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An Afghan woman is pleading with Canada to get her husband, sons and daughter on an airlift out of Kabul.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Repeated death threats from the Taliban forced an Afghan mother to make a fateful decision. She would flee her homeland first and send for her family later.

But since arriving in Toronto as a refugee in 2019, she has been racked with fear – especially for her now 14-year-old daughter. She completed the paperwork to reunite her family and says federal immigration officials approved it in principle. Delays in processing, however, meant their flight out of Kabul never materialized.

The Taliban took over Afghanistan’s capital this past weekend. Now, the woman is pleading with Canada to get her husband, sons and daughter on an airlift out of Kabul.

She breaks into sobs remembering a recent phone call with her daughter, who told her: “The Taliban are trying to do forced marriages. … When they come to Kabul and reach my home, I will kill myself.”

The Globe and Mail is not identifying the woman to protect from reprisals against her family.

The Taliban control Afghanistan once again. To understand the country’s future, we shouldn’t forget their past

What Canada and the U.S. can learn from the Afghan debacle

The woman, who is in her early 40s, fears her entire family in Afghanistan could be at risk because the Taliban know about her past work as a health care provider focusing on women. “I have the protection of Canada,” she said. But her hope was always to shield her wider family, too. “This is the responsibility of Canada – to bring my family here.”

Refugee-rights advocates say scores of Afghans who fled the country alone are in similar predicaments. Many worked with Western countries to try to build a more democratic and equitable society in Afghanistan. Yet they now fear this very work has put entire families at risk of being targeted as collaborators.

In recent years, it has often been cheaper and easier for Afghans – who have had difficulty getting visas – to cross borders on their own. Many have fled first in the hope of reuniting their families after they were granted asylum.

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The woman, who is in her early 40s, fears her entire family in Afghanistan could be at risk because the Taliban know about her past work as a health care provider focusing on women.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The Taliban’s takeover is prompting refugee advocates to press Ottawa to urgently expand access to military evacuation flights for such families. American soldiers who once controlled the country still hold sway over the chaotic Kabul airport – for now – but they are planning to leave it by Aug. 31.

“There’s a group of people in this situation,” said Janet Dench of the Canada Council for Refugees. Because of “extremely slow” immigration processing by Canada, their family members are still stuck in Afghanistan.

“They feel guilty because their activism put their families at risk,” said Ms. Dench, who said she knows of more than 300 children and spouses stranded in this way.

Western governments are prioritizing airlifts of Afghans who served as military interpreters or embassy employees. More than 800 such Afghans have been ferried to Canada, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Canadian immigration officials are vowing to bring in 20,000 additional Afghan refugees. But this effort is aimed at Afghans “who have had to flee to Pakistan, to Tajikistan, to other nations,” said Alexander Cohen, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.

This leaves out those still in Afghanistan, people who fear that Taliban retribution lists will include entire families whose members worked for causes championed by Western governments.

“Canada has a moral and ethical responsibility to get their families out,” said Bridget Lynch, a Toronto midwife.

She works with midwife groups and federal government officials who had encouraged Afghan women to pick up that professional vocation. Yet this work – involving family planning – runs counter to the positions of religious fundamentalists.

Midwives in Afghanistan “are particularly targeted by the Taliban” said Ms. Lynch, who has supported refugee bids by individual women. Now, she says, a social-media campaign is being planned to draw attention to the “forgotten families of human-rights refugees in Canada.”

Some U.S. politicians also argue that Western governments have a “broader moral obligation to Afghans who bet their lives” on the future promised by the military coalition that first went into the country in 2001, after the attacks of Sept. 11.

Representative Jason Crow has led several elected officials in writing an open letter urging President Joe Biden to airlift out “as many vulnerable Afghans as possible.”

Canadian diplomats placed big bets on funding a new future for Afghan women. A Global Affairs review earlier this year found that, between 2014 and 2019, Ottawa “disbursed a total of $966-million to Afghanistan in the form of development assistance.”

Many of these funds were earmarked for “women’s and girls’ rights and empowerment.”

In other conflicts, Canadians officials have had to confront such efforts backfiring when the tides of war turned. In July, 2018, they worked furiously with international partners to rescue and resettle hundreds of White Helmet rescue workers from war-torn Syria.

White Helmets working in rebel-held territory were Syrians never directly employed by Ottawa. But their work had been funded by Canada, which had urged the group to recruit more females. The problem was that these women were most at risk when the Assad regime and fundamentalist fighters reclaimed territory.

Canada pushed White Helmets “to include women and funded their efforts to recruit and train women. Now these women are in even more danger,” Pamela O’Donnell, a Global Affairs director, wrote in an internal e-mail days ahead of the 2018 evacuation operation.

Subsequent efforts spirited away more than 400 people from Syria, mostly women and children. Records obtained by The Globe show that Ms. O’Donnell had urged her colleagues in the diplomatic corps to do all they could. “I implore you to explore all options to help save their lives.”

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