Hameed Khan and Ghulam Faizi worked as interpreters alongside the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan before Kabul fell to the Taliban. Since then, they’ve struggled to bring their families—who are being actively targeted 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 processing crucial documents. After two hunger strikes on Parliament Hill, they remain desperate to bring their loved ones out of harm’s way. This is their story.
HAMEED KHAN: We fought shoulder to shoulder with the Canadian Armed Forces. We were their eyes and ears on the ground. There are interpreters among us who’ve lost limbs on the front lines. We’ve watched our colleagues and friends blown to pieces. We’ve lost family members in the war. We live with lifelong trauma. Now, our families are in danger because of our relationship with the armed forces.
The Taliban operate based on an extremist, medieval concept. If they can’t punish you, they’ll punish your brother. They’ll punish anyone they can get their hands on. They killed my younger brother last year, even before the fall of the democratic government. One interpreter in our group has had 11 family members killed by the Taliban.
GHULAM FAIZI: When Afghanistan’s democratic government fell to the Taliban on August 15, 2021, the Canadian government organized military evacuation flights. We sent emails on behalf of our families to the designated Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) addresses, but only received automated responses. On August 30, military evacuation flights halted for good.
We started organizing with our fellow interpreters the next day, when we realized the government wasn’t going to do anything for us.
KHAN: We organized cross-Canada protests, including in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. The objective was to inform the Canadian public and lawmakers about what was happening. On September 15, having received no meaningful communication from the government, we staged a hunger strike on Parliament Hill.
Mike Jones—who at the time was chief of staff at the IRCC—agreed to sit down with us and hear our concerns [Ed. note: he’s now chief of staff to Marco Mendocino, the minister of public safety]. During an hour-long call, he promised the government would initiate a public policy process to bring our extended families to Canada. Within 48 hours of that going into effect, he promised, our families would get unique client identifier (UCI) and G numbers—these numbers are a crucial step that allow all other immigration and refugee processes to begin. He said he expected the first batch of family members to arrive in the first quarter of 2022.
FAIZI: The policy launch was delayed from one month to another before finally being unveiled on December 9. We submitted all the relevant paperwork within days. Initially, our list included the extended families of interpreters and had 15,000 names on it, but Mike said the government would not be able to provide resettlement assistant program (RAP) support for that many. We agreed to cut it down 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 per cent of our group members. Then they stopped issuing numbers altogether.
In the meantime, we met weekly with Mike and other members of the IRCC. We reminded them every time, and they just said, “We’re working on it.” By March, we hadn’t had any further traction getting UCI numbers.
KHAN: Not a single family member had arrived in Canada by that point. On a very cold March 31, we launched our second hunger strike on Parliament Hill. That one got significant media attention. Finally, 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. As of today, only 48 family members on the list of 4,888 have actually arrived in Canada.
FAIZI: The problem is that rather than bringing people here and doing paperwork then, or at least helping them make it to a safe third country like Pakistan, the government is asking for documentation that’s nearly impossible—in some cases, literally impossible—to provide.
To leave Afghanistan and make it to Pakistan, our families need passports, which not everyone has. Obviously they can’t just show up at a Taliban office asking for exit documents. Meanwhile, the Taliban is actively searching people’s homes for any condemning evidence, which has forced many people to burn application documents to avoid being killed. The Canadian government could circumvent this problem by providing individuals with a single-journey travel document, which effectively replaces a passport and is designed for circumstances like this. It refuses to do so.
For those who have made it to Pakistan, the IRCC is simply not moving forward with the processes to bring our families here. In some cases it’s delaying them so much that their visas are expiring, which forces them to return to Afghanistan.
The government has cited security concerns, but interpreters are vetted to the extreme. We’ve shared rooms and dining tables with Canadian soldiers. We vouch for our families.
KHAN: Moreover, the IRCC initially promised that they would provide our families with the year of RAP support, which every refugee is entitled to once they resettle here. Then they went back on that. After we put pressure on them, they changed their tune again and said they’ll get three months of support, after which we’re on our own.
People are coming here without the ability to prove any work 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 program is designed for people to fail.
FAIZI: The IRCC told us we have to pick up our families from 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’re living in two- or three-bedroom apartments and making middle-class incomes?
KHAN: We’re still meeting with the IRCC every week, but more and more we feel that we are being brushed off. Delaying and rescheduling meetings has become a pattern.
Our demands of 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 accommodations and single-journey travel documents that would allow people to cross into Pakistan. And provide the full year of RAP support for our families, like every other refugee is entitled to.
What’s the reason behind all these delays? I think the government is after moves that will capture attention. When public attention shifted from Afghanistan to Ukraine, so did their resources. And while we have nothing but empathy for the people of Ukraine, why are we being treated so differently? Why is there such indifference to our pain and suffering?
We are allies of the Canadian government. We put everything on the line, including our families’ safety, to fight shoulder to shoulder with Canadians. Now that our families are in crisis, empty promises are all we’ve gotten in return.
—As told to Liza Agrba