Families with expired visas and cramped, precarious living arrangements are waiting for Canada – whose forces they helped before the Taliban takeover – to answer their pleas.
Wahid Ibrahimi was a security guard at the Canadian embassy in Kabul. After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August, 2021, forcing the embassy to close and putting him and other Afghans who worked there in danger of retaliation from the new regime, he still had some hope: Ottawa had created a program to help its Afghan former employees and their families escape to Canada.
But in June, still waiting for Ottawa to respond to his request for resettlement, he, along with his wife, seven children, brother and aging mother, fled to Pakistan, where they have been living in a cramped one-room apartment in Islamabad. They can’t afford to buy meat and are surviving on two servings each of vegetables and rice a day.
Their landlord is threatening to kick them out because the family’s four-month-old visas have expired. Just over a week ago, Mr. Ibrahimi spent a day in a hospital after he fainted from what he described as a combination of extreme heat and anxiety over his dire predicament. “I am panicking every single day. Expenses are high and we are barely surviving. My life is in danger if I am sent back to Afghanistan,” he said through a translator, his niece Safiya Wazir, who is a New Hampshire state legislator.
Mr. Ibrahimi is among hundreds of Afghans who now find themselves in similar situations in Pakistan.
Having worked – or had close family members who worked – for Canada before the Taliban takeover, their pleas to Ottawa for help have since been ignored.
Others are Afghans who did not work for Canada, but who Ottawa promised to resettle as part of a humanitarian program for people who are vulnerable to Taliban retribution, including women leaders, judges, journalists, human rights defenders and LGBTQ people. Ottawa has also promised a pathway to permanent residency for family members of former military interpreters.
Ms. Wazir has been pleading for more than a year with Ottawa to allow her uncle and his family to come to Canada. She said it has been difficult for Mr. Ibrahimi and the others to survive in Pakistan because they don’t have work permits.
“One bakery shop said they could work 12 hours a day for a piece of pizza bread,” she said. “When they ran that by me, I said, ‘You cannot be working 12 hours for a piece of bread.’ I said no.”
Ms. Wazir said she bought Pakistani visas for her uncle and his family because the Canadian government had said it could offer resettlement help only to Afghans who had already left Afghanistan.
“I thought they would work on our case in Pakistan, and so I worked very hard to get them visas,” she said. “Now it has been four months and I have heard nothing from Canadian immigration, not even to let me know if Wahid is on the list.”
The Globe and Mail spoke to 10 other Afghans now stranded in Pakistan. The interviews were arranged by Operation Abraham, an advocacy group with the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre. It has helped to get many Afghans safely into Pakistan while they work with Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to process their Canadian resettlement requests.
The federal government promised to admit 40,000 Afghans to Canada after the Taliban takeover. IRCC now says 18,540 Afghans have arrived since August, 2021. More than half of them – 10,730 – have arrived under the humanitarian program. Another 7,735 have been resettled through the program for people who worked for Canada. And 75 Afghans have been resettled under a program for extended family members of former interpreters who had come to Canada under previous policies enacted in 2009 and 2012.
Many Afghans who have reached out to the government about the new programs have not been invited to apply.
Aidan Strickland, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, reiterated that the government is committed to resettling at least 40,000 vulnerable Afghans and their families in Canada by 2024. “We have a productive and ongoing dialogue with Pakistan regarding safe passage for Canada-bound Afghan refugees,” she said. “As a result of these efforts, Canada has welcomed 15 chartered flights with Afghan refugees from Pakistan since the start of the year, and we anticipate more Afghan arrivals in the coming weeks.”
The government’s seemingly slow response to its resettlement commitments has been met with heavy criticism from opposition politicians and advocates for Afghan refugees, who blame Ottawa’s overwhelmed immigration system and bureaucratic red tape for the delay.
Ottawa lawyer Jacques Shore, a co-founder of Operation Abraham, said his motivation to help refugees comes partly from his parents, who were Holocaust survivors. Afghans are “desperate and seeking refuge on our soil from the most hostile and inhuman circumstances possible,” he added. “The moment is now for Canada to provide them with the papers they so desperately need to escape brutality and, in most cases, death. Not another second can be spared.”
Rowinda Ashrafi, who was a judge in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover, applied in October, 2021, for resettlement in Canada. Her brother was killed by the Taliban in May. Afraid of suffering the same fate, she bought a visa on the black market, sold all her belongings and fled in July to Rawalpindi, a city outside the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
She broke down in tears as she described her family’s life there. They are living in a slum with little money and no word from Canada on their refugee application.
“We are eating one meal a day. We are living in one room with my mother and brother. The prices of food and electricity are skyrocketing. It is chaos,” she said through an interpreter. “This is mental torture. I plead with Canada to get us out so we can live in peace.”
Rana Rahimi, a former Afghan family court judge, said her family’s two-month-old visas have expired. She and her law professor husband can barely feed their three young children.
“We can’t buy them fruit. We can’t buy meat. We rely on vegetables. My children have lost weight. If they get sick we cannot afford a doctor,” she said. “It is an extremely desperate situation we are living right now.”
While they were in Afghanistan, they had to move from safe house to safe house, because as a judge Ms. Rahimi had sentenced men to prison for beating their wives. Now those men have been freed by the Taliban.
Halilai Safi’s husband, a former NATO translator, died in an explosion at Kabul’s airport as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Operation Abraham helped secure her and her five children Pakistani visas, but the trip from Kabul was harrowing. “We were stopped at the border by the Taliban. They searched our luggage. My heart stopped and I was scared to death, but I told them my youngest daughter had a high fever, which played to our favour,” she said.
The family is now living in Rawalpindi, in cramped quarters, with expired visas. Ms. Safi is waiting for word from Canada that she will be accepted as a refugee. “I sold all my belongings to pay for the visa. Right now I live in extreme poverty. The uncle of my husband has sent me some money, but it is not enough. I have to dilute the baby formula for my youngest son,” she said.
Ahmadullah Malikzada, who used to be a government prosecutor in Kabul, and his wife, Liza, a former women’s-rights volunteer for the Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan, arrived in Rawalpindi in early June.
Their visas have now expired. Mr. Malikzada knows what awaits him if Pakistani police arrest him and deport him back to Afghanistan. “I can’t take a chance as a former prosecutor. That is certain death for someone like me,” he said. “We thought it would only be two or three months and Canada would approve our application, but we hear nothing. We are running out of money. The price of food, gas and electricity is very expensive.”
He doesn’t have a work permit, but he tried to earn money doing 10-hour shifts at a call centre. After 20 days, his manager refused to pay him and told him to leave.
Pardais Haidari, a former NATO trainer who ran a computer training facility at the Defence Academy of the Army of Afghanistan, said he was exploited by the same call centre. He and his two brothers, who are also former military officers, have been in Rawalpindi since July.
While he and his brothers hid in safe houses, the Taliban searched their homes in Kabul five times, Mr. Haidari said. They escaped to Pakistan using visas purchased on the black market. To get across the border, they disguised themselves by growing beards and wearing old clothing.
“I am desperate now. I can’t find work. I am running out of money,” Mr. Haidari said. “We have gone through enough. We are educated people. We will not be a burden on you. We will come to Canada and work very hard. Please help us.”
Sadia, who worked on a Canadian-funded aid project that aimed to empower women and girls in Afghanistan, fled to Pakistan after learning that the Taliban had put her name on a hit list. The Globe first reported her story in June, and is using a pseudonym instead of her real name because she fears for her safety.
She said recently that she often thinks about ending her life, but continues to find reasons to live. “I’m thinking about my children. What will they do? They love me too much,” she said.
While she waits to hear from IRCC, Sadia has been selling her jewelry to buy food.
“I’m requesting from the government and people of Canada to take our situation seriously,” she said.
ROBERT FIFE, OTTAWA BUREAU CHIEF
The Globe and Mail, September 18, 2022