In a cramped Kabul safe house filled with Afghans who worked alongside the Canadian military, everyone is awaiting Friday morning with dread.
That’s when the funding for a network of such sanctuaries will run out, forcing families out of hiding and into streets controlled by the Taliban.
Aman Lara, the non-governmental organization operating them, has been supported by the Veterans Transition Network (VTN), another NGO that includes many former soldiers who served in Canada’s 10-year military mission in Afghanistan.
Aman Lara runs safe houses all across Kabul and has been providing housing to some 1,700 Afghans who meet Canada’s resettlement criteria and do not have a place to stay. Many have sold all their belongings, so returning to their homes is not an option. And those who had money can’t access it because the country’s banking system has collapsed.
Eleanor Taylor, a retired Canadian lieutenant-colonel and volunteer chief of staff at Aman Lara, said it costs $15,000 a day to keep the safe houses open – and donations are simply not keeping up. At the same time, it is taking too long to evacuate people. Aman Lara is scaling down its operations by 90 per cent and moving some applicants who are ready to evacuate into new locations.
“Some of them will go and they will live in the street, and the tragedy with this is that all of their communication with [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada], all of their hope rests in their phone and their ability to communicate electronically, and if they don’t have a place to plug their phone into, then they’re cut off and their chance of evacuation evaporates,” said Ms. Taylor, who also served in Afghanistan.
Most of the Afghans Aman Lara is assisting have applications to be resettled in Canada still being processed. A small number have been fully approved and are ready to be evacuated at a moment’s notice, but some have not had their applications acknowledged at all.
In July, Marco Mendicino, the immigration minister at the time, announced that Ottawa would resettle thousands of Afghans who had worked alongside Canadian troops and diplomatic staff through a fast-track program. In August, despite failing to evacuate all the eligible Afghans in that group, the government said it would welcome 20,000 particularly vulnerable Afghan refugees, such as human-rights advocates, journalists and LGBTQ individuals, as well as people who belong to persecuted religious minorities and the families of interpreters who had already made it to Canada.
Ottawa doubled its resettlement target at the end of September, vowing to bring in 40,000 Afghan refugees from high-risk groups.
In one Kabul safe house recently visited by The Globe and Mail, 19 families – almost 100 people in all – are about to lose the only protection they have had since the Taliban took over the country in August. Several among the group, which includes former translators, guards, cooks and their relatives, told The Globe they had no idea where they would be staying after Aman Lara stopped paying for their accommodations.
“I don’t know what to do. I’m trying to buy a tent and will live beside the road till Canadians evacuate me with my family,” said Maqsood, 30, a former military interpreter who has been living in the safe house with his wife and three young children since Aug. 12.
He said his family home had been demolished last month by the Taliban to punish him and his family for his work with Canadian and other NATO forces.
“The Taliban were searching for me and when they didn’t find me they destroyed our home,” Maqsood said in an exchange via WhatsApp. He shared a photo of a pile of bricks and wooden beams that he said had once been the family’s house.
“There is no safe place for us to be. Everyone knows us in society.”
The Globe is not using the family names of former Canadian military staff out of concern for their safety.
In an e-mail sent to the former Afghan staff, Aman Lara explained that the organization had run out of cash before the families could be evacuated.
“It is with a heavy heart that we inform you that we will be unable to continue to provide you financial support for your accommodations effective 5 Nov 2021,” the e-mail reads, adding that Canadian citizens had donated more than $2-million to pay for food and accommodations for more than 2,000 former military translators and their families. But only 300 of those people have been evacuated since September.
“We are not the Government of Canada but are Canadian volunteers who remain committed to your safe evacuation to Canada. We had expected that your applications would be completed and that evacuations would be swifter,” the NGO said.
Ms. Taylor said it’s not too late for the Canadian government to “step up and to fill this gap for the people who are deserving and who are significantly at risk.”
Geneviève Tremblay, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said the department supports Journalists for Human Rights and the Veterans Transition Network (VTN) “in their efforts to protect vulnerable persons in Afghanistan,” including human-rights activists, women peacebuilders and former Canadian military interpreters and embassy staff.
Tim Laidler, president of the board of the Veteran’s Transition Network and an Afghan veteran, echoed Ms. Taylor’s plea, saying “the fight’s not over.”
Many American NGOs have had success chartering planes, he said, adding that his NGO is keen to raise funds to support large-scale evacuations.
He also said the Immigration Minister’s office and government staff have been in constant communication with VTN, adding that they are often powerless when there is no policy in place for such things as paying for safe houses.
Abdul, a 31-year-old father of two who worked as a guard and interpreter at Kandahar Airfield, where Canadian forces were stationed, said he had no choice but to try to find another guest house or hotel in Kabul – returning to his home in the southwest simply wasn’t an option for him. He said he could afford a cheap hotel room for seven to 10 days before completely running out of money.
“If I go back to my province I will quickly be targeted by the enemy,” Abdul said, adding that both the Taliban and the local branch of the Islamic State were targeting Afghans who had worked with NATO forces during the alliance’s 20-year presence in the country.
Abdul’s history of working with the foreign armies isn’t hard to uncover: There is at least one photo of him, translating for NATO troops, posted on a social-media account that promotes the work U.S. forces were doing in Kandahar province.
“It’s not easy for me to go into the city, or to walk anywhere,” he said. “These are very hard and stressful and scary days for me and my family.”
While Aman Lara pointed the finger of blame at Ottawa, Abdul said some people in the guest house also felt let down by the NGO. “If people had known that Aman Lara organization will leave behind them absolutely they [would have gotten to] Pakistan by themselves,” he said. “Aman Lara told them ‘don’t go by yourselves … we can support you guys.’ ”
Conservative defence critic James Bezan criticized the government Thursday for refusing to fund the safe houses, saying, “Not only did Justin Trudeau fail to get Canadians, interpreters, support staff, and their families out of Afghanistan as the country fell to the Taliban, he is now refusing to fund their safe houses.
“It was a failure of leadership when the Trudeau Liberals left behind these individuals trapped in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, and now they are failing them again by refusing to fund their safety,” he said in a statement.
MARK MACKINNON, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, November 4, 2021