government started issuing UCI numbers again. To date, we still have about 50 families whose applications are being ignored and are still waiting for their case numbers. To this day, only 48 relatives out of the list of 4,888 have made it to Canada.
FAIZI: The problem is that instead of bringing people here and doing the paperwork, or at least helping them get to a safe third country like Pakistan, the government is asking for documentation that is almost impossible, in some cases literally impossible, to provide.
To leave Afghanistan and reach Pakistan, our families need passports, which not everyone has. Obviously, they cannot go to a Taliban office asking for exit documents. Meanwhile, the Taliban are actively searching people’s homes for damning evidence, forcing many people to burn application documents to avoid being killed. The Canadian government could circumvent this problem by providing people with a single trip travel document, which effectively replaces a passport and is designed for circumstances like this. He refuses to do it.
For those who came to Pakistan, the IRCC is simply not moving forward with the processes to bring our families here. In some cases, it is delaying them so long that their visas are expired, forcing them to return to Afghanistan.
The government has cited security concerns, but interpreters are vetted to the extreme. We have shared rooms and dining tables with Canadian soldiers. We answer for our families.
KHAN: In addition, the IRCC initially promised that it would provide our families with the year of RAP support, which all refugees are entitled to once they resettle here. Then they came back to it. After pressing them, they changed their tune again and said that they will receive three months of support, after which we will be on our own.
People come here without the ability to prove any employment or financial history. How are they going to rent a house, get a job and learn English in such a short time? It’s like the show is designed to make people fail.
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FAIZI: The IRCC told us that we have to pick up our families at the airport and provide them with temporary and then permanent accommodation. How can we do that for an average of 20 family members per interpreter if we live in two or three bedroom apartments and have a middle class income?
KHAN: We still meet with the IRCC every week, but more and more we feel like we are being ignored. Delaying and rescheduling meetings has become a pattern.
Our demands on the Canadian government are simple. Provide UCI and G numbers to families who have been waiting for six months. Expedite the processing of documents to bring people here. Provide accommodation and single trip travel documents that allow people to cross into Pakistan. And provide the full year of RAP support for our families, just like any other refugee is entitled to.
What is the reason behind all these delays? I think the government is behind moves that will get attention. As public attention shifted from Afghanistan to Ukraine, so did its resources. And although we have nothing but empathy for the people of Ukraine, why do they treat us so differently? Why is there so much indifference to our pain and suffering?
We are allies of the Canadian government. We put everything on the line, including the safety of our families, to fight side by side with Canadians. Now that our families are in crisis, all we have received in return are empty promises.
—As he told Liza Agrba